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We asked François Croquette, the French Ambassador for Human Rights, to share his observations and thoughts on dissidence in this era of Covid-19 and the way in which the handling of the health crisis affects the situation of dissidents in authoritarian countries, hit by the pandemic.
Are authoritarian regimes profiting from the focus of the world’s attention on Covid-19 to crack down harder on dissidents and opponents?
A human rights militant in Nicaragua speaks of the pandemic as being a “smokescreen” which allows authoritarian regimes to strengthen repression, free, from scrutiny. It’s a tendency which has been manifest since the appearance of Covid-19, with the disappearance of Chinese whistleblowers, kept incommunicado, who had the courage to reveal the dangers of this virus. We still don’t have news today of the journalist-citizens, Chen Qiushi and Fang Bin. With the confinement of more than three billion human beings, protest movements, which had been spreading in the world for several months - from Algiers to Hong Kong to Santiago - came to a standstill. And the powers that saw a chance to silence dissidents, using exception legislation as needed that had been urgently adopted to combat Covid. The first victims of such repression are often journalists like Khaled Drareni, director of the Casbah Tribune site in Algeria.
In which country is this repression the most serious?
I’ve brought up the situation in China and in Hong Kong, where democratic movement activists are the objects of new harassment measures. What can be mentioned also is the case of Egypt, where tribunal audiences have been suspended, with the result that defendants are not permitted to represent themselves, but where sessions behind closed doors continue nonetheless to condemn dissidents for “terrorism.” It’s a Kafkaesque situation for Ramy Shaath, an Egyptian-Palestinian militant and a figure in the Place Tharir demonstrations. In Egypt as in Turkey, tens of thousands of political prisoners squat in jail, in deplorable conditions. Yet they are systematically left out of liberation measures which have been taken to avoid the carnage connected with Covid. The Turk philanthropist Osman Kavala remains incarcerated, while the king of the underworld Alaattin Çakici is liberated: the cynicism of Erdogan could not be better demonstrated.
If it turns out that the authoritarian leaders badly handled the Covid crisis, doesn’t that risk to finally turn against them?
We can look for reasons to hope… and notice that the rare regimes that committed the folly of deliberately ignoring the scientists’ alerts are those accustomed to being in the last places of the international ranking of democracies: Belarus, Turkmenistan, and Nicaragua. But nothing goes to show that the opposition movements in these countries will come out of the crisis in a position to confront their leaders with their responsibilities. As for democracies, it remains to be seen how a Trump or a Bolsonaro will be evaluated for their errors in the management of the crisis. We can see that populist leaders like Viktor Orban see in the crisis a way to reinforce their influence. There again, the role of civil societies and dissidents will be a determining factor for a little different music to be heard.
Translated from French to English by Sally Gordon-Mark