New report details how autocrats use the internet to harass and suppress activists in Canada

Thousands of miles away from her homeland in Syria, she organized protests and ran social media pages in Canada in support of opposition forces fighting President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

Then anonymous complaints started rolling in and prompted Facebook to shut down her group page. Trolls left “nasty and dirty” comments on social media and created fake profiles with her photos, she said, while a Gmail administrator alerted her that “a state sponsor” was trying to hack her account.

“The Assad regime was functioning through this network of thugs that they call Shabeeha. Inside of Syria, those thugs would be physically beating up people and terrorizing them,” said the 42-year-old Toronto woman.

“Then they were also very much online, so they terrorized people online as well.”

As diaspora communities are increasingly relying on social media and other online platforms to pursue advocacy work, authoritarian states are trying to exert their will over overseas dissidents through what’s dubbed “digital transnational repression,” said a new study released Tuesday.

“States that engage in transnational repression use a variety of methods to silence, persecute, control, coerce, or otherwise intimidate their nationals abroad into refraining from transnational political or social activities that may undermine or threaten the state and power within its border,” said the report by the Citizen Lab at University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs.

“Thus, nationals of these states who reside abroad are still limited in how they can exercise ‘their rights, liberties, and voice’ and remain subject to state authoritarianism even after leaving their country of origin.”

Being a country of immigrants — particularly refugees seeking protection from persecution — Canada is vulnerable to this kind of digital attacks, amid the advancement of surveillance technology and rising authoritarianism around the globe, said the report’s authors.

“There is this misassumption that once people arrive in Canada from authoritarian countries, they are safe. We need to redefine what safety is,” said Noura Al-Jizawi, one of the report’s co-authors.

“This is not only affecting the day-to-day life of these people, but it’s also affecting the civic rights, their freedom of speech or their freedom of assembly of an entire community that’s beyond the individuals who are being targeted.”

A team of researchers interviewed 18 individuals, all of whom resided in Canada and had moved or fled to Canada from 11 different places, including Syria, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Tibet, Hong Kong, China, Rwanda, Iran, Afghanistan, East Turkestan, and Balochistan.

The participants shared their experiences of being intimidated for the advocacy work they conducted in Canada, as well as the impacts of such threats — allegedly from these foreign states and their supporters — on their well-being and the diaspora communities they come from.

“Their main concern besides their privacy and the privacy of their family is the friends and colleagues back home. If the government targets their devices digitally, they would reveal the underground and hidden network of activists,” said Al-Jizawi.

“Many of them mention that they try to avoid the communities from their country of origin because they can’t feel safe connecting with these people.”

Many of the participants in the study said they have reached out for assistance to authorities such as the Canadian Security Intelligence Service but were disappointed.

“The responses were generally like, we can’t help you or this isn’t a crime and there’s nothing actionable here. In one case, they suggested to the person to hire a private detective,” noted Siena Anstis, another co-author of the study.

“Law enforcement is probably not that well equipped or trained to understand the broader context within which this is happening. The way that they handle these cases is quite dismissive.”

The anonymous Syrian-Canadian political activist who participated in the study said victims of transnational repression will stop reporting to Canadian officials if nothing comes out of their complaints.

“Every day we’re becoming more and more digital, which makes us more vulnerable to digital attacks and digital privacy issues. I hope our government will start thinking about how to protect us from this emerging threat that we never had to worry about before,” said the woman, who came here from Aleppo as a 7-year-old and has stopped her political activities to free Syria.

“If someone like me who is extremely outspoken and very difficult to stifle felt a little bit overwhelmed by all of it, you can imagine other people who recently came from Syria and still have a lot of ties there. I know a lot of people that will not open their mouth publicly because they’re scared what will happen.”

The report urges Ottawa to create a dedicated government agency to support victims and conduct research to better understand the scale and impact of these activities on the exercise of Canadian human rights. It also recommends establishing federal policies for the sale of surveillance technologies to authoritarian states and for guiding how social media platforms can better protect victims from digital attacks.

“It might seem at this stage it’s only happening to some communities in Canada and it doesn’t matter,” said Anstis. “But collectively it’s our human rights that are being eroded. It’s our capacity to engage in, affirm and protect against human rights and democracy. That space for dialogue is really reducing.”

Source: New report details how autocrats use the internet to harass and suppress activists in Canada

Young Hong Kong dissidents were told Canada welcomed them. Why can’t they get visas?

Of note:

It wasn’t an inherently risky choice — he just heeded calls on social media to attend a public gathering to mark a student’s death at the height of anti-government protests. 

However, it was a decision that may have wrecked his future in Canada.

Clad in all black, he ventured out to join the event but as soon as he and four friends got off the bus in Hong Kong’s Central District, police stopped them. Authorities found a laser pointer in his backpack and charged him in 2019 with possession of a weapon with the intent to assault.

After serving seven months in a youth rehab centre in Lantau Island, the 20-year-old was released last June and planned to start his undergraduate study in Toronto, where he finished high school as an international student.

However, more than five months since he applied for a student visa and submitted thousands of pages of translated legal documents, the Hong Konger is still waiting for a decision from the Canadian visa post in the former British colony, now part of China.

Pro-democracy advocates in Canada say they have started to see visa-seekers from Hong Kong whose applications — a first step to access asylum in this country — have been stalled or refused, despite Ottawa’s public commitment to ease their passage here in light of the alarming human-rights situation there.

“These youngsters have been charged and imprisoned for wearing a mask or carrying laser pointers during demonstrations … arrested and convicted with trumped-up charges. To us, they’re political prisoners,” said Winnie Ng, chair of the Toronto Association for Democracy in China.

“The Canadian government had stated quite clearly that protest is a right and that convictions of these offences will not be a ground for inadmissibility to Canada.”

In 2020, after a new national security law took effect in Hong Kong, Ottawa announced a string of new initiatives to welcome students and youth to “quickly” come to Canada on work and study permits as well as introduced new pathways for them to stay here permanently.

Marco Mendicino, then Canada’s immigration minister, expressed deep concerns about the imposition of the new law in Hong Kong, which critics say has reduced judicial autonomy and restricted freedoms for dissent. 

“Taking part in peaceful protests is not considered an offence in Canada. As such, arrests or convictions outside of Canada for taking part in peaceful protests are not grounds for inadmissibility to Canada,” Mendicino told a parliamentary committee meeting then.

“No one will be disqualified from making a legitimate asylum claim in Canada by virtue alone of having been charged under the new national security law, and neither will they be hindered in any way from availing themselves under any other immigration route.”SKIP ADVERTISEMENT

Calling himself a supporter for “peace, reason and non-violence,” the young man who was found guilty of possession of a weapon by carrying the laser pen said he is disappointed that Canada hasn’t followed through its commitment.

“We have translated all the legal documents into English and explained to the visa officers the circumstances of the arrest and conviction,” said the man, who studied for three years in high school in Toronto and returned to Hong Kong for the summer in 2019.

“We were told to bring a torch light or laser point to commemorate the death of a protester who died two days earlier. And police called the laser pointer a weapon. But there was no confrontation or violence.”

According to the immigration department, at least 10 Hong Kong residents have been refused a visa on criminal grounds to date under the special measures — but many have successfully taken advantage of those initiatives for a shot to settle in Canada.

By the end of last year, 668 Hong Kong nationals who have studied or worked in Canada had been granted permanent residence, 7,950 others issued a three-year open work permits and 7,786 visitors, students and work-permit holders had their temporary status extended.

However, it’s the applications that are stalled or refused on “protest-related” criminality that advocates are concerned about.

Data collected by Toronto Association for Democracy in China showed Hong Kong police charged 2,605 people in the 2019 pro-democracy protest movement. The top charges were rioting, conspiracy with the intent to cause riot, face covering, unlawful assembly and possession of offensive weapons and items with the intent to destroy or damage property.

One of those arrested and convicted of facial covering was Ken, a 23-year-old university graduate, who took part in a protest against police violence in late 2019. He was acquitted of one count of rioting but was sentenced to a two-month jail term for violating the anti-mask law.

He said he wore the gas mask for self-protection because police had previously used tear gas and pepper spray on protesters. As a result of the prosecution, he said he and his family became targets of cyberbullying and he was shunned by potential employers for his association with the political movement.

“I didn’t see a future for myself in Hong Kong. We were harassed online and I didn’t feel safe there. I just wanted to start a new chapter in life,” said Ken, who fled Hong Kong to an undisclosed country after his application to travel to Canada was recently refused.

“How can you seek political asylum in Canada if you can’t even get into the country? I understand Canadian officials need to feel safe about someone coming to their country and they do need to screen out criminals. I’m just disappointed that they don’t take a more lenient, humanitarian approach in handling our cases.”

Toronto immigration lawyer Barbara Jackman said immigration officials can deem someone criminally inadmissible if they assess and find Canadian equivalency of the offences. However, an officer also has the discretion to look to the facts behind the case.

“It all depends on how they’re going to look at them in terms of whether China has overreacted and is actually prosecuting lawful dissent and protest,” said Jackman, who is involved in both the young Hong Kongers’ cases.

“The Canadian government has announced all these programs for Hong Kong residents. They are all parts of the news releases and bulletins that they come up with. It’s an expression of the government’s views on the matter. Visa officers are supposed to take it into account.”

The immigration department could not comment on the two specific cases but said inadmissibility decisions are made on a case-by-case basis.

“Security screening and the overall complexity of a case are some factors that can result in higher processing times. Other factors include delays associated with requests for additional information from the applicant, and how easily information can be verified and whether the application is complete,” said department spokesperson Jeffrey MacDonald.

Source: Young Hong Kong dissidents were told Canada welcomed them. Why can’t they get visas?