Refugees in Norway are regularly spied on and threatened by agents of the governments they fled, confirms the acting leader of the counterespionage unit of Norway’s police intelligence unit PST (Politiets sikkerhetstjeneste). Refugee advocates are calling for Norwegian authorities to do more to protect them.
“PST has worked on several cases where the refugees’ families in their homelands have been put under pressure,” Ola Børresen of PST told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) on Thursday. Børresen said that “between five and 10″ countries conduct what PST calls “refugee espionage” in Norway, “and we have seen several examples where families in the homeland are pressured.”
Scaring them into silence The goal is to silence critics of authoritarian regimes, and Børresen said the spying and threats against both refugees and their families back home are an effective weapon against regime critics.
Based on Børresen’s assessment of the frequency of refugee espionage in Norway, the case of an Iranian family who claims to have been threatened and even tortured back in Iran, after a family member who’d fled to Norway criticized the Iranian regime in Oslo newspaper Aftenposten, is by no means unique.
Mahmoud Ghadiri secured asylum in Norway after converting to Christianity, and obtained Norwegian citizenship in 2010. He and his sister told NRK on Thursday that after his criticism of the regime was published in Aftenposten, paramilitary troops showed up at his family’s home in Iran with a copy of the Aftenposten article, and proceeded to beat and torture family members. The goal, according to Ghadiri, was to silence him by threatening them. His mother and sister managed to flee and join him in Norway last year. His father’s whereabouts remain unknown.
Mohammad Reza Heydari, a former consul at the Iranian Embassy in Oslo who defected and won asylum in Norway, has also claimed that Iranian authorities regularly spy on Iranians opposed to the regime who live in Norway. “Iran has a policy against its own citizens overseas that everything must be done to prevent a strong opposition from being established abroad,” Heydari told NRK in 2011. Two other Iranian diplomats have also defected in Norway during the past three years.
Embassy denounces allegations Officials at the Iranian Embassy in Oslo have firmly denied that they carry out spying operations aimed at Iranian refugees and others opposed to the regime. In a press release issued in connection with an earlier NRK report on alleged embassy spying, they accused NRK of spreading “baseless allegations of surveillance of the Iranian opposition in Norway by this embassy.”
The embassy’s statement claimed that NRK had “mislead the public” when it reported on their defected diplomat’s allegations in 2011. They declined to be interviewed in connection with NRK’s latest report on the Ghadiri family, but wrote in an e-mail to NRK that they reject all of the family’s allegations and deny any involvement in refugee espionage.
Rather, the embassy claimed “to consider safeguarding, promotion and protection of the rights of all Iranian (sic) residing in Norway as its highest priority.”
‘Sensitive issue’ Børresen, of PST, told NRK that he wasn’t involved with Ghadiri’s case, but said that threats, pressure and violence against refugees’ families in their homelands are an “effective method” for the authoritarian regimes that carry out refugee espionage on Norwegian soil.
Since such incidents take place outside Norway’s borders, though, it’s difficult for Norwegian police or other authorities to step in. “It’s a sensitive issue for persons here in Norway who experience their families back home being pressured,” Børresen said. “It’s an effective method that surely yields results in many cases.”
He wouldn’t identify the “five to 10″ countries that PST believes is spying on its citizens in Norway. Cases reported in Norwegian media to date have involved Iran, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Sudan, but only one person, from Sudan, has been convicted of refugee espionage in Norway so far and that case is now under appeal.
Asylum seekers themselves are often recruited to spy on other asylum seekers, according to PST, while the countries involved also are known to have sent their own agents to Norway to carry out surveillance. They can put pressure on expatriate citizens to work as informants, infiltrate the computer equipment of political opponents and use embassy employees as agents in Norway. ”This is activity that’s steadily carried out in Norway,” Børresen told NRK.
Officials at NOAS, the Norwegian organization advocating refugees’ rights, are calling on Norwegian authorities to prosecute more cases and better protect refugees from their homeland governments. The alleged spying is difficult to reveal and prosecute, but Børresen said PST views its counterespionage operations as a core assignment, along with efforts to prevent foreign governments from spying on refugees. He fears that many cases go unreported, though, because refugees subject to spying and threats are often too frightened to contact them.