Violent attacks by foreign state agents on Irish people ‘will happen’, prominent civil liberties lawyer says

Caoilfhionn Gallagher spoke on increasing threat of ‘transnational repression’ at World Bar Conference

Violent attacks by foreign state agents, which could include stabbings, poisonings, kidnap and murder, on Irish people or people living in Ireland, “will happen” and neither gardaí nor European legal systems are “ready for it,” a leading civil liberties barrister has warned.

Caoilfhionn Gallagher, London-based barrister with Doughty Chambers who has acted for families of the July 7th 2005 London bombings and families bereaved by the 1989 Hillsborough football stadium disaster, currently acts for numerous journalists, lawyers and human rights defenders threatened with attack by “oppressor states”.

She spoke on the increasing threat of “transnational repression” at the World Bar Conference, taking place in Dublin and Belfast in a session closed to media and the public.

She told The Irish Times: “It’s nothing new to have Iran or Saudi Arabia or Egypt, Russia or China targeting human rights defenders, lawyers within their own borders. What’s new and growing is the increasingly creative ways some are using the long arm of the State beyond their borders.”


High-profile cases include the poisoning of ex-Russian intelligence officer Alexander Litvinenko in England in 2006 and the dismemberment of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in his country’s consulate in Istanbul in 2018.

“It has entered public consciousness ... but only in these very extreme cases,” said Ms Gallagher. “I am finding increasingly people targeted by Russia and Saudi Arabia, and also China, Iran and Rwanda.”

Among her clients are Iranian journalists with the BBC who have fled Iran which now “targets them in very extreme ways”. One client is Iran International journalist Pouria Zeraati (36) who was stabbed repeatedly on March 29th near his London home by three assailants who flew out of Heathrow later that evening.

“It was a warning to him about his work .. but everyone who works for Iran International is now being targeted. That includes five Irish nationals,” she said.

She does not believe Rwanda, to which the British Government plans to send asylum seekers, is a safe country given its record in transnational repression. Last year Paul Rusesabagina, real-life hero of Hotel Rwanda fame was released from prison in Kigali after international pressure. A critic of president Paul Kagame, he had been kidnapped in 2021 while in Dubai for a conference and brought to Rwanda where he was sentenced to 25 years on terrorism charges.

“This happened extremely recently, within the last year, and this is the country which people think it’s safe to return people to,” said Ms Gallagher.

It is an issue “Ireland must take seriously”, she said. She has been seriously threatened by Chinese authorities for representing Jimmy Lai, Hong Kong pro-democracy media mogul on trial for serious national security breaches. She cannot travel to China or Hong Kong to see him for fear of arrest, or to countries with extradition agreements with China – including South Africa and most of the Middle East.

In terms of direct impact on Ireland, she points to the discovery of a Chinese ‘police station’ in Dublin’s Capel Street in 2022 as “an attempt by China” to “target” its diaspora community here. “I know of many Hong Kongers in Ireland who concerned at the chilling effect of what is happening – criminalising any dissent, questioning or raising human rights concerns, worldwide”.

As diaspora communities settle in Ireland, for example Afghan, they could be targeted by Taliban here, she says.

“It is terrifying. This is a real challenge of our times because our police and our legal systems aren’t ready for it .. States trying to silence critics worldwide are increasingly creative, and at the moment we are playing catch-up.

“We have got to get much better, much more creative, more proactive because we are going to see more attacks and we will see them in Dublin.”

While most legal systems assume legal protections are limited to borders and very defined areas, this type of crime is perpetrated by State agents outside Europe. “Our systems are not currently able to deal with that”.

The Council of Europe is an “obvious” place for strategies to emerge, particularly as members, including Denmark, France and the United Kingdom, have experienced it.

Gardaí must develop a national response, with a national policy, as they have with human trafficking, organised crime and child sexual exploitation, she said.

“One of my clients talks about this being a key challenge to democracy at a key moment for democracy. The world is going to the polls this year, in elections that could be era-defining. There is a moment when we have got to stand up for the right values. I think this new tactic has been developing without these states being called out. It shouldn’t take waiting for attacks in Ireland before robust action is taken.”

Kitty Holland

Kitty Holland

Kitty Holland is Social Affairs Correspondent of The Irish Times