Interpol abused to pursue critics abroad

In late February 2018, Czech police arrested Salih Muslim, former co-chair of the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) , who was in Prague to attend a conference on Middle Eastern politics. Muslim is accused of terrorism by the Turkish government. He was detained based on an Interpol Red Notice, a warrant sent to member states to request police to arrest a wanted criminal. He was released after two days in detention. 

Not everyone has been so fortunate. In October 2016, Murat Acar, a 46-year-old medical doctor who was working as a professor and consultant in King Hamad University’s radiology department in Bahrain, was extradited to Turkey despite having asylum through the United Nations. Acar was jailed on charges of involvement in the 2016 coup.

Since the failed coup in 2016, Turkey has increasingly attempted to use Interpol to pursue its critics abroad, particularly those linked to the Gülen movement that it blames for the abortive putsch. Shortly after the coup, the Turkish government it reported to have sent the names of 60,000 wanted citizens living abroad to Interpol.

After Turkish writer Doğan Akhanlı was arrested in Spain in August 2017 based on a Red Notice, German Chancellor Angela Merkel criticised Ankara for what she called its misuse of Interpol. But it is not only powerful states like China, Turkey and Russia that are abusing Interpol to pursue exiles, the impoverished post-Soviet republic of Tajikistan has issued more than 2,500 Red Notices against its citizens, only 500 fewer than China, resulting in activists being detained in Greece, Spain, Turkey, Moldova and Ukraine.

Constitutionally, Interpol remains politically neutral. Article 3 of the organisation’s constitution states that member nations are “strictly prohibited” from using the system to pursue criminals facing charges of a “political character”. On the organisation’s website it states that Red Notices are issued for those “suspected of committing a crime but have not yet been prosecuted and so should be considered innocent until proven guilty”. But not all member states can guarantee a fair trial for those extradited through the Interpol system and many of them are abusing the system.

The election of Chinese vice minister of public security, Meng Hongwei, to the organisation’s presidency in November 2016 caused widespread alarm among the human rights community. Hongwei, who has pursued opponents through Interpol, will not be involved with the day-to-day running of the organisation. But, the agency said, he would “provide guidance and direction to the organisation.”

Most democratic governments are unwilling to extradite individuals to countries where torture is widely practiced in keeping with the non-refoulement principle in international law. Pursuing critics through Interpol appears pointless. But adding an individual to the Interpol wanted list can devastate their lives, making it difficult for them to open a bank account, find employment and travel. Many refugees remain on Interpol wanted lists long after they have been granted refugee or asylum status. Adding a political opponent to the Interpol list has an important symbolic dimension for authoritarian governments, lending legitimacy to the idea that these people are criminals, traitors and terrorists.

Two overarching problems exist in how Interpol deals with arrest warrants. It does not adequately review applications from requesting governments before issuing a Red Notice. Although checks exist, the process is largely based on faith in the good intentions of the requesting country. Part of the problem is a matter of capacity. The number of entries in Interpol’s database has increased dramatically in recent years.

Where 1,277 warrants were issued in 2003, 10,718 names were added to the database in 2014. At present, Interpol’s database contains more than 120,000 entries. For an organisation with approximately 700 employees, implementing the necessary checks remains difficult. Second, Interpol has not established a sufficient appeal system through which those targeted can refute the charges against them.

The Commission for the Control of Interpol’s Files (CCF), Interpol’s data protection body, remains opaque, overburdened and slow. Many exiles do not know they have a Red Notice until they are detained at a border or refused a credit card. Removing their name from the database is a long and arduous process.

In recent years, following criticism from groups like Fair Trials International and prominent critics like Bill Browder, Interpol has made positive steps to prevent the system from being abused. In 2015, it introduced a policy to prohibit Red Notices from being processed if an individual had been granted refugee or asylum status in their host country, and if the individual fears persecution in their home country.

Although this policy is unevenly enforced, some of those facing charges have benefitted from it. A Red Notice was issued against Muhiddin Kabiri, the leader of Tajikistan’s leading opposition party, the Islamic Renaissance Party, in September 2016. Kabiri’s party was classified as a terrorist organisation by the Tajik government in 2015. The government has accused Kabiri of corruption, charges Human Rights Watch calls “politically motivated”. In early 2018, Interpol removed Kabiri’s Red Notice from its database after he lodged an appeal based on his having been granted asylum in a European country.

Interpol needs to do more to protect itself from being abused by autocrats. A new Interpol task force is currently reviewing 40,000 Red Notices to judge whether they are politically motivated or not. Deleting thousands of these arrest requests would be an important step in preventing autocrats from abusing the system to target their opponents abroad.