Turkey may be world’s most prolific abuser of Interpol Red Notices

The first sentence of this story has been updated according to Dwayne Johnson's tweet about the timing of the filming of the movie, "Red Notice."

One year from now filming will begin in Europe for the much-heralded action movie Red Notice. Starring the Rock, Dwayne Johnson, as an Interpol agent pursuing the world’s most wanted art thief, it is billed as a “globe-trotting, action-comedy, heist thriller”. While details are scarce, one thing is already clear; the plot has no basis in reality. 

To be fair, an action movie centred on the real Interpol would never make it into production. The real Interpol is about as exciting as a company database. Interpol is essentially a clearinghouse for information submitted by almost every country on earth. But Interpol does not verify or investigate most of the information it handles, and it certainly does not have any agents roaming the globe tracking down bad guys. 

However the information Interpol aggregates and disseminates can be both powerful and dangerous. Increasingly, illiberal and authoritarian nations such as Turkey and Russia are using Interpol’s vast reach and lack of oversight to ruin the lives of dissidents, journalists, and other perceived enemies. In a short series of articles, I will discuss how and why Interpol’s system is ripe for abuse, who Turkey is targeting via Interpol, and what can be done to reform the organisation and cut down on abuse

Interpol is an international organisation of 194 states, more than the United Nations. It was founded in 1956 to share information about criminals and fugitives. Interpol is not a proactive organisation, it does not establish branches in its member countries, nor investigate alleged crimes, and it does not require member countries to act on any notices or communications issued by other members. 

Interpol is essentially a secret database to which all member nations have editing access. The database consists of several different levels of communications and coloured notices. The most famous of these is the Red Notice. A Red Notice is not equivalent to an arrest warrant and does not meet the legal criteria for probable cause for arrest in the United States

According to Theodore Bromund of the Margaret Thatcher Centre for Freedom, a Red Notice is “a formal request by one [National Central Bureau of a member nation] for the location, identification, and provisional arrest of a named and identified individual accused of a particular offense, coupled with a pledge by the requesting NCB to seek the extradition, or other similar lawful action like removal of that individual when arrested”. Interpol operates on the principle of national sovereignty, which means that member nations can choose to act on a Red Notice or other communication, or not, at their discretion.

The sovereignty principle also means that Interpol very rarely questions the legitimacy of notices or sanctions its members for misuse of the system. Section two of Interpol’s constitution requires the organisation to operate in the spirit of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and section three forbids Interpol from participating in “intervention or activities of a political, military, religious or racial character”.

These clauses in theory should act as a check on member countries’ activities and allow Interpol to block notices or communications that violate these principles, for example any use of its system that targets political dissidents. In practice, this has rarely been the case. “Interpol’s rules provide for sanctions and temporary suspension of member nations for violations. In practice, these sanctions are not serious and are rarely applied,” Yuriy Nemets, managing member of NEMETS law firm and author of the blog Red Notice Abuse, told Ahval.

Abuse of Interpol is not new, but prolific and widespread abuse is. “The system was so slow that it was to a considerable extent protected against abuse by its own inefficiency. The fundamental problem Interpol has faced over the past decade is that it has prioritised efficiency and growth at the expense of upholding its own rules, and the success of its quest for efficiency has been exploited by nations like Turkey to abuse the system,” Bromund told Ahval.

Can Dundar
Can Dündar, a journalist and the former editor-in-chief of Cumhuriyet newspaper, for whom Turkey asked Interpol to issue a red notice in October 2018.

“Before the creation of Interpol’s I-24/7 and especially its I-Link systems [web-based information sharing systems] — the latter in 2009 — Interpol published very few Red Notices. Interpol abuse in general appears to be mostly a phenomena of the post-2000, and particular post-2009 era,” he said. Before 2002, Red Notices were submitted via a paper form

According to attorney Michelle Estlund, author of the blog Red Notice Law Journal, “prior to I-link’s implementation, member countries were required to submit their requests for Red Notices to Interpol for approval. Only after the requests had been reviewed and approved by the General Secretariat would they be circulated in Interpol’s databases and made available to other member countries. Under the current I-link system, however, no such review or approval is required prior to the entry and circulation of a Red Notice.”

According to reports of the Commission for the Control of Interpol’s Files, which monitors Interpol’s internal activities, Turkey has not only consistently been in the top 10 countries for which Interpol received outside requests (including complaints, requests for access, or review of existing files), but the number of individuals petitioning Interpol about Turkey-originating cases has skyrocketed. Turkey was involved in five such requests in 2012, compared to 46 in 2017

Turkey’s misuse of Interpol began in earnest after the failed coup attempt to topple President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in July 2016. Though it is far from the only nation to take advantage of Interpol’s faster dissemination of information and relaxation of oversight - Russia and China are also notorious in this regard - Turkey is arguably Interpol’s most prolific abuser. 

“I am not sure if Turkey is the most successfully abusive nation, it is undoubtedly the nation that has made the most significant efforts to abuse Interpol,” Bromund told an audience at the American Bar Association in February.

Reports reveal that Turkey has submitted or attempted to submit a staggering number of notices, communications, and other information to Interpol’s system in recent years. According to BBC Turkish, the Turkish government attempted to upload information on 60,000 individuals allegedly connected to the Gülen movement, which the Turkish government blamed for the coup attempt. This information likely included thousands of passport numbers of Turkish citizens. Interpol denied initial reports that Turkey had been suspended because of this alleged abuse, but in statements about the matter, Interpol cited section two and three of its constitution, implying the cases fell under the umbrella of abuse of its system.

Turkey has also used Interpol pressure specific countries to find or detain individuals. In the case of Germany, in a little over two years, Turkey applied for 57 people to be located and 791 people to be detained. According to a senior Belgian law enforcement official quoted by Buzzfeed, the unreasonable number of requests sent by Turkey via Interpol to EU countries with large Turkish populations has backfired. 

“Many EU countries are ignoring these requests, which has been an underlying source of tension with the Turkish authorities,” the unnamed official told Buzzfeed. Addressing the arrest in Spain of a Turkish-German writer Doğan Akhanlı, who was subject to a Red Notice issued by Turkey, Chancellor Angela Merkel confirmed that Turkey’s misuse of Interpol had been noticed. Akhanlı’s case was unfortunately one of many, Merkel said, according to Reuters. “That’s why we have massively changed our Turkish policy recently ... because it’s quite unacceptable that Erdoğan does this,” she said.

Akhanlı was eventually released and returned to Germany after Turkey failed to produce a formal extradition request. His case gained international attention because of Merkel’s comments, but dozens of other individuals who have been targeted by Turkey via Interpol have also suffered significant, life-altering consequences. The next piece in this series will focus on the people Turkey has used Interpol’s system against and the effects it has had on their lives.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.