How Interpol is co-opted to serve anti-democratic agendas

For some people detained as a result of Interpol Red Notices, the experience is as terrifying and disorienting as anything dreamed up in dystopian fiction.

While attempting to cross an international border for work or vacation, a seemingly ordinary person is stopped because of a secret warrant held by a transnational organisation. Languishing in jail for months, they must prove they are innocent of such vague but serious crimes such as terrorism or seeking to overthrow an elected government. They are eventually freed, but remain in Kafkaesque limbo, unable to clear their names because they are not allowed full access to the purported charges and evidence against them.

For an increasing number of political dissidents worldwide, this nightmare scenario is all too real. Due to a bevy of reasons, discussed in my previous article on the subject, Interpol and its famous Red Notices have become a new weapon in the arsenal of authoritarian and illiberal regimes against their exiled critics. No country embodies the current epidemic of Interpol abuse better than Turkey.

The Turkish government began to send out politically motivated Red Notices and other Interpol communications en masse after a failed coup attempt in July 2016. Some of the most famous include that issued against Salih Muslim, a Syrian Kurdish leader, and Enes Kanter, a professional basketball player in the United States.

But Turkey’s misuse of Interpol to harass, intimidate and try to extradite dissidents started on a smaller scale years ago. The stories of these first victims of Turkey’s abuse of Red Notices illustrate how it can permanently disrupt lives.

Bahar Kimyongür, a Belgian activist of Turkish descent, was first targeted by the Turkish government via a Red Notice in 2006. According to Fair Trials International, which has aided Kimyongür with his case, he has been arrested at least three times as a result of the notice. Turkey has accused Kimyongür of involvement in the Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party/Front, a Turkish Marxist group that both Turkey and the European Union have designated as a terrorist organisation.

But in the Netherlands, Italy, Spain and Belgium where the charges have been adjudicated, they have been dismissed. The courts determined that Turkey’s accusations rested upon acts, such as participating in protests, which fell under the category of freedom of speech and belief.

Turkish journalist Vicdan Özerdem is another client of Fair Trials International who had a Red Notice issued against her by Turkey. Özerdem has been living in Germany since 2004, and was granted asylum there in 2006, after  previously spending nearly 10 years in prison in Turkey, where she says she was subject to torture. Özerdem was arrested while travelling from Bosnia to Croatia in 2012. Until that moment, she had no idea she was wanted by Turkey.

Özerdem described the surreal experience of her arrest to Fair Trials.

“Of course I had heard about INTERPOL, and I had heard about the Red Notice, but what I thought was that serial murderers or the very famous persons or real criminals would get these Red Notices, and I had never thought that I would be the case for a Red Notice. How should I describe it? It was like falling into an abyss, into a very very deep hole, it was like a break with life, a breakdown of anything about my life,” she said.

Özerdem was not wrong in her assumption about Interpol. Before the institution of an instant submission system in 2002, issuing a Red Notice or other communication via Interpol was cumbersome and slow. This inefficiency was in itself a check on abuse. Member states had to invest time in the process, which tended to force them to prioritise their use to pursue real criminals. But between 2001 and 2017, the number of Red Notices increased from 1,418 to 13,048, and the increasing number of complaints against Interpol reveals a significant proportion of these new notices target dissidents.

Evidence suggests that, like Kimyongür and Özerdem, most dissidents targeted by Red Notices are not extradited to their country of origin. In a report for the Atlantic Council, Aaron Stein, now Director of the Middle East program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, noted that “in every reported instance, the prospect of extradition to Turkey is remote, if not impossible, and the accused is released.”

This may seem to indicate that the system is working, but in a recent article in the Journal of Democracy, Edward Lemon, DMGS–Kennan Institute Fellow at the Daniel Morgan Graduate School in Washington, argued that extradition is not the primary goal of a regime targeting outspoken opponents with Red Notices. Lemon interviewed 23 individuals from Russia, Turkey, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan who have been the subject of Red Notices.

“Even if authoritarian regimes do not succeed in having their opponents extradited, merely placing these individuals on an Interpol list affects their ability to travel freely, normalise their immigration status, open bank accounts, rent property, and find work. In this way it raises the costs of dissent, even for those with the option of fleeing abroad,” Lemon said.

Authoritarian states, he said, use Interpol to signal the legitimacy of their claims and by forcing other states to adjudicate charges against their political opponents, even if they are ultimately dismissed, infuse their political repression with judicial legitimacy.

Though Interpol is simply an information clearinghouse and provides little oversight of the information contributed by its members, “Turkish state media frequently publish pieces about dissidents wanted by Interpol, giving the impression that the international organisation itself has accused the individual of a crime,” Lemon said. Adding the word Interpol to a list of trumped-up charges adds an air of plausibility.

Turkey’s Interpol focus on Kurdish individuals with links to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), followers of the Fethullah Gülen movement and Turkish dissidents in Europe. In other words, Turkey is targeting transnational organisations with ties to Turkey, as well as individual recent exiles, many of them linked to these same organisations. The Red Notices work to not only to intimidate critics abroad, but pressure individuals and organisations not to speak out at home.

The effects of a Red Notice, even if it is removed, can plague a person indefinitely. Kimyongür’s Red Notice was finally cancelled in 2014, but in 2015 he was stopped in Greece and temporarily detained while officials determined whether his Red Notice was still valid. Earlier that same year, his wife was stopped in Switzerland while they were travelling for a family vacation.

Özerdem spent six months in prison in Croatia before her case was dismissed, during which time she became extremely ill. Her Red Notice was deleted in 2017.

Then there is the reputational damage. Kimyongür said via email:

“On a professional level, I often encounter difficulties because of the international reputation induced by my Red Notice. Employers are afraid of smear campaigns and retaliation by fans of the Erdoğan regime. As a result, I always need to improvise when taking care of my family ... Even if it is removed, an Interpol Red notice stays stuck on your flesh all your life like a branding,” he said.

Interpol has been co-opted to serve anti-democratic agendas and it is imperative the organisation reforms its operations if it is to continue to follow its own internal mandate of upholding the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The next and final article in this series will discuss the reforms Interpol has implemented in recent years, and the steps experts say it still needs to take in order to curb abuses.

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