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Society, World

INTERPOL is becoming the chosen tool for tyrants

Interpol HQ in Lyon, France (Image Massimiliano Mariani)

The international policing organisation pursues politically motivated cases that have nothing to do with crime or justice

During World War II, INTERPOL (the International Criminal Police Organisation) shared its headquarters with the Gestapo at Prinz-Albrecht-Straße in Berlin. Two of the Nazis' vilest war criminals Reinhard Heydrich and Ernst Kaltenbruner were the agency's wartime presidents. Even after the war, a number of prominent collaborators worked for the organisation. In 1963, Vichy stooge Jean Nepote was elected Interpol's president.

Given its less than illustrious past, you would imagine the organisation would be careful about collaborating with despots. Unfortunately, it isn't. A weighty report released last year by Fair Trials International lifted the lid on how the world's modern day tyrants are using INTERPOL as a tool to persecute their people.

US Vice President Joe Biden raised concerns as early as 2000 over how easily INTERPOL's systems can be manipulated to arrest innocent people. So why hasn't the world's largest police organisation done anything to stop this happening?

In 2013, INTERPOL issued 8,132 "Red Notices" up from 1,277 just a decade before. A Red Notice can destroy your life. While British police forces don't regard Red Notices as a sufficient basis for arrest, many countries including Spain, Italy and Poland do. Even if you aren't arrested, at most borders you will be stopped and detained. You could spend days in transit or find yourself deported. Of course, many of those who receive Red Notices against their names are criminals attempting to escape punishment.

But as the Fair Trials report demonstrates, it is far too easy for countries with poor human rights records to use the Red Notice system to crush dissent.

Benny Wanda was the leader-in-exile of the West Papuan independence movement. He alleges that while growing up,  he watched Indonesian soldiers rip his two-year-old cousin from his aunt's arms and break the child's back. The soldier then raped his aunt. Despite this, he rose up through his community to be the leader of the tribal assembly. In 2002, Wanda says he was arrested, detained and tortured. After receiving intelligence he would be killed by the security services while in prison, he managed to escape to the UK and successfully claimed asylum here. Yet, even though Wanda is a political exile and an internationally recognised campaigner, in February 2011 he discovered INTERPOL had placed a Red Notice against his name stating he was wanted for crimes in Indonesia. Lawyers told him any international travel posed the grave risk he would be deported back to Indonesia.

The case of Hamza Kashgari

Deportation isn't a theoretical risk, as Saudi journalist Hamza Kashgari discovered. Kashgari fled Saudi Arabia in 2012 after being accused of apostasy. Kashgari had tweeted an imaginary conversation between himself and the Prophet Muhammad, and criticised the Kingdom's treatment of women stating: "No Saudi women will go to hell, because it's impossible to go there twice". After the Saudi preacher Nasser al-Omar called for his beheading by sword he fled for his life, taking a flight to New Zealand via Malaysia. He never got to New Zealand. Police in Kuala Lumpur said they detained Kashgari "following a request made to us by INTERPOL". INTERPOL denies being involved in the deportation.

In 2013, meanwhile, Russia requested that the hedge fund manager turned campaigner Bill Browder be placed under an Interpol Blue Notice. Browder’s “crime” has been to fight for justice for solicitor Sergei Magnitsky, who he says was murdered in prison while investigating Russian corruption.

INTERPOL doesn't treat all those suspected of a crime equally. Belarus's former interior minister Anatoly Kuleshov, was on the EU travel ban list after the police force he led was complicit in the torture and beating of pro-democracy activists. While former presidential candidates languished in Belarusian jails, INTERPOL invited Kuleshov to their headquarters allowing him to breach the travel ban in January 2012, at the same time as lawyers were trying to get Kuleshov arrested for torture.

In October 2014, INTERPOL agreed to help the Belarusian authorities police the Ice Hockey World Championship the country was hosting, a propaganda coup for the regime. Meanwhile, tortured Belarusian opposition leaders such as Ales Mikhalevich find themselves detained at European airports thanks to the co-operation between the dictatorship and INTERPOL.

Need for redress and reform

Jago Russell, Director of Fair Trials International, told Little Atoms: “INTERPOL plays an important role in fighting crime but, until reformed, it will continue to be open to abuse by countries misusing alerts against political opponents, human rights activists and journalists. We are starting to see the signs that INTERPOL, under its new Secretary General, is waking up to the challenge but there is still some way to go before we can be confident that INTERPOL is weeding out abusive alerts and giving effective redress for victims."

There is a redress mechanism so those who find themselves served with a Red Notice can argue their case. It is chronically understaffed and underfunded, receiving just 0.2 per cent of INTERPOL's entire budget. As a result, it’s a bureaucratic nightmare for those falsely flagged to clear their name. Ronald Noble, INTERPOL’s former Secretary General may haveboasted that only a fraction of cases involve human rights violations. This complacency is not good enough, a single case is too many. When his organisation takes the side of the Belarusian regime, over its people, it sends a signal to other tyrants. When INTERPOL underfunds the redress mechanism and refuses to acknowledge it has a problem, it undermines the whole basis for global cooperation.

Those affected shouldn't have to wait any longer to get justice. Reform is needed now. INTERPOL should learn the lessons of its past and not become the tool of tyrants.


INTERPOL continues constructive dialogue with Fair Trials International

LYON, France – INTERPOL Secretary General Jürgen Stock met with Fair Trials International Chief Executive Jago Russell as part of an ongoing dialogue between the two organizations on a range of issues, including the protection of human rights within the sphere of international police cooperation.

Mr Russell, accompanied by Alex Tinsley from Fair Trials’ Brussels office, was updated on modifications and improvements to INTERPOL’s procedures in relation to the processing of Red Notices and other police cooperation requests, following their visit to the General Secretariat headquarters in 2013.

In line with recommendations made by the Commission for the Control of INTERPOL’s Files (CCF) and by Fair Trials International, since September 2014, enhanced measures have been implemented by the General Secretariat in relation to compliance checks before any Red Notice is published or visible to member countries. 
In addition, as part of INTERPOL’s ongoing efforts to maintain the highest standards of data processing, a resolution was adopted at the 2014 General Assembly supporting a comprehensive review of INTERPOL’s supervisory mechanisms at all levels, including National Central Bureaus, the General Secretariat and CCF.

As part of INTERPOL’s ongoing commitment to encourage external input from NGOs, the Organization has invited Fair Trials International to contribute to the working group established to oversee the review.

Mike is the publisher of Little Atoms and the Director of 89up. He has run high profile campaigns on Belarus and Azerbaijan, works with the Don't Spy On Us campaign and documentary film company BRITDOC on the Oscar-nominated film CITIZENFOUR. He has written for The Independent, The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph, The Times and Index on Censorship.

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