Interpol Has Been Weaponized By Governments Seeking To Hunt Down Critics And Activists

from the can-it-be-fixed? dept

Interpol has become a weapon. The international consortium of law enforcement does have a legitimate purpose. It’s there to prevent people from escaping justice just because they’ve left the country where they’ve committed crimes. It’s a worthy goal, but it’s an easily abused mechanism.

For instance, there’s Turkey’s government, which really wants to keep its top position on the “Most Journalists Jailed” list. It can’t do this without the help of Interpol. In 2018, Turkey sent “red alert” notices to Interpol seeking journalists accused of whatever bullshit the government made up in hopes of having police forces in other nations round up the two self-exiled writers the government wanted to punish.

The problem is ongoing. And it may be getting worse, according to this report from Josh Jacobs for The Guardian.

Alongside the growth of [Interpol’s] most-wanted list, international legal experts say there has also been an alarming phenomenon of countries using Interpol for political gain or revenge – targeting nationals abroad such as political rivals, critics, activists and refugees. It is not known how many of roughly 66,000 active red notices could be based on politically motivated charges; Interpol does not release data on how many red notices it rejects. But a number of reports, including from the US Congress, the European parliament and academics have documented the misuse of Interpol in recent years. Bromund says: “I don’t think there’s any dispute that […] the number of abusive red notices is growing.”

Using Interpol’s alert system to hunt down political opponents and critics violates Interpol’s constitution. But constitutions get violated all the time (just look at ours!). But vetting is time-consuming and certain countries are more than willing to swamp the system in hopes of sneaking illegitimate requests through.

And there are certain countries that abuse the process more than others. Russia alone generates nearly 40% of all public red notices, which have been used to target people the government wants to punish for reasons other than what’s stated in the notice. Russia is also known to send more informal requests via another Interpol option called a “diffusion,” which allows national governments to connect directly with each other with information about wanted fugitives. The breadth of abuse this allows hasn’t been quantified but it leads to things like this:

A less-formal Interpol option for hunting fugitives, called “diffusions”, are often regarded as more vulnerable to misuse. Through these alerts, Interpol members can send arrest requests directly to each other. That is how Nikita Kulachenkov, a Russian-born Lithuanian refugee, spent several weeks imprisoned in Cyprus, after he was detained at the airport in 2016 en route to visit his mother.

Kulachenkov faced a five-year prison term in Russia for allegedly stealing a street artist’s drawing. His Interpol alert was issued after he began working on investigations for the Anti-Corruption Foundation in Russia, founded by the opposition politician Alexei Navalny, who was poisoned with the nerve agent novichok last year and is now imprisoned in Russia.

When governments straight up lie to Interpol, it can be difficult for Interpol’s vetting staff to disprove allegations or suss out the real reason for the notice. Things get past the filtering system all the time, like the case of Turkmen human rights activist, Annadurdy Khadzhiev, who was detained in Bulgaria after a notice was issued accusing him of embezzling money from Turkmenistan’s national bank. The problem was the accusations claimed the embezzlement took place four years after Khadzhiev had stopped working for the bank.

The other problem is known abusers are still allowed to use the system. The report notes Interpol rejected more than 700 of Turkey’s requests last year, and yet the country is still allowed to issue red alerts and diffusions. Known human rights horror show Syria has just had its access to Interpol reinstated, over the protests of several members. China is somehow in good standing despite using the system to hunt down Uighur activists who’ve left the country to avoid near-constant oppression by the government.

Is there an upside? Yes, but it’s limited given the number of countries with access to Interpol’s system and the abuse that’s been observed and documented over the years. Known bad actors are still being given access to the system, but hopefully the system is becoming better at weeding out bogus requests.

Under [Secretary General Jurgen] Stock, Interpol has strengthened its oversight body – the commission for the control of Interpol’s files (CCF), which reviews appeals and can delete red notices – and publishes more information about decisions on complaints. He has also bolstered the specialist squad that reviews notices before they are published. Critics have welcomed the changes, but some say the system is still not robust enough. Stock acknowledges that there is more work to be done. “I don’t have the silver bullet at [this] stage for what else we can do,” he says, but stresses that he is committed to further strengthening safeguards, where possible, during his final three years in the post.

More needs to be done, but at least it’s being helmed by a Secretary General who knows work needs to be done, and perhaps more importantly, has been open and direct about the challenges Interpol faces and where it has fallen short of its ideals.

There are no easy answers when it comes to limiting abuse of the red alert system. Interpol could kick out rogue states, but that may just encourage more use of completely extrajudicial measures, like extraordinary rendition or sending state agents to straight up murder political opponents and government critics. At least with Interpol, there’s a paper trail that can show how the system is being abused and who’s behind politically motivated alerts.

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Comments on “Interpol Has Been Weaponized By Governments Seeking To Hunt Down Critics And Activists”

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16 Comments
Anonymous Coward says:

Interpol is an idea so lunatic it seems impossible to understand how it came to be. How can anyone think it makes sense for a democratic country to arrest people on behalf of an Islamic dictatorship like Turkey? Why don’t you give visas to Taliban to be patrol officers while you’re at it???

The last line about how they might kidnap people instead — is unworthy of this article. If dictatorships resort to kidnapping journalists on a routine basis, that is only grounds for more sanctions – like walling them off, stopping trade, and forgetting about them. If THAT doesn’t work, maybe work out a deal to partition Turkey between Greece and Russia?

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

How can anyone think it makes sense for a democratic country to arrest people on behalf of an Islamic dictatorship like Turkey?

Because embezzlement, fraud, rape, and murder are considered anathema in both the democratic country and in the Islamic dictatorship.

If you’re a politician, how would you greet the headline, "Famed Turkish mass murderer allowed to roam free in London"?

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Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

If you’re a politician, how would you greet the headline, "Famed Turkish mass murderer allowed to roam free in London"?

While I would be pretty suprised that any London Newspaper was willing to actually say that about Erdogan, I’d feel obligated to warn them that he’ll have them beaten if they get near him.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re:

"How can anyone think it makes sense for a democratic country to arrest people on behalf of an Islamic dictatorship like Turkey?"

Short answer? Because NATO.

Turkey is a long-standing member, is located in a position of supreme strategic importance, right between europe and asia, has a standing army of about 600k, and likes to play the game of always being helpful towards other major players.

Hence in terms of realpolitik, no one who matters cares whether Erdogan has every journalist in the country summarily rounded up and executed.

"Why don’t you give visas to Taliban to be patrol officers while you’re at it???"

Is this the part where I mention that the Taliban originated from the US support of the mujaheddin during the soviet invasion of Afghanistan? Or that Bin Laden (and much of Al-Quaeda, sic IS/DAESCH) started as a CIA-trained operative in that same war? Or that Saddam Hussein was once given the keys to Detroit for being such a nice friend to the US? Or that the US love for Saudi Arabia was so strong the FBI was specifically asked to back off from known saudi extremists learning to pilot passenger liners in the US for the suspected purpose of hijacking, right before 9/11?

Suffice to say that when it comes to befriending and supporting the utterly obnoxious Turkey actually ranks among the less objectionable. With staunch and persistent US support interpol membership is a given.

"like walling them off, stopping trade, and forgetting about them."

Saudi Arabia kidnapped, murdered and dismembered a journalist in a foreign country and still stands as the US’s staunchest friend and ally in the Middle East. Bluntly put Turkey could toss kurds and journalists alike in their own homebrewed endlösung and the leader of the free world would still veto any sanctions.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

US, Russia and China are more or less the same in this regard. Russia is simply a lot more secretive about some parts of it and incredibly open about others whereas China won’t allow a single whisper potentially costing it face to emerge.

But the US is a great example because we have a great many verified examples of this shit happening whereas most of what we have on Russia is from way back when it was the soviet union or murky half-guesses as to just how sinister the russian spymaster’s been.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

"How does it make sense for Turkey to arrest people based on behalf of USA (let’s assume reason for arrest is murder or large-scale theft) if Turkey knew they requests for same things wont’t be honored?"

Simple. It costs Turkey absolutely nothing to incarcerate and/or ship off its citizens or foreigners on behalf of Uncle Sam. It’s not as if Erdogan gives a rat’s ass about his people in the first place.
And they know damn well Uncle Sam won’t reciprocate in the same manner. But they’ll be able to ask for other considerations instead. Like, for instance, having the US pull it’s troops right out of harms way so the turkish army can go after the kurds.

Realpolitik.

me says:

Interpol has become a joke

It’s also used by the UAE and others to track down try to extradite people who have credit card debt etc from western countries. It seldom gets these folks arrested and extradited, but they are routinely detained and hassled even in their own country fi they have no extradition treaty with the UAE, Turkey or whatever.

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That One Guy (profile) says:

'You lied the last 12 times but I'm sure #13 is legit'

At least with Interpol, there’s a paper trail that can show how the system is being abused and who’s behind politically motivated alerts.

Which I’m sure is of great comfort to those on the receiving end of that treatment. ‘Yes you were harassed, falsely imprisoned and risked being sent back to a very unfriendly country but at least there’s a record of it! It won’t do you any good but hey, free papers.’

At the point where a government is regularly weaponizing an agency like Interpol to go after political rivals and critics on it’s behalf it is well past time for them to be given the benefit of the doubt, and while it may be unreasonable to cut them out of the loop entirely as there is a valid reason for the agency to exist any requests from a country/government like that needs to be treated as bogus until proven otherwise and given a lot more scrutiny before any action is taken.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: 'You lied the last 12 times but I'm sure #13 is legit'

One more repugnant abuse of interpol’s warrant system is that once activated by any interpol member it isn’t easy to call off.

Assange was sought out by interpol for quite some time. Then, when Sweden recalled the APB, interpol refused to drop the red notice.

In other words they’ll keep pursuing a person even when no member state has a court case or charge to levy against that person.

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