Interpol is the world’s largest policing organisation connecting 190 member countries in the battle against international crime.
But as representatives of the global law enforcement agency met at their General Assembly towards the end of 2016, they faced questions over a crucial crime fighting tool.
In 2015, Interpol issued more than 11,000 “Red Notices” on behalf of member countries. These alerts inform countries that an individual is wanted for serious offences. It’s then up to authorities in different countries to decide what action to take.
But human rights groups have suggested that some countries have used Interpol wanted notices to target political dissidents and opponents across borders, often with devastating consequences.
People and Power sent Sarah Spiller and Callum Macrae to investigate.
By Sarah Spiller and Callum Macrae
Benny Wenda still remembers the day when he found out he was the subject of an Interpol Red Notice. He had googled his name, and found the wanted alert.
A campaigner for the independence of his native West Papua from Indonesia, Wenda had been granted asylum in the UK. The Interpol Red Notice said he was wanted for offences involving the use of weapons and explosives, charges Wenda had long insisted were brought by Indonesia to silence him.
At his home, Wenda told us of the fight to get his Interpol notice deleted, and the eventual conclusion – that the case against him was “predominantly political in nature”. But it still left the question of how this could happen. How could a global policing organisation with the reputation of Interpol be used for apparently political ends?
It was a question we were to hear frequently during the course of our research, meeting several individuals who said they had been unfairly targeted for extradition and arrest.
In Brussels, Bahar Kimyongur, an activist who has campaigned over human rights in Turkey, told us how an Interpol notice led to his detention in the Netherlands, Italy and Spain. Turkey had alleged Kimyongur had links with terrorism, but when European authorities investigated they concluded that the charges didn’t stack up. Nevertheless, it took sustained pressure before Interpol confirmed they’d deleted data about him from their systems. It also took a huge toll on his family, Kimyongur told us.
“Turkey had one single tool to crush me. It was Interpol,” he said.
For Nadejda Atayeva being on the Interpol wanted list led to a “terrible feeling of injustice”. Nadejda and her father Alim were accused of embezzlement after Alim spoke out against authorities in Uzbekistan – charges they dismiss as complete fiction.
They were granted asylum in France, but, Nadejda said, the alert restricted her ability to travel and to tell her story. Interpol confirmed data about her was no longer on their records in 2015.
Politically-motivated wanted alerts
An online trawl through Interpol’s Red Notices shows summaries of cases. But there is no requirement to make Red Notices public. In addition, we discovered another kind of alert circulated via Interpol data bases. These “diffusions” are described as “less formal” than Red Notices, and also used to request the arrest or location of an individual.
While the overwhelming majority of Interpol wanted alerts are clearly entirely legitimate, human rights groups have suggested those that may slip through the net pose a threat to Interpol’s requirement for political neutrality.
The UK-based NGO Fair Trials International is among those who have called on Interpol to introduce more rigorous checks, to ensure countries abide by Interpol’s rules which forbid any intervention in activities of a political nature.
“Interpol has been allowing itself to be used by oppressive regimes across the world to export the persecution of human rights defenders, journalists and political opponents,” said Jago Russell, Fair Trials’ chief executive. “It has to get used to saying no to member countries.”
During the course of our investigation, we not only heard stories about politically motivated wanted alerts, but frustration when it came to getting information out of Interpol.
US journalist and media consultant Michelle Betz described her struggle to find out about a Diffusion Notice. Along with other NGO staff, Betz was accused of operating illegally in Egypt in 2011.
The charges were condemned as politically motivated – but some workers were given jail sentences in absentia. Betz then heard Egypt had asked Interpol for a Diffusion Notice.
After months of attempting to contact Interpol directly, her lawyer got in touch with an organisation called the Commission for the Control of Interpol’s Files, (CCF) an independent body responsible for processing requests for access to information held by the organisation.
Things then took a strange turn. The commission informed her lawyer that they could contact Egypt about Betz’s Diffusion, but that “in the present case, the consultation of Egypt” was “not advisable”. Betz described her experience as “completely Kafkaesque”.
Following sustained pressure, the CCF eventually informed Betz that information about her had been deleted from Interpol’s files. But she was not alone in expressing frustration over the body, the CCF.
In Amsterdam, Azer Samadov told us how he was detained in 2009 at Schiphol airport on the basis of an Interpol alert. Samadov had been an anti-government activist in Azerbaijan.
When several members of his movement were arrested he fled the country and ended up in the Netherlands where he was granted refugee status. The Dutch authorities eventually apologised for arresting Samadov. His lawyer then tried to find out what information Interpol held about him, contacting the CCF.
Six years on, the legal firm heard that the Interpol alert had disappeared, but this information came not from Interpol but the Dutch authorities. We asked the lawyer what he made of the CCF. His response: “Completely ineffective. It’s a joke.”
Greater transparency and scrutiny of wanted alerts
Bali, Indonesia, last autumn, was the setting for Interpol’s 2016 General Assembly, a gathering of police chiefs from around the world. We went, too, in search of answers to the troubling matters we had uncovered.
Day three of the assembly was billed as the moment we might get responses to allegations over the misuse of Interpol’s systems. We were told delegates had approved measures Interpol maintained would “strengthen the integrity of Interpol’s information processing mechanisms”.
But Nina Vajic, the chairwoman of the Commission for the Control of Interpol’s Files, subsequently told us that while the changes could mean a more streamlined process in gaining information held by Interpol, the policing organisation would still rely on member countries to provide the data.
It seemed that at the heart of this, then, remained Interpol’s relations with its member states – an issue behind one of the questions we asked Interpol’s secretary-general, Jurgen Stock. Should Interpol name and shame the countries who were serial offenders when it came to abusive requests for wanted notices?
Stock said that if Interpol identified “non-compliance” with its rules, the organisation provided feedback to the member country. While such “non-compliance” with Interpol’s rules was “the exception rather than the rule”, Interpol took every case “very seriously”. Interpol had introduced a task force to review every request “even more intensively”.
As delegates departed from Bali, Interpol insisted measures agreed at their annual assembly would mean greater transparency and scrutiny of wanted alerts. Critics are now waiting to see whether that’s really going to happen.
The programme makers thank Dominic Brown for the use of footage from his documentary ‘The Road to Home’.