Interpol has been left unnoticed, understaffed and stripped of all funds for the past few decades. Rarely does anyone speak of it, apart from the conspiracy theorists and some human rights activists. Sadly, lack of media coverage, governments’ interest and reforms have made this extremely useful organisation prone to the influences of the authoritarian governments from all around the world. The autocrats were fast to use it against their opponents. They use the loopholes in chapters 1 to 4 of the Interpol’s Rules on the Processing of Data. In particular, all countries are able to issue ‘Red Notices’, which call for an immediate extradition of a criminal. However, due to lack of staff, funds and unclear regulation Interpol employees cannot always block politically motivated requests. Moreover, the ‘diffusion’ system was originally created for the smaller cases, which don’t need to involve Interpol itself. A state is free to issue a ‘request’ for cooperation to the whole world. While this is a necessary tool to fight crime on the international level, authoritarian states also use it against their enemies. Many non-governmental organisations, such as Amnesty International or Reporters Without Borders urge all member states to tighten regulation but their attempts have remained predominantly futile. As a result, undemocratic governments use Interpol to hunt down activists, the free media and the opposition at home and abroad.
Authoritarian countries around the world skilfully use Interpol in order to undermine the work done by human rights activists. Unsurprisingly, Russia has mastered this technique. The Russian authorities have recently called for the extradition of Bill Bowder, a British activist, through ‘diffusion’. He was a hedge fund manager and employer of Sergei Magnitsky while in Moscow. Having seen Magnistky reveal a financial scandal involving top Kremlin officials, being arrested and brutally murdered in prison, Bowder started successfully campaigning to punish those who were responsible for his former employee’s death. Obviously, Putin’s cronies did everything to stop the activist; his family has been repeatedly threatened. Moreover, Russia has already called six times for Bowder’s arrest and extradition through Interpol’s ‘diffusion’ method.
Furthermore, the lawyer who defended Magnitsky has also been a subject to suspiciously similar death threats and arrest warrants. It is more than clear that the Russian authorities will use every possible tool, including Interpol to intimidate all the opponents of Putin and his cronies. The Kremlin is not alone in using Interpol to harass unwanted activists. Azerbaijan’s Ilham Aliyev has also exploited the loopholes in the measures regulating the work of Interpol. Leyla and Arif Yunus, a couple of human right activists were charged with ‘economic crimes’ in 2014. They were released from prison to seek medical help in the Netherlands, where they were granted refugee status in 2016. Nonetheless, Baku has recurrently asked for their extradition via the Interpol information system. In most of the cases, non-governmental organisations, such as Amnesty International intervened so that Interpol dropped the charges. These are only two, amongst many more cases where the international police are used by undemocratic governments to unlawfully prosecute human rights activists.
Journalists have become targets of prosecution even more frequently. Autocrats from all around the world have united and quickly learnt how to use Interpol against hostile media. Turkey has specialised in exploiting all of the means to obstruct the work of Erdogan’s opponents. Hamza Yalçin, a Swedish-Turkish journalist was arrested at an airport in Barcelona in 2017. He was charged with terrorism. PEN International urged the Swedish authorities and the EU not to let Mr Yalçin join 200 journalists arrested in Turkey in 2017. Similarly, Azerbaijan has harassed the journalists who dared not to support President Ilham Aliyev. Fikret Huseynli has been brutally beaten and cruelly intimidated multiple times. He was beaten and left to die in 2006 for his work at an independent newspaper. Miraculously, he recovered and fled to the Netherlands where he was granted refugee status and, later, citizenship.
Unfortunately, he was arrested in Kiev in 2017 under an Interpol red notice requested by Baku. The Ukrainian authorities freed him on bail and extended the investigation more than once in order to avoid his deportation. Finally, he was allowed to leave Ukraine in March 2018. However, had the friendly Ukrainian authorities not extended the inquiry, he would have most likely been sent back and disappeared in Azerbaijan. By the same token, Uzbekistan has used its membership of Interpol to bully independent journalists. Tashkent has requested an arrest of Narzullo Akhunzhonov while he was staying in Ukraine. However, no authoritarian government is as creative as the Syrian authorities in abusing international bodies for their own agenda. Zaina Erhaim, an award-winning journalist was stopped at Heathrow and prohibited from entering the UK in 2016. The reason behind this unfortunate incidence was the fact that Damascus had reported her passport stolen in the Interpol information system. As a result, her documents were perceived as invalid and she was unable to travel. It is, therefore, obvious that autocrats, dictators and warlords from around the world can easily use Interpol to fight their internal battles against the free media.
Unsurprisingly, the leaders of undemocratic countries have also used the international police to shame their opponents at home. Muhiddin Kabiri is the leader of the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan, which was banned based on allegations of staging a coup ‘d’état in 2015. Kabiri fled to Western Europe where he started rallying the moderate opposition against President Imomali Rakhmon. Accordingly, a red notice asking for Kabiri’s extradition to Tajikistan was issued in September 2016. Accordingly, Dushanbe has repeatedly used the arrest warrant on the opposition leader in its propaganda to present him as a criminal rather than a person fit to be a politician. Thankfully, Interpol removed the red noticed in March 2018. Sadly, 40 other Tajik politicians are still sought by Interpol. Similarly, Erdogan’s Turkey also uses Interpol against opposition leaders, especially when they represent the Kurdish minority. Can Dündar, a renowned Turkish activist has been responsible for popularising the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’. He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2017. Suspiciously, Ankara asked Interpol for his extradition a day after the nomination. As a result, while Dündar is a hero for many Kurds, from the legal point of view he has become a criminal. Obviously, the Turkish authorities use it in order to destroy his political career. Together with many more, these two cases show that it is painfully easy for the authoritarian leaders to harm their opposition with the help of Interpol.
As a result, it has become clear that Interpol cannot be fully trusted. Even though it is an organisation with a just mission, autocrats from all around the world can influence it. Of course, it is rarely used to permanently jail any political opponents. However, Interpol gives countries like Russia, Turkey, Uzbekistan or Tajikistan an opportunity to intimidate independent journalists, activists and politicians. The task to reform the international police is extremely difficult. The organisation largely depends on the goodwill of its member states in the fight against organised crime, drug cartels, weapon trafficking and other illegal activities. Consequently, every move curbing the rights of the member states means that more criminals might end up free. Is it possible to solve the problem? Yes. But, in order to cure Interpol, we ought to stop believing that there will be an easy solution. Neither isolationism, populist measures, nor expelling the autocrats will help it become a better organisation.