The United Kingdom will rely more on Interpol Alerts if they leave the European Union without a deal, which a 2019 Study commissioned by the European Parliament found to be lacking in legal safeguards and accountability mechanisms.
Interpol, the international police organization, is a necessary tool for trans-border police cooperation for terrorism and organized crime investigations. For example, last month, one of Britain’s most wanted, Shane O’Brien, was detained in Romania on an Interpol Alert after years on the run following an unprovoked knife attack in London in 2015. Interpol Alerts, however, also grab the headlines when prominent individuals are arrested for political purposes, that demonstrate wider systemic and transparency issues that impact human rights and need greater attention.
Interpol allows its 194 member states to make worldwide requests to arrest through an Alert system. Two important Interpol Alerts are Red Notices and Diffusions. On the last available open source data, there are more than 50.000 Red Notices and more than 85.000 Diffusions in circulation.
Interpol has done much to reform its rules and practices since 2015 to prevent Interpol Alerts being misused by countries persecuting political opponents, human rights activists and critical journalists. For example, Interpol adopted a new refugee policy in 2015 to enable the deletion of a Red Notice if the individual is a refugee under the 1951 Refugee Convention. It is widely recognised by Inter-Governmental Organisations and Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) that this reform has bolstered Interpol’s efforts to ensure that refugee status is respected.
Nevertheless, NGOs, such as Fair Trials, the Stockholm Freedom Center, Human Rights Watch and the Open Dialog Foundation, continue to report abuses. One example the European Parliament Study highlighted, was German-Turkish writer Dogan Akhanli, arrested in 2017 on the basis of a Red Notice in Spain. Dogan had fled Turkey in 1991 to live in Germany and wrote about the killing of Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink in 2007, and the killing of Armenians by Ottoman Turks in 1915. Turkey charged Akhanli in his absence with an armed robbery dating from 1989. After he was acquitted in 2011 the Turkish Supreme Court of Appeals overturned his acquittal and a Red Notice was issued. It was only two weeks after his arrest in Spain in 2017 that Interpol removed the Red Notice and Akhanli was released. German chancellor Angela Merkel denounced the abuse of Interpol, at the time, stating, “It is not right and I’m very glad that Spain has now released him. We must not misuse international organisations like Interpol for such purposes.”
The Interpol General Secretariat established the Notices and Diffusion Task Force (NDTF) in 2016 to address this type of abuse. The NDTF vets all Red Notices before issue to all Interpol member states and also reviews extant Notices, to ensure they do not violate human rights and are not politically motivated. The NDTF, made up of approximately 30-40 lawyers and police officers, operates by checking information provided by the Interpol point of contact in a member state’s police force – known as a National Central Bureau (NCB).
In 2017, more than 13.000 new Red Notices were issued. This number of Red Notices places the NDTF under demonstrable pressure to properly review all available information and to balance the rights of the individual with crime control.
Significantly, it remains unclear what sources of information the NDTF checks to verify information provided by NCBs requesting a Red Notice. For example, how does the NDTF determine if individuals could be subjected to ill treatment if extradited, confirm the refugee status of an individual who is unaware a Red Notice has been issued and if the alleged crime is supported by credible and reliable evidence? We simply do not know the answers to these critical questions about the review process and this is indicative of a lack of transparency of the processing of Interpol Alerts.
Resource and transparency implications for the NDTF were highlighted again following the arrest and subsequent release of professional footballer Hakeem al-Araibi. The footballer was granted asylum in Australia in 2014 after he fled Bahrain fearing torture for being an outspoken critic of the Royal Family. The former Bahraini national team player was arrested in November 2018 while on his honeymoon in Bangkok following a Red Notice issued by Bahrain for a 2014 sentence in absentia of 10 years in prison for vandalising a police station – a crime al-Araibi has consistently denied. Applying Interpol’s 2015 refugee policy, the Red Notice should not have been issued and if reviewed by the NDTF deleted from its databases. However, it was only after Bahrain withdrew its extradition request that al-Araibi was released, after spending more than two months in an over crowded Thai prison.
The European Parliament Study also raised the problem of misuse of Interpol Diffusions. A Diffusion is a less formal Interpol Alert than a Red Notice and has risen in use by over 40% between 2010 and the last available data in 2016. A Diffusion is more akin to an email that can be sent to selected member states through Interpol channels to request the arrest or location of a wanted person, before vetting by the NDTF. At the same time as sending to selected member states’ contact points the Diffusion is recorded on Interpol’s database and will not be visible to other member states until after vetting.
The challenge remains that, even after an unspecified time the NDTF recommend the Diffusion is deleted by those member states who have received it, the information may already have been shared with other law enforcement agencies around the world and copied to their national databases. At this stage, Interpol can request deletion or correction on its own systems, but has no power to enforce the deletion of a Diffusion that has already been copied to national databases. This means someone could be arrested on the basis of a wanted persons Diffusion that is politically motivated or violates human rights and Interpol has no mechanism to address this until after the arrest. For example, in the well-known case of Bill Browder, Interpol has stated that it has not issued a Red Notice for him, despite Russia’s repeated requests. It appears this has not stopped Russia sharing information which most recently led to his arrest in Spain in May 2018. The suggestion has been made by Fair Trials that Bill Browder’s arrest was made possible through the use of Diffusions.
Interpol does have a mechanism to suspend or monitor a member state for non-compliance of its rules, but has not publicly used such measures since 2015, despite a pattern of abuse highlighted in the European Parliament Study and by NGOs by Turkey, Kazakhstan and Russia since this date.
Interpol has a responsibility to ensure the data shared for effective cross-border policing is not used for political purposes and does not violate human rights. If this means suspending member states pending corrective measures or even removing their membership status, this must be done to stop the growing trend of misuse of Interpol Alerts. Whilst the Interpol reforms are welcomed, more must be done to ensure Diffusions are vetted by Interpol before sharing between member states and individuals have their data deleted or corrected expeditiously.
Authors: Dr. Rasmus H WANDALL, Research Fellow, University of Lund & Director, Wandall Kopenhagen, Denmark and Dan SUTER, Director, iJust, United Kingdom
The opinions in this article are the authors’ own and not those of any other organisation