Interpol: a growing instrument of international repression?
The election as Interpol’s new president of General Ahmed Naser Al-Raisi, an alleged torturer from the United Arab Emirates, is just one of civil society’s growing concerns about the international police organisation. Authoritarian states with exiled activists are increasingly using Interpol’s red notice system – intended to extradite people accused of serious crimes – to drag dissidents home for detention and ill-treatment. Interpol should stop taking key decisions, including the election of its leaders, in secret and instead should open up to dialogue with civil society. It needs to make sure its systems are not being misused to suppress peaceful dissent.
Uighur rights activist Yidiresi Aishan should have been safe from China’s repressive reach in Morocco. He’d headed there from exile in Turkey, where he’d been arrested several times. But in July 2021, no sooner had his plane landed than he was arrested by the Moroccan police.
Aishan was the subject of an Interpol red notice, issued at the request of the government of China. Red notices are alerts issued to police authorities around the world, shared through the Interpol system, to arrest a suspect for extradition.
Although the red notice was subsequently withdrawn following extensive international criticism, the damage was done. In December, a Moroccan court upheld a decision to extradite Aishan to China. His fate there is easy to predict, given the Chinese government’s systematic and large-scale abuses against Uighur people and others living in Xinjiang region.
Aishan is certain to face a lengthy jail sentence and likely ill-treatment while in detention – just like Huseyincan Celil, a Uighur activist extradited from Uzbekistan to China under a red notice in 2006, who remains in jail to this day and has repeatedly complained of torture.
Autocrats abusing the system
And China is far from the only offender. Around the world, repressive states are abusing Interpol’s red notice system to go after dissidents abroad. Activists forced to flee their countries due to persecution risk being returned under international rules that were created to make it easier to catch the perpetrators of serious crimes. Repressive states need only brand dissidents as terrorists or accuse them of money laundering – something they routinely do.
States are committing criminal acts while branding exiled activists as criminals.
Authoritarian states are using red notices alongside other tactics of cross-border repression, including kidnapping and assassination: states are committing criminal acts while branding exiled activists as criminals.
The red notice system has supposedly been reformed to prevent such abuses, and a screening system is supposed to prevent the system being politically abused, but clearly something isn’t working. The motivations behind states’ demands often seem to go unexplored. Weeding out the obviously political requests can only be getting harder, as the number of red notices has steeply increased in recent years, climbing from 1,200 in 2000 to 13,516 by 2019; while the number fell to 11,094 in 2020, this likely reflected the impact of the pandemic on international movement rather than any moderation in abuses of the system.
In 2015, Interpol said it would no longer share red notices issued against asylum seekers and refugees. But people forced to flee their countries for expressing dissent are still getting caught by the system. Even if they are not extradited, the mere existence of a red notice can cause a state to turn down their asylum applications.
Russia, in the autocratic grip of Vladimir Putin, is well known for hunting down dissidents abroad. In December, a German court found a Russian assassin guilty of murdering a Berlin-based Chechen activist. Alongside these nefarious means, Russia is leading the way in abusing the Interpol system: it is responsible for 43 per cent of all publicly available red notices.
Belarus has got in on the act, as campaigners for democracy following the fraudulent election of President Alexander Lukashenko have been forced to flee to avoid lengthy jail sentences. The state stands accused of assassinating and kidnapping activists abroad. But it is also issuing red notices against key critics. In September, activist Makary Malachowski was detained in Poland after a red notice was issued.
Under the authoritarian thumb of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey is another extensive abuser of the red notice system. Turkey has jailed thousands of domestic critics of the regime in recent years while also issuing numerous notices against exiled activists.
Turkey hosted Interpol’s annual general assembly this November and used it as an opportunity to put further pressure on Interpol. Turkey’s interior minister said the government would use the event to persuade delegates and officials to step up their efforts to arrest and extradite Turkish dissidents in their countries.
It could not be clearer how a critical part of the global governance architecture – intended to promote international cooperation to solve problems that can’t be tackled by individual states alone – is instead being used to aid repression by authoritarian national leaders.
Ominously, Turkey’s neighbour Syria was readmitted to Interpol’s police communications network in October, giving it access to these same means to go after the many critics of President Bashar al-Assad’s blood-soaked regime, who form part of the world’s largest refugee population.
An alleged torturer takes charge
Turkey’s attempts to pressure Interpol weren’t the only grim thing about its November assembly. At the meeting, a Chinese official was elected to a key role. Hu Binchen, a senior figure in China’s Ministry of Public Security, was voted onto Interpol’s executive committee. The vote, in the teeth of an international campaign against, put one of the primary abusers of the red notice system at the heart of the organisation’s decision-making. The message for China’s exiled dissidents is clear: they can’t trust Interpol to protect them.
Even worse came in the choice of Interpol’s new president: General Ahmed Naser Al-Raisi, General Inspector of the Interior ministry of the United Arab Emirates (UAE). This is a country where civic space is closed and dissent is systematically suppressed – and Al-Raisi is a key and active agent of that repression.
Al-Raisi claimed the role despite facing several lawsuits alleging torture. One of these is from British academic Matthew Hedges, who was detained for almost six months in 2018 on spurious allegations of spying. Hedges has said he was tortured while in detention. Another is from a second British citizen, Ali Issa Ahmad, whose crime was to wear the football shirt of the UAE’s bitter enemy, Qatar, while on holiday. He reported being electrocuted, beaten and deprived of sleep while in detention.
The Gulf Centre for Human Rights has worked with lawyers to bring legal complaints against Al-Raisi in France, where Interpol is headquartered, and Turkey as the host of this year’s meeting. All in all, there are criminal complaints against Al-Raisi in five countries. None of these were enough to stop his election.
The votes that elected Hu and Al-Raisi were both held in secret, leaving no prospect of scrutiny over how Interpol’s 195 member states, represented by police chiefs and senior officials, voted. What can be said is that Al-Raisi lobbied heavily ahead of the vote, touring member countries and promising them financial support. He was strongly backed by his government, which a few years ago made an unprecedented donation of €50 million (approx. US$56.4 million) to Interpol’s charitable arm, the Interpol Foundation for a Safer World, which supports Interpol’s programmes in member countries. This reeked of elite wealth being used to buy influence in a poorly funded organisation.
Interpol’s president is not its executive; the organisation’s day-to-day business is in the hands of its Secretary-General. The president chairs the general assembly and executive committee. But the potential is surely there to use the role to influence these processes and bodies. Why else would the UAE government invest time and resources in ensuring that Al-Raisi won the job?
An urgent need for transparency
Civil society engages with the international system because we know there are problems that cross borders and that states alone can’t solve. But international institutions are vulnerable to capture by authoritarian states that are increasingly taking their repression transnational.
Part of the problem is the opaque nature of Interpol’s processes. Why are key officials being elected in secret votes? Voting decisions should be a matter of public record, giving civil society the opportunity to hold their governments and police chiefs to account for the choices they make.
Across the family of international organisations, civil society experiences an extraordinary variation in levels of access. Interpol is not an organisation that sees the need to listen to civil society: if that was not already clear, the choice of Al-Raisi to head it has made it abundantly so.
Policing is an area of increasing concern among civil society, not just when it comes to the safety of exiled activists, but also over issues such as the policing of protests and discriminatory policing. But rather than listen to civil society, Interpol is allowing itself to be used to target it.
Interpol has a growing credibility problem. The solution is clear: more light on opaque processes, more dialogue with civil society, more willingness to open up to public scrutiny. Interpol needs to prove it isn’t an agent of the authoritarian states that most enthusiastically use its resources. In a world of rights under attack, it needs to make clear which side it is on.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
Interpol should commit to opening itself up to and working in dialogue with civil society.
States should review and reform their extradition arrangements with authoritarian states that routinely abuse the red notice system.
Civil society should engage collectively to scrutinise and hold Al-Raisi to account on his actions.