Interpol open to abuse by 'criminal states'
When Petr Silaev, a Russian journalist, got political asylum in Finland in April 2012 after escaping a crackdown in his home country, he felt safe and began a new life.
But in August the same year, he found himself handcuffed and shoved face-down on the floor of a police car on a seven-hour trip from Granada, Spain, where he went on holiday, to a detention centre in Madrid, where he risked extradition.
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"The Spanish police treated me in a mind-breaking way … They kept saying: 'You'll be deported.' They kept abusing me, saying: 'You're a Russian terrorist'," he told EUobserver.
When Ales Mihalevic, an opposition candidate in Belarus' presidential elections in 2010, fled his home country, he found himself, in July 2011, detained by Polish airport police and risking a similar fate.
The link in both cases was Interpol, the international police body, based in Lyon, France.
Belarus and Russia had filed requests for their capture using Interpol systems and two of Interpol's 190 fellow member states, Spain and Poland, took action.
Mihalevic and Silaev are not freak examples.
In January last year, Russia said that Eerik Kross, an Estonian politician and a former director of Estonia's intelligence service, is an internationally wanted man because it is filing an Interpol alert.
Kross is a known adversary of the Kremlin.
He was a leading proponent of Estonia's Nato membership. In the 2008 Georgia-Russia war, he helped Georgia to fight against Russian cyber attacks.
But Russia used the long arm of Interpol to try to grab him on different claims.
It filed the request for a "red notice" saying Kross masterminded the hijack of a Russian ship, the Arctic Sea, in Swedish waters in 2009, a claim which Kross calls "idiotic." It did so on grounds that a witness in an Arctic Sea trial mentioned his name.
In May this year, and again in July, Russia also asked Interpol members to hand over Bill Browder.
It said the British-based businessman committed fraud in Russia in 1997.
It did not mention that Browder has for three years battled for EU and US sanctions against a group of Russian officials on evidence they murdered Sergei Magnitsky, his former employee, a Russian auditor who exposed high-level corruption.
Belarus and Russia did not get their way.
Spanish police let Silaev go after 10 days. Polish police let Mihalevic go after 12-or-so hours.
Interpol, after some deliberation, denied Russia's request for a notice on Kross.
It deleted the Browder notice in a matter of days and published statements shaming Russia on violating article three of its charter, which forbids alerts for political motives.
Unlike the EU's joint police agency, Europol, in The Hague, which also helps national police chase suspects, Interpol is a unique body with no independent administrative, judicial or parliamentary oversight.
It told EUobserver in a statement that its internal safeguards "prevent inappropriate use of its channels."
It said its general secretariat has "a comprehensive legal framework" for weeding out abuse.
It explained that "each notice request sent by a member country is examined by the general secretariat prior to publication. If found non-compliant the notice will not be published … If information about a possible or potential non-compliant request is brought to the attention of the general secretariat at a later stage, the notice … will be re-examined."
It also said people can appeal to its Commission for the Control of Interpol's Files (CCF).
It added "the clear majority" - 85 percent - of complaints to the CCF "relate to ordinary-law cases" not political issues.
Apart from red notices, Interpol members can file other alerts, including "diffusions."
Diffusions can also prompt arrests and deportations.
They bypass safeguards because member states' police use Interpol's IT network, the "i-link," to post them directly to each other's national systems or put them on Interpol's servers so that national police can see the files.
But Interpol said: "Where the information was circulated directly … if the information is found to be non-compliant all recipient countries are informed of that conclusion and the information is removed from Interpol's databases."
The 'little man'
If you are innocent, getting off the hook is not easy, however.
Browder, Kross, Mihalevic and Silaev say they got special treatment because they have public profiles or friends in politics and media.
Normally, the CCF - a group of five people, including three data protection experts from Canada, Ireland and Mauritius, a French academic and a Jordanian police chief - takes several months to make up its mind and does not give reasons for its decisions.
For his part, Kross told this website he is worried about the rights of average people.
"What about the 'little man,' who is accused in some show trial? There is a high risk he gets stopped at the border just not knowing that Interpol has been notified," he said.
Browder and Mihalevic added that they know of "many" political Interpol alerts filed by authoritarian regimes.
Despite the Spanish police's nasty language, Silaev and Mihalevic were confident EU countries would treat them justly.
But Mihalevic noted that if he had been stopped by an Interpol member with a weaker judicial system than Poland, such as Turkey or Ukraine, he might now be in a Belarusian jail.
Meanwhile, even if Interpol deletes a notice or a diffusion, it does not mean you can travel with peace of mind.
Some national police forces keep alerts in local systems after Interpol tells them the alert is bogus.
"I know from my private contacts that I am still on the databases of several countries … So, as a result, I don't travel outside of Schengen [the EU's passport-free zone]," Mihalevic said.
Andrei Abozau, a Belarusian opposition activist living in exile in Estonia, told EUobserver of two other cases of Belarusian dissidents, Dmitry Pimenov and Igor Koktysh, who were arrested in EU countries on Interpol alerts.
"Every time, when I get on a plane, I'm afraid not to return to my family and to be extradited to Belarus," Abozau said.
Kross noted that ever since Russia filed its Interpol request, he cannot get a visa to the US to visit his wife.
"It's bizarre … Once you are on a no-fly list, it's very hard to get off," he said.
He does not know if his US ban is linked to Interpol, but he noted that if it is, "it means Russia can dictate who travels to America."
Fair Trials International, a London-based NGO, has held meetings with Interpol to call for reforms.
Its director, Jago Russell, told this website that if Interpol had political specialists, for example Russia specialists, in its general secretariat, it would have known at first glance that someone like Silaev is not a dangerous criminal.
The NGO wants the CCF to act more quickly and more transparently.
It also says Interpol should recognise just how much power it has.
"Even though Interpol's actions can have a massive impact on people's lives, there is no court, no higher authority you can appeal to. This gives Interpol massive responsibility to get things right," Russell said.
Dining with the devil
Aside from fixing bugs in the system, there is a broader question of how Interpol should conduct relations with member states which are human rights pariahs.
Interpol's secretary general, Ron Noble, meets frightening people in the name of police co-operation.
In June this year, he met, in Ashgabat, with Isgender Mulikov, the interior minister of Turkmenistan, one of the world's most repressive states.
In August last year, he met in Lyon with Igor Shunevich, the interior minister of Belarus, to talk about, in Interpol's words, "security surrounding the ice hockey world championship" in Minsk in 2014.
Shunevich is a former officer in Belarus' security service, the KGB, who is accused of personal involvement in the 2010 post-election crackdown.
In May 2011, Noble met in Minsk with Shunevich's predecessor, Anatol Kulyashov, who is on an EU blacklist.
He congratulated Kulyashov for his "professionalism" in having "solved" the case of a bombing on the Minsk metro, even though the trial of the two suspects, who were later executed, had not yet taken place.
The "professionalism" of Belarus police is open to question.
EUobserver saw video footage taken in a police station in Grodno, western Belarus, in 2012, that indicates what its policemen do on a day-to-day basis.
The 46-second clip shows a young woman, who asked not to be named, crouching naked in the corner of a cell, while a group of police officers joke about raping her.
She had been arrested after helping a drunk in the street, but refused to sign papers saying she was guilty of public disorder.
Another 27-second clip, taken at her home, shows bruises on her thighs from a police beating.
"The Belarusian authorities are, de facto, a criminal syndicate, who make money by smuggling, corruption and corporate raiding. To talk about co-operation with Belarus on fighting crime, is like talking about co-operation with bees on fighting against honey," Abozau said.
"Interpol has become an accomplice to the crimes of the Belarusian authorities and it seriously bothers me," he added.
Noble also met with Russia's interior minister, Vladimir Kolokoltsev, in Moscow in March this year.
For Browder, Kolokoltsev works for a regime that is no better than Belarus.
"Russia is clearly a criminal state ... When someone points it out, the Russian authorities either kill them, as in the Magnitsky case, or try to arrest them using Interpol, as in my case," he said.
"There is an epidemic of misuse of notices from Russia for political and criminal reasons," he added.
Estonia's Kross said Russia's abuse of Interpol is almost comical.
"They filed their request for my red notice on 8 August 2012 [the fourth anniversary of the Georgia-Russia war]. It was clearly a symbolic act," he said.
"They routinely put information into the Interpol system just to see what happens. It's like putting in a computer virus," he added.
Complaints that Interpol is cozy with regimes that have egregious human rights records are not new.
The police body, created in 1923, has been fielding criticism since at least the early 1990s.
It told EUobserver it is facing "a concerted effort on the part of groups and law firms whose clients are the target of Interpol red notices to argue that more and more cases are political."
It said it has "corrective measures" that it can apply to problematic member states "under certain conditions," but it prefers to offer "training" and "discussions."
It added: "To this day, there has been no case where a member country was found to 'systematically' use Interpol's channels inappropriately."
Neither victims, such as Mihalevic, or watchdogs, such as Fair Trials, say countries should be kicked out of Interpol.
Fair Trials' Russell said exclusion risks creating "black holes" for real criminals to hide in.
But he warned the high number of abusive alerts is harming Interpol's reputation and beginning to undermine its work.
"You can see why Interpol wants to involve as many countries as it can in its system. But if your membership includes countries that are notoriously corrupt and abusive of human rights, you have to take particular care when you are giving your stamp of approval to information they give you," he said.
"Countries would take red notices more seriously if they knew they were not open to abuse," he added.
Browder and Kross also say Russia should stay in Interpol.
But Kross noted: "I would consider a temporary ban on any co-operation with a country like this."
Browder said: "Nobody would allow the Cali drug cartel [in Colombia] to be a member of Interpol. Why should the Russian federation, which has been proven to be involved in just as heinous crimes, have full access to such an important crime fighting system?"
"There is a desperate need to come up with a way of dealing with rogue regimes who are members of Interpol," he noted.
"If a state has shown a clear pattern of abuse of Interpol systems, Interpol already has a mechanism for suspending or terminating access to its global databases. That mechanism should put to use as a matter of urgency," he said.
Correction: The original story said Interpol published a red notice on Kross on a Russian request. In fact, it declined to do so. This story was amended at 2.30pm Brussels time on 29 August