21st Mar 2018


EU should act on political abuse of Interpol

  • The EU's draft law on data privacy should pay attention to Interpol abuse (Photo: Swift)

Last week, British businessman Bill Browder spoke at the Oslo Freedom Forum about his successful campaign to have the US legislature impose asset freezes and travel bans on Russian officials connected to the death of his former accountant, Sergei Magnitsky.

It may be more difficult for him to travel to attend other similar events following reports that Russian authorities, angered by his campaign, are now pursuing him through Interpol, the international police co-operation organisation.

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He was almost forced to cancel a trip to a seminar in Germany next week, until the German justice minister intervened personally to guarantee him safe passage.

Sadly, this is not a unique case of abuse of Interpol’s systems.

This week, for example, Fair Trials International highlighted the case of Petr Silaev, a young Russian activist who participated in a demonstration against a controversial motorway development in the Khimki forest near Moscow.

Silaev was one of many activists targeted in a widespread police crackdown following the demonstration and fled to the European Union, where he was granted political asylum by Finland.

Despite this, late last year he was arrested and detained in Spain after Moscow investigators used Interpol’s systems to seek his arrest on a charge of "hooliganism" - the same offence used to imprison the Russian punk band Pussy Riot.

Fortunately, after the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and German Green MEP Barbara Lochbihler intervened on his behalf, Spain threw out Russia’s extradition request.

It also recognised, like the Finnish asylum authority before it, that he was the victim of a politically-motivated persecution.

But all the same, Silaev knows that his personal information has been circulated to police throughout the European Union and he cannot rule out a repeat of this experience if he travels.

Nor is the problem restricted to Russia.

Last year, Interpol admitted that its systems had been abused by Indonesia, which had sought and obtained a "red notice" designating Benny Wenda - the leader of the movement for the independence of West Papua, who has now been recognised as refugee by the United Kingdom - as a "wanted person."

The notice appeared on Interpol’s website with a photo, tarnishing the image of both Benny himself and the movement he represents.

Towards reform

That prosecutors in countries such as Belarus, Iran, Venezuela and Indonesia should seek to abuse Interpol’s networks is perhaps unsurprising given the regular political abuses of justice prevalent in those countries.

What is more concerning is Interpol’s failure to put in place effective mechanisms to detect and prevent these abuses.

The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe has highlighted this problem, expressing its "concern about abuse of the red notice system by states whose judicial systems do not meet international standards."

The European Union should follow suit and support Interpol in developing better safeguards.

As British centre-right MEP Charles Tannock MEP recently said, "something must be done" to combat political abuses.

With the recent publication of the EU’s draft new data protection laws, guaranteeing citizens' rights to access their personal data and the "right to be forgotten" from corporate databases, the European Union ought to be particularly concerned about Interpol, which is based in France, allowing countries to use its networks to circulate information on wanted persons across the globe without its prior approval.

The case of Alaksiey Michalevic, the Belarusian opposition politician recognised as a refugee by the Czech Republic, also highlights the dangers of this.

Despite Interpol refusing Belarus' request for a "red notice" against him, he was nevertheless detained at Warsaw airport - leading Poland, embarrassed following the incident, to call for reform of Interpol.

Fair Trials International has asked Interpol to clarify how Michalevic's personal data found its way onto Polish computers against Interpol’s wishes but has, as yet, received no response.

Having discussed these issues with Interpol, and worked now on numerous cases of journalists, campaigners and human rights defenders who have come to us for help challenging wanted person alerts, Fair Trials International believes that Interpol needs to be reformed.

Simple changes could help tackle abuses and enhance Interpol’s effectiveness as a crime-fighting instrument.

Absent these reforms, Interpol’s credibility risks being repeatedly undermined by states who do not respect the rights which it has committed to uphold.

The writer is a law reform officer at Fair Trials International, a British-based NGO concerned with global criminal justice

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