Russia, Other Autocracies Are Abusing Interpol Arrest Warrant System to Target Opponents, Critics Say

Patrick Goodenough | April 28, 2017 | 2:01am EDT
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( – European lawmakers expressed concern this week that autocratic governments abuse the Interpol “red notice” system to target political opponents and dissidents, with Russia in particular named as a major culprit.

Meeting in Strasbourg, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) voted unanimously for a resolution urging steps to minimize misuse of the system.

Lawmakers agreed that Interpol’s work in the fight against transnational crime and terrorism, was critical, but said too often the international policing body’s systems were being misused by autocratic governments.

A red notice, the closest tool Interpol has to an international arrest warrant, is “intended to help police identify or locate these individuals with a view to their arrest and extradition.”

In recent years the number of red notices issued has soared – from 2,343 in 2005, to 6,344 in 2010 – and up to 12,787 in 2016.

Interpol’s constitution states that it is “strictly prohibited for Interpol to undertake any intervention or activities of a political, military, religious or racial character.”

But a report before PACE said that in recent years “there have been numerous alleged cases of abuse of the red notice system by some member states in the pursuit of political objectives, repressing the freedom of expression or persecuting members of the political opposition beyond their borders.”

Russia was cited frequently as an offender, although others named include Iran, China, Turkey, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan.

“Russia in particular is systematically abusing the Interpol system against its political opponents, both domestic and foreign,” said Eerik-Niiles Kross, a lawmaker from Estonia.

He argued that Russia’s abuse of the system was part of a broader pattern of “hybrid threats,” which he said included cyber-threats, foreign election hacking, fabrication of news stories, and efforts to discredit via leaking illegal recordings.

“We should all stop for a second and think about that,” Kross said. “Has Interpol allowed itself to become a tool of Russian hybrid warfare against liberal values and a tool for violating human rights?”

The Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly (PACE), representing 47 member states of the Council of Europe, meets four times a year in Strasbourg. (Photo: Council of Europe)

‘Above the law’

British delegate John Howell said the misuse of a red notice could result in the detention or arrest of an individual, travel restrictions and reputational harm.

He cited as a major problem the fact that the subject of a red notice has no power to challenge it before their own national or international courts.

“The rights that gives Interpol to be above the law is quite considerable and places people who have been targeted politically at a disadvantage,” Howell said.

Examples of abuse discussed in the report and the parliamentary session include:

--Mukhtar Ablyazov, a former cabinet minister in Kazakhstan and opponent of the president who was granted political asylum in Britain in 2011. He was subjected to red notices requested by Kazakhstan and Russia, arrested in France in 2013 and spent more than three years incarcerated there until judicial authorities last December decided he should not be extradited.

--Nikita Kulashenkov, a Russian anti-corruption campaigner granted refugee status in Lithuania but detained in Cyprus in early 2016 on the strength of a red notice issued by Moscow. Intervention from Lithuania prevented his extradition and secured his release.

--Mehdi Khosravi, an Iranian who fled his country after a crackdown on political protests in 2009 and was granted asylum in Britain. He was arrested in Italy last summer but later released after international criticism.

--Dolkun Isa, a Uighur activist granted asylum in Germany but subject since 2003 to a red notice requested by Beijing that has on occasion caused serious travel difficulties.

Interpol late last year issued new guidelines on red notice use, and the resolution passed by PACE called on the organization to continue improving procedures, while allowing stronger recourse measures for affected individuals.

It said red notices should only be circulated by Interpol when there are “serious grounds for suspicion against the targeted person,” and that European governments should refuse to carry out arrests based on red notices if they have serious concerns about abuse.

Iran’s alleged misuse of the red notice system is ironic, given that Iran has itself claimed to be a victim of politically-motivated arrest notice requests.

In 2006, Argentinian investigators accused eight senior Iranians and a Lebanese national of involvement in the 1994 suicide truck bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, in which 85 people were killed.

Argentina requested red notices be issued for the nine suspects. Interpol on legal advice declined to do so in three of the cases – the late former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, former foreign minister Ali Akbar Velayati, and former Iranian ambassador to Argentina Hadi Soleimanpour.

However, it did issue red notices for the remaining men – Lebanese Hezbollah terrorist chief Imad Mughniyah, former Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps chief Mohsen Rezai, former intelligence chief Ali Fallahijan, former commander of an IRGC Quds Force special operations unit Ahmad Vahidi, and two officials based at Iran’s embassy in Buenos Aires, Mohsen Rabbani and Ahmad Reza Asghari.

Mughniyah was killed in a bomb blast in Damascus in 2008, but the five Iranians are still at large.

PACE is a body of lawmakers from national parliaments of the 47 member states of the Council of Europe, a grouping formed in the aftermath of World War II and distinct from the European Union. The assembly, which meets four times a year in Strasbourg, describes itself “the democratic conscience of Greater Europe.”

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