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Weaponizing the Police: Authoritarian Abuse of Interpol

Weaponizing the Police: Authoritarian Abuse of Interpol

. 8 min read

In January 2019, National Basketball Association (NBA) player Enes Kanter Freedom became an international fugitive. Freedom, then playing for the New York Knicks, had been served through Interpol, the international police organization, with a Red Notice, an instrument similar to an international arrest warrant. The government of Freedom’s native Turkey had cited him on bogus charges of terrorism in an attempt to target a well-known critic of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s authoritarian style of rule. Freedom was immunized on American soil, but leaving the country, even to play in Canada, posed the real danger of arrest and extradition to Turkey, where he would be tried and likely imprisoned.

Freedom was lucky enough to evade extradition and become a US citizen in 2021. But Interpol’s Red Notice system, which was used by Turkey to demand Freedom’s arrest by foreign authorities, remains ripe for exploitation by authoritarian countries, many of whom employ Interpol’s long arm as a critical tool in suppressing dissent across the globe. Broadly speaking, the abuse of Interpol’s cooperative policing mechanism is a worrying case study in a broader effort by autocrats to capture international institutions and weaponize them against global democracy.

What is Interpol?

The common portrayal of Interpol in pop culture, particularly in films such as Muppets Most Wanted and Now You See Me that feature daring Interpol agents tracking down criminals across international borders, is divorced from reality. In fact, there is no such thing as an “Interpol agent,” and Interpol is not even a police force. Instead, Interpol, according to its own constitution, drafted in 1956 by dozens of countries spanning the globe, aims to “ensure and promote the widest possible mutual assistance between all criminal police authorities.”

Interpol, then, is less a police agency than an instrument of cooperative policing: it streamlines information sharing to enable collaboration in crime-fighting across borders. Interpol operates a central criminal database used by police forces in 195 different member countries and serves as a platform for member states to issue non-binding arrest warrants, or “notices,” requesting the detention of wanted fugitives.

At first glance, Interpol is a powerful force for the global good. In a world where police jurisdiction is fragmented across national boundaries and crime is becoming more and more globalized, Interpol can indeed be an essential tool for coordinating law enforcement against organized crime, drug and human trafficking, war crimes, and terrorism.

Interpol’s robust information-sharing apparatus has aided in rescuing kidnapped children in Thailand, interdicting illegal wildlife trafficking in Africa, and capturing terrorists in the Mediterranean. Interpol has been most helpful in the fight against transnational criminal activity that occurs in the murky waters between different countries’ spheres of jurisdiction, necessitating cooperative approaches.

Interpol streamlines international law enforcement, often for the good of the world. But the organization’s dark underbelly—the oft-unaccountable use of the Red Notice system to disseminate arrest warrants across the globe—has transformed it into the autocrat’s sniper rifle, a precise, long-range weapon used by dictators to criminalize dissent beyond their shores.

Warrants as Weapons: Red Notice Abuse

When Turkey targeted Enes Kanter Freedom with a Red Notice, it was hardly breaking new ground. In recent years, dubious Red Notices have been issued by authoritarian regimes against high-profile dissidents. Those targeted through Interpol include Bill Browder, a formerly Russia-based financier turned critic of Vladimir Putin and anti-corruption advocate; Benny Wenda, an Indonesian activist and refugee; Eerik-Niiles Kross, an Estonian politician critical of Russian interference in Eastern Europe; Hakeem Al-Araibi, a Bahraini soccer player and refugee living in Australia; Nikita Kulachenkov, an investigative accountant employed by Russian opposition; Yidiresi Aishan, an exiled Uyghur activist who has spoken out against the Chinese government; Doğan Akhanlı, a Turkish human rights activist; and many, many more.

Many of these high-profile dissidents were quickly released upon public outcry and the intervention of lawyers. But, even if the detention itself is short-lived, the human costs of Interpol abuse can be substantial. Red Notices often have severe consequences for their subjects’ freedoms, livelihoods, and peace of mind. Ilya Katsnelson was detained for two months without trial, leaving behind a toddler son. Rachel Baines was fired from her job as a flight attendant after being served with a Red Notice for a bounced check. Magda Osipova cannot visit her family in the United States because an active Red Notice precludes her from obtaining a visa.

Other victims of Red Notice abuses have suffered the indignity of being labeled a criminal or terrorist in the media and struggled to open a bank account or travel internationally without the risk of arrest. An active Red Notice issued by the persecuting country can doom a dissident’s application for political asylum in the United States. Most insidiously, targets of Red Notices must live with the constant fear that an accident of fate could land them back in an authoritarian country to be imprisoned.

Increasing Red Notices; Decreasing Accountability

How has Interpol—a century-old international institution founded by democracies and bound by a constitution explicitly barring its abuse for political ends—become such a potent tool for authoritarians? The answer is twofold. First, flaws in Interpol’s institutional framework—accountability gaps that place the bar for Red Notice issuance on the proverbial floor—have not been addressed. Secondly, autocrats have increasingly exploited membership in international institutions to manipulate those institutions for their own ends, and Interpol, where authoritarian countries enjoy equal standing as members, has been no exception.

Red Notices are, on face, ripe for abuse. So are diffusions, similar but less well-known instruments that allow a country to directly send requests for arrest to another country. Diffusions may be more vulnerable to authoritarian exploitation because their country-to-country transmission is subject to a lower standard of review than even Red Notices. Given these risks and their deleterious effects, one might reasonably expect Interpol’s central authorities to regulate these tools carefully.

In reality, however, Interpol has moved sharply in the opposite direction. With the stated goal of speeding up information dissemination, Interpol’s governing authorities in 2009 implemented the I-Link program, which allowed countries to publish Red Notices instantaneously without human review of the basis for the warrant. I-Link’s enactment led to an explosion in the number of annual Red Notices and—according to a study of the rate of Red Notice rejection, a proxy for non-compliant notices—a comparatively larger increase in the number of improper, politically-motivated Red Notices. The 5 percent of Red Notices rejected annually adds up to hundreds of dubious warrants issued each year.

Even as Interpol has taken steps to clamp down on abuse, including rolling back the expedited, unreviewed I-Link mechanism, the number of Red Notices has continued to climb: there were far more active notices and higher rates of new notices issued in 2021 compared to 2011. The number of diffusions is far higher as well. Russia, Interpol’s most notorious political abuser, issues a remarkable 38 percent of Red Notices despite having less than half the population of the United States, which is responsible for just 4.3 percent.

Exploiting Institutional Flaws

Red Notice abuse has proven highly intractable. The current policy of reviewing all Red Notices before publication to ensure they are based on sufficient information and not motivated by politics has the goal of cracking down on exploitation. But this policy has not stopped large numbers of high-profile, improper warrants from slipping through the cracks. Interpol often rubber stamps dubious Red Notices applications, underscoring the reality that Interpol’s approval process is nothing more than what James Madison called a “parchment barrier.”

Ted Bromund, a scholar of Euro-American relations, points out that Red Notices are based on “nothing more than the word of the government that made the charge.” Interpol lacks access to the detailed information warranting a Red Notice—there is no requirement that the issuing country share with Interpol the court order that the Red Notice is presumed to be based upon—so the burden for a member to issue a Red Notice is functionally just to do its paperwork. In marginal cases, Interpol’s law enforcement-driven culture often induces its employees to give the benefit of the doubt to the police agency issuing the Red Notice over the potential victim of abuse.

Finally, the review task force remains understaffed, overworked, and inexperienced. Applications for a Red Notice often allege complex criminal offenses involving corruption or terrorism, creating an opportunity for wily autocrats to obfuscate the difference between valid accusations of complex criminal activity and bogus charges dressed up to look legitimate. It is quite easy for an authoritarian country—where the interests of the executive, the judiciary, and the law enforcement agencies are fused—to invent out of whole cloth a justification for a Red Notice that is compelling enough to pass muster. And a simultaneously unclear and overly permissive burden of proof makes Red Notices both easy to issue and, once issued, extremely difficult for a target to appeal.

Hope for Reform?

In light of Interpol’s myriad institutional flaws and the failures of past reforms that tinker with the review process, many advocates have become vocal about more structural reforms. Prospective bills already exist in the United States Congress, including the TRAP Act, a proposed law cracking down on abusers of Interpol and requiring heightened transparency in Interpol’s processes. But these laws are low on the agenda and have been watered down. Many critics argue that, because they fail to change the fundamental process by which an authoritarian country can issue a dubious Red Notice, these bills fail to go far enough to remedy abuse.

Another school of thought surrounding Interpol reform proposes creating a two-tiered system of membership. This reform would require Interpol to acknowledge that some authoritarian members are frequent abusers of its system and condition membership on a country’s adherence to the rule of law. At the very least, a reform could require heightened scrutiny on Red Notice applications from countries known to abuse the process.

None of these reforms are on the immediate horizon. In the United States Congress and in other Western legislative bodies, awareness of the issue is too low to create any sense of urgency around reforming Interpol, especially in light of other, more pressing items on the legislative agenda. But Interpol has shown a willingness to update its procedures in response to concerns about abuse, and democratic member states such as the United States and United Kingdom seem to recognize some of the deep flaws in Interpol, even if structural reform is low on the political agenda. If autocratic Interpol members can be more effectively restrained—or expelled—Interpol may yet live up to its potential as a critical weapon against transnational crime and avoid becoming just another weapon of repressive regimes.

Autocracy’s Long Arm

Interpol abuse is not problematic simply in terms of its human costs, however substantial they may be. Targeting dissidents with Red Notices is a clear affront to democracy, an effort to increase the “costs of dissent” that shuts down advocacy in support of democracy and human rights. If dissenters fear the disruption and danger potentially created by a Red Notice, they may be less likely to speak their minds.

To prevent the strengthening of opposition at home, countries like Russia weaponize institutions to shut down dissenting voices and tighten their grip on what citizens see, hear, and learn. More broadly, Interpol abuse is just one measure in a toolkit of methods of transnational repression that has expanded with the growing power of authoritarianism across the globe.

To reduce the dangers to both individuals and democracies of Interpol abuse, reforms will be needed. Luckily, many countries seem to have finally recognized this reality and begun to push for various changes to Interpol, some more promising than others. But it remains to be seen whether those who speak out against autocracy and abuses of human rights will be able to walk through an airport without fear of arrest and extradition—or whether the long arm of authoritarianism will continue to lengthen.