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How Authoritarian Governments are Exploiting Interpol to Harass Political Enemies

In this photo taken on Thursday, Nov.8, 2018 people walk on the Interpol logo at the international police agency headquarters in Lyon, central France.
In this photo taken on Thursday, Nov.8, 2018 people walk on the Interpol logo at the international police agency headquarters in Lyon, central France.

Critics say abuse has trickled down through US immigration system where authorities often treat Red Notices as arrest warrants to target asylum seekers

For decades, Interpol, the France-based global police network, has played a critical role in fighting crime across international borders. Among other things, it promotes global cooperation among law enforcement agencies.

But the same agency that has helped catch thousands of criminals is increasingly being exploited by authoritarian regimes such as Russia and Turkey to harass their political enemies who live in exile, according to U.S. officials, lawmakers and immigration attorneys.

Their weapon of choice? The Red Notice, an alert issued by Interpol to member countries that a person is wanted for arrest and extradition. Any member country can file a Red Notice as long as it complies with Interpol’s rules. The agency does little vetting. Last year, Interpol issued 13,516 Red Notices, many suspected to be persecutory.

Critics say the abuse has trickled down through the U.S. immigration system where authorities often treat Red Notices as “arrest warrants” to target asylum-seekers and other foreign nationals wanted on trumped-up charges in their home countries.

The problem dates back to the early days of the administration of former President Barack Obama, but immigration lawyers say it has escalated amid the Trump administration-led immigration crackdown.

“This blind acceptance of an Interpol communication without scrutiny can, and often does, turn ICE officials and our own immigration judges into unwitting agents of repressive regimes,” Sandra Grossman, an immigration attorney, recently testified before the U.S. Helsinki Commission, an independent U.S. government agency investigating the abuses.

Abuses of Red Notices

The precise number of asylum-seekers and other immigrants affected by persecutory Red Notices is not known. One expert, Ted Bromund of the Heritage Foundation, estimates it runs into the dozens, and possibly “the low 100." A recent survey by the American Immigration Lawyers Association turned up nearly two dozen previously unreported cases of abuse of the Red Notice.

Increasingly alarmed, members of Congress are pushing legislation to put a stop to the abuses. Last month, a bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced the Transnational Repression Accountability and Prevention Act.

In addition to requiring the U.S. government to press for enhanced screening of Interpol alerts, the TRAP Act codifies a long-standing U.S. prohibition against arresting someone solely based on a Red Notice.

If enacted, the legislation “should help counter Interpol abuse in the United States and perhaps globally if it’s able to achieve reforms within Interpol itself,” Nate Schenkkan, director of special research at the Freedom House, said at a recent Helsinki Commission hearing.

Interpol, despite its name, is not a police agency with the power to investigate and arrest. Instead, the group, headquartered in Lyon, serves as more of a conduit for its 194 members, notifying law enforcement agencies about wanted persons through Red Notices and other color-coded alerts.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials say they vet Red Notices to ensure they’re legitimate.

But while the agency has successfully removed thousands of dangerous criminals from the country on the basis of Interpol alerts, critics say ICE’s policy of treating a Red Notice as an arrest warrant has swept up otherwise innocent foreign nationals seeking to live in the United States.

This policy is at odds with the Justice Department’s own manual, which cautions prosecutors that a Red Notice in and of itself is not a basis for arrest.

“We’re talking about issues involving U.S. government policy and agencies that are supposed to carry out those policies not following them,” Grossman said.

Arrested by ICE

In 2017, a Russian entrepreneur, escaping from what he claimed was a cooked-up prosecution in Russia, was arrested by ICE at his asylum interview, said Grossman, who later filed a Freedom of Information Act disclosure request with ICE to find out the basis for the entrepreneur's arrest.

“It was quite enlightening to read the FOIA results,” Grossman said. “It just said, ‘Individual is the subject of a Red Notice. Danger to the community. Extreme flight risk. Apprehend Immediately.’”

Although Interpol later canceled the Red Notice on appeal, Grossman said her client remains “in a legal limbo, unable to travel, unable to normalize his status until his deportation hearings are final.”

ICE did not respond to questions about its use of Red Notices. In a statement to VOA, a Justice Department spokeswoman said, “Interpol has instituted a number of safeguards and processes to detect abuses and ensure that all notices meet the Interpol standards and we continue to work within that framework. At the same time, we actively consult with other U.S. agencies on their use of Interpol notices issued by other countries.”

It’s not just ICE that treats Red Notices as evidence of criminality. Immigration judges, too, often impose exceptionally high bonds or refuse to release a detained immigrant because of a Red Notice, according to immigration attorneys.

A Chinese citizen represented by Grossman has spent months locked up in a detention center because of a Red Notice, she said. “The judge has refused to issue him a bond solely because of the Red Notice."

The problem stems from a larger systematic abuse of Red Notices that for years has dogged Interpol, where submitting an alert is as easy as filling out an online message. The result has been a dramatic escalation in the number of Red Notices, many of them abusive, over the past 10 years.

“It made abuse much easier to perpetrate,” said Bromund, of the Heritage Foundation, referring to Interpol's new electronic filing system.

Most prolific

Turkey is believed to be the most prolific abuser, followed by Russia, China, and the Central Asian Republics of Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

U.S. authorities have pushed back against clearly spurious Red Notices, dismissing at least eight alerts issued by Russia for prominent Kremlin critic Bill Browder.

“We cannot allow Interpol to be weaponized against journalists, dissenting voices and oppressed minorities,” Edward O’Callaghan, a senior Justice Department official, said at a recent event commemorating Interpol Washington’s 50th anniversary.

Interpol, too, has at times intervened in blatantly abusive cases. When Turkey submitted requests for the arrests of “tens of thousands of people” after a failed 2016 coup attempt, Interpol “essentially set aside and didn’t honor them,” said Schenkkan, of Freedom House.

“It does indicate that there is at least some willingness to address the most flagrant abuses of the system,” he said.