Home SECURITY & DEFENCE INTERPOL red notice system still has teeth to stand up to authoritarian abuse

INTERPOL red notice system still has teeth to stand up to authoritarian abuse

One of the most powerful tools available to bring international criminals to justice, the INTERPOL red notice system has led to the arrest of some of the world’s most wanted criminals.

by gary cartwright
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Sadly, the long reach of INTERPOL red notices inherently means that they are subject to abuse by heavy-handed regimes, who have frequently filed unjustified red notice requests targeting political dissidents or other individuals which the regime has a vendetta against. While some reforms have been put in place – the red notice review system being the most important one – more remains to be done.

The INTERPOL red notice system, the “closest instrument to an international arrest warrant in use today”, has successfully ensnared any number of high-profile criminals around the world. Just in the past week, police in Bali arrested alleged Italian-Australian drug trafficker and ‘Ndrangheta mafioso Antonio Strangio, and the UK reported that one of its most-wanted fugitives, Nana Oppong, was arrested trying to enter Morocco with false identity documents; both Strangio and Oppong were subjects of INTERPOL red notices. 

Even as the red notice system yields impressive results, concerns have risen over potential abuse by authoritarian regimes—an EU study published less than a year ago found that “the risk of politically motivated requests for red notices is real and can be considered as increasing”. In the past few months, top lawyers have held conferences on the red notice system’s openness to abuse and penned think pieces arguing that “if Interpol doesn’t stand up for itself, China and Russia will continue to take advantage.” It’s undeniable that governments around the world are trying to turn the red notice system to their own ends—but a number of high-profile cases have highlighted the fact that INTERPOL has robust procedures in place to ferret out misuse of the red notice. 

Authoritarian regimes’ enduring efforts to exploit the red notice system.

In the wrong hands, the red notice system risks becoming, as one pundit put it, “the autocrat’s sniper rifle, a precise, long-range weapon used by dictators to criminalise dissent beyond their shores.” Regimes like Putin’s have filed countless requests—Russia issues a wildly disproportionate 38% of red notice requests—targeting political dissidents such as human rights campaigner Bill Browder. While INTERPOL has, quite rightly, rebuffed Moscow’s repeated efforts to have Browder arrested, some authoritarian states have managed to get their hands on their enemies through the red notice scheme. 

In particular, INTERPOL came under sharp criticism in 2022 after Bahraini dissident Ahmed Jaafar Mohammed Ali was extradited from Serbia to Bahrain on the basis of an INTERPOL red notice, despite the objection of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). Ali had been convicted in absentia in 2013 for allegedly joining a terrorist group, following a trial which Human Rights Watch deemed unfair, citing reports that Ali and his fellow defendants were forced to confess under torture. Ali’s case, the deputy director at HRW’s Middle East division remarked, “is a textbook example of how countries like Bahrain abuse Interpol’s Red Notice system”.  

Review process addressing abusive red notices.

A specialist squad based at INTERPOL’s Lyon headquarters is charged with reviewing questionable requests for red notices, but it is nearly inevitable that some unjustified requests will get initial approval—in part because, as INTERPOL’s former general counsel noted, “INTERPOL is there to help the police do its work under the assumption that the police does its work honestly. That’s the system, so the first reaction is to do with the immediate situation, then legal controls kick in later in the process.” Encouragingly, however, a number of groundless red notices have been removed by INTERPOL after the agency found that they were politically motivated or otherwise unjustified. 

The current Slovak government, for example, has faced accusations of deliberately levying corruption charges against political opposition figures and businesspeople associated with them, and the EU has warned that these “allegations of politically motivated decisions to open corruption investigations risk eroding law enforcement cooperation […] as well as the public’s trust in the integrity of the institutions.” One Slovak entrepreneur caught up in these prosecutions, Miroslav Vyboh, was the subject of an INTERPOL red notice. After looking more closely into the case, INTERPOL not only withdrew the notice but reportedly is investigating whether or not Slovak prosecutors deceived the organization when requesting the notice; specifically whether or not Slovak authorities tried to make it seem as if Vyboh were in hiding by concealing the fact that he had had a permanent residence in Monaco for more than ten years.

INTERPOL has also rescinded several red notices issued against opponents of Rwanda’s autocratic president Paul Kagame, who according to a classified FBI report obtained by the OCCRP has repeatedly tried to mislead and co-opt foreign law enforcement into going after his critics. Particularly notably, Kigali manipulated INTERPOL into issuing a red notice for Eugène Richard Gasana, Rwanda’s permanent representative to the UN until he opposed Kagame’s modification of the constitution in order to win a third term. Shortly afterwards, Gasana was accused of supporting rebel groups and of sexually assaulting a woman who had interned in his UN office. After initially granting the red notice, an internal INTERPOL review found that the case against Gasana had “a predominant political dimension” and repealed the notice.

Filtering out abusive notices remains key.

The fact that INTERPOL repealed red notices like these which it realised were politically motivated or otherwise unjustified is an encouraging sign that, despite intensive efforts by any number of governments to abuse the red notice system to serve their political interests, the organisation’s review process routinely thwarts these attempts. Over the past five years, in fact, INTERPOL has rejected or deleted roughly 1000 red notices (or more informal alerts called Wanted Person diffusions).

Additional progress, naturally, is always welcome, particularly given the potentially devastating consequences for individuals unjustly subject to a red notice. To that end, several advocacy groups and policy committees have proposed reforms to further strengthen INTERPOL’s ability to combat abuse of the red notice system. Judicial watchdog Fair Trials International, for example, has recommended that INTERPOL require national authorities to supply actual arrest warrants when requesting a red notice, rather than just attesting that one exists; PACE’s Legal Committee has called for a fund to compensate victims of unjustified red notices, funded by INTERPOL member states in proportion to their rate of abusive requests, akin to the “polluter pays” principle—something which would hopefully both provide redress to wrongfully accused individuals and deter countries from making repeated unjustified requests for red notices. 

No reform, unfortunately, is likely to stop some authorities from trying to misuse the red notice system—the very fact that red notices are one of the most powerful tools available targeting international fugitives ensures that governments will continue trying to politicise the instrument. Maintaining and strengthening INTERPOL’s internal processes for weeding out unfounded notice requests will be essential to protecting people’s rights and the system’s integrity. 

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