Interpol, an international system for exchanging information on criminals, allegedly operates on the basis of neutrality. But authoritarian governments have increasingly used the Organization’s wanted list as an instrument of repression.
Ukraine regularly detains foreign citizens who appear on the Interpol wanted list. Although these actions are seemingly in line with the country’s international obligations, the detainees are often dissidents who have fled political persecution in their post-Soviet homelands.
Photo credit: EPA/WALLACE WOON
In the last three months, the Ukrainian authorities have arrested three journalists on Interpol warrants: opposition journalists Narzullo Okhunjonov from Uzbekistan, Fikret Huseynli from Azerbaijan and Zhanara Akhmet from Kazakhstan. All fled their native countries and sought political asylum abroad, only to be detained and threatened with extradition.
But their situations are not unique. Hromadske breaks down how some countries use Interpol as a tool for combatting dissent.
How Does Interpol Work?
The International Criminal Police Organization known as Interpol was established in 1923 to combat ordinary crimes. Today, it includes 192 member countries who are required to share data on the possible movements of criminals across state borders.
According to Article 3 of Interpol’s Constitution, the organization strictly forbids undertaking “any intervention or activities of a political, military, religious or racial character.” However, in practice, the situation is somewhat different.
According to Lyudmila Kozlovskaya, president of the Open Dialogue human rights foundation, authoritarian regimes have increased the number of requests for Interpol searches. “If we look at the general use of Interpol mechanisms, in 2005-2006, there were around 1000 requests overall. But in 2015, these numbers went up to 13 thousand,” she tells Hromadske.
Photo credit: Eugene Kaspersky
There are two types of Interpol requests: red notices and diffusion notices. The former apply to all member countries in the agreement, while the latter are directed from one country to another. Unilateral forwardings are less formal, but both must comply with the Interpol Constitution.
The procedure for adding a person to the Interpol database depends on the member country’s legislation. Typically, this requires the approval of a prosecutor. In some countries, it also requires a court decision.
“Interpol is a big agency for reprocessing information. The initiators of the search provide the information themselves,” explains Kyrylo Kulykov, the former head of the Interpol National Central Bureau for Ukraine. “In Ukraine it can be anyone – customs, the national police, the SBU [Federal Security Services] and so on. They initiate the case and continue to act within the framework of national legislation, which clearly regulates what needs to be done. After this, the package of documents is transferred to Interpol, the National Central Bureau gives these materials to the Interpol General Secretariat with simultaneous placement in the Interpol database.”
Photo credit: Eugene Kaspersky
However, as Lyudmila Kozlovskaya underscores, these measures do not protect against the arbitrariness of the law enforcement agencies of individual countries. “The problem is that in authoritarian countries or under governments where the law doesn’t function or there is strong corruption, it’s not difficult to add a person to the Interpol wanted list,” she says. “Every employee of the [Interior Ministry] can do this, an investigator who has access to the system can do this in five minutes.”
According to Kozlovskaya, in Russia any “disagreeable person” can be entered into the Interpol database “on command” — particularly if you're willing to pay for it.
“On the low end [this starts at] three thousand dollars. And then up to infinity depending on the businessman’s capabilities. We heard that $100,000 was required [for such services],” she says.
Kyrylo Kulykov, on the other hand, claims not to have knowledge of this taking place. “You can say anything at all. [But Interpol] is a sufficiently strict system that’s difficult to circumvent,” he tells Hromadske.
How Are Political Activists Persecuted?
The File Control Commission is responsible for the verification of data in the Interpol system. The Commission includes seven people: five lawyers from different countries and two data protection specialists. They check for formal signs of compliance with the Interpol Constitution, but don’t undertake full fledged investigations into the legitimacy of the actions of those who enter names onto the wanted list.
According to Lyudmila Kozlovskaya, this is a principle of trust in law enforcement: a person is automatically included in the database and verification begins afterwards.
“We’ve often seen that a person boarded a plane, posted information on social media, the authorities saw that the person was at the airport and on arrival they’re already able to detain this person. And the process of getting [someone] released [and] taken off the Interpol wanted list takes years,” Kozlovskaya says.
How Can You Clear Your Name?
There is a special form on the Interpol website for proving that a person was entered into the Interpol database as a means of political persecution. They are required to submit a package of documents, including a refugee certificate and the rationale explaining why their persecution is politically motivated. The case it then reviewed by the Interpol File Control Commission, which meets every three months. “Before this took place once a year and you can imagine how much time the defendants spent waiting to be taken off the list,” Lyudmila Kozlovskaya explains.
For Nadezhda Ataeva, the head of the association Human Rights in Central Asia, this took fifteen years. The human rights activist fled Uzbekistan after a case was opened against her, her father and her brother for grand larceny. Nadezhda Ataeva’s father headed the corporation Uzkhleboprodukt and, according to the human right’s activist, refused to cooperate with the ruling regime to falsify statistical data.
Photo credit: INTERPOL HQ
Nadezhda Ataeva received political asylum in France and, with the help of British lawyers, was able to get her name taken off the Interpol wanted list.
Today, being taken of the Interpol wanted list takes an average of nine months. This is often a costly process and is only possible with the help of a qualified lawyer. The procedure is also very time consuming because you need to collect all the evidence of the person in question’s innocence.
“Don’t forget that you’re up against the government,” underscores Lyudmila Kozlovskaya. “They are also entitled to a vote and can produce or even forge any documents. This can also extend the procedure and make it impossible for you to move, get insurance abroad, rent an apartment, [or] work. You essentially become a hostage.”
How Can We Improve The Interpol System?
For years international organizations like Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the International Partnership for Human Rights have been arguing that that Interpol system needs to change.
The Organization’s Constitution already states that it can not be the basis for persecution on the basis of belonging to a particular political group, race, citizenship, or political view. “There is a declaration, but there’s no mechanism for practical implementation,” says human rights activist Maksym Butkevich.
Photo credit: INTERPOL
The main problem is that, in the Interpol system, it’s almost impossible to identify those who are being persecuted for political reasons. Human rights activists have been advocating for solving these problems and have recommend that Interpol automatically exclude people who have political asylum and those who are wanted by the countries from which they fled from searches.
In addition, it’s necessary to provide legal assistance for those who have been detained in third countries. “There is currently little information for victims of abuse of Interpol mechanisms, they need to know their rights,” says Nadezhda Ataeva.
Photo credit: INTERPOL
Interpol also recognizes that the organization’s mechanisms are outdated. In November of last year Interpol announced forthcoming reforms at its eighty-fifth general assembly in Indonesia. Specifically, Interpol began to remove people from the wanted list who have received political asylum after fleeing from the state that is looking for them. However, Open Dialogue noted that this policy has not been written into legislation and is inconsistently implemented.
Who Abuses The System The Most?
According to human rights activists the Interpol system is most often abused by Russia, China, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan. “These are the governments that are pursuing their opponents, trying to catch them with the help of this international organization,” says Maksym Butkevich.
However, not all countries will arrest a person at the border upon seeing an Interpol red notice explains Lyudmila Kozlovskaya. “We’ve had a lot of instances when political asylum seekers appeared in the Interpol system and were arrested in Germany, Latvia, Poland. But the police let them go after seeing their passports and refugee status. In Ukraine, unfortunately, everything is different.”
There have also been instances of people being abducted on the basis of false red notices. “This happened to Kazakh oppositionist Mukhtar Ablyazov in 2013 when he and his spouse, Alma Shalabaeva, and their six-year-old daughter were kidnapped by private plane from Italy to Kazakhstan. There wasn’t even a criminal case against them at home, but the Kazakh authorities misled the Italian authorities through Interpol communication channels, saying that they were in the country illegally and that they had false passports,” says Kozlovskaya.
Mukhtar Ablyazov headed Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Energy, Industry and Trade. He was accused of grand larceny and concealing income. Ablyazov claims that the authorities were trying to put pressure on him and sieze the bank he owned. In July 2013, Ablyazov was detained in France at the request of Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan. The extradition case went on for 3.5 years, which he spent in French prison. In December 2016, France’s Supreme Administrative court (the Conseil d’Etat) recognized that Ablyazov was being persecuted for political reasons.
However, the opposition politician told Hromadske that he was still on the Interpol wanted list afterwards:
“It was a paradoxical situation. Interpol removed all of my associates from the wanted list...‘due to the fact that Mukhtar Ablyazov is a political figure and being persecuted by the leadership of Kazakhstan for political reasons,’ but I remained in the database.”
In the summer of 2017, Interpol adopted a final decision on Ablyazov’s case that coincided with that of the Supreme Administrative Court of France.
What Is Ukraine Doing?
In the last three months Ukraine has made three high profile arrests of journalists who fled their own countries, on the basis of the Interpol database.
On September 20, Uzbek journalist Narzullo Okhunjonov was detained and arrested at Kyiv’s Zhuliany airport after the Ukrainian authorities discovered his name on an Interpol wanted list. Accused of fraud in his native Uzbekistan, Okhunjonov and his family fled in 2013 to avoid political persecution. He then lived in Turkey for four years before coming to Ukraine.
Okhunjonov was supposed to spend 40 days at a Kyiv detention center, but was released after 29 days.
READ MORE: Ukraine Frees Detained Uzbek Journalist
Then, on October 14, Azerbaijani opposition journalist Fikret Huseynli was detained trying to leave Ukraine from Kyiv’s Boryspil airport. Huseynli fled Azerbaijan ten years ago after he was abducted and severely beaten. In the Netherlands, Huseynli was given political asylum and later Dutch citizenship. There are still two vague criminal cases against him in Azerbaijan: fraud and illegal border crossing.
On October 17, a Ukrainian court ruled to keep Huseynli in custody for 18 days. He was later released on bail with the help of two Ukrainian Members of Parliament.
Dissident journalist Zhanara Akhmet from Kazakhstan was also detained in Kyiv because her name appeared on the Interpol wanted list. In March 2017, Akhmet was forced to flee Kazakhstan with her nine-year-old son. Back in her homeland, several criminal cases had been opened against her, which she considers to be politically motivated.
Akhmet moved to Ukraine and applied for political asylum, but was arrested in October on an Interpol red notice. On November 2, a Kyiv court ruled to keep Akhmet in custody for two months. Her lawyers intend to appeal this decision.
“Many civil society representatives from the post-Soviet space consider Ukraine to be a country where they can develop [and] function without escaping to the West or breaking their ties with Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan or Azerbaijan,” explains Lyudmila Kozlovskaya. “But now, coming here is dangerous for them.”
According to Maksym Butkevich, some authoritarian countries see Ukraine as a weak link. “Judging by the fact that during the last month and a half we have had more arrests, it seems that the Ukrainian security forces can, at a minimum, ruin the lives of refugees. But maybe, with luck, it will be possible to bring these people back.”
READ MORE: Is Interpol Silencing The Independent Press?
/Written by Natalya Tykhonova
/Translated & Adapted by Eilish Hart