INTERPOL's computer systems wide open to abuse by states trying to persecute refugees, journalists and political activists, says new report

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The global policing body INTERPOL is failing to prevent states across the world from using its computer systems to issue 'Red Notices' aimed at persecuting refugees, journalists and peaceful political activists, according to a new report by Fair Trials International (FTI).

Red Notices act as global, digital "wanted" posters and are disseminated to INTERPOL's 190 member states. They are used to seek the location of a wanted person and request their provisional arrest with a view to their extradition or surrender.

States including Russia, Sri Lanka, Turkey, Belarus, Indonesia, Iran and Venezuela are using the system to pursue political dissidents, refugees and journalists, says FTI's report, 'Strengthening respect for human rights; strengthening INTERPOL'. [1]

Political persecution

Examples include Russian political activist Petr Silaev, who fled the country and obtained asylum in Finland after "intimidation and violence" was directed against those taking part in demonstrations opposing the construction of a motorway through the Khimki forest outside Moscow. [2]

Whilst visiting Spain he was detained by the police and threatened with extradition. It was only after a lengthy legal battle that the Spanish authorities recognised the charges of "hooliganism" laid against him in Russia were based on his political opinions.

Despite being challenged by FTI, INTERPOL refused to delete Silaev's information from its systems, staying that "there is no reason to believe that the retention of information [relating to Silaev] in INTERPOL's files would not be in compliance with INTERPOL's rules."

The report also contains details of the 2012 arrest of two Turkish activists recognised as refugees in Germany, Sahin Duman and Vicdan Özerdem, who were arrested at the Croatian border after the Turkish authorities issued Red Notices for them. They were detained pending extradition proceedings "with severe effects on their mental and physical health," says the report.

Ali Gaglayan is another Turkish activist who fled the country and obtained asylum in Germany. Many years later, he was arrested at the Polish border, detained for two weeks and told that "he was arrested on the basis of an INTERPOL alert". Eventually he was released "when Turkey indicated that it had no interest in pursuing him".

A Red Notice for debt

It is not just political refugees who are affected. Rachel Baines (not her real name) was also subject to an INTERPOL Red Notice.

Whilst living in the Middle East she took out a small loan to purchase a car, using a cheque as security. After injuring her foot and leaving the country whilst on sick leave, she lost her job.

Unable to keep up repayments on the loan, the cheque was cashed but bounced, a criminal offence in the country in which she was living. An arrest warrant was issued and in January 2012 the authorities obtained a Red Notice for defaulting on her repayments.

Rachel had moved back to the UK by this time and started a job with a transatlantic airline. In May 2012, the US visa required for her job was revoked due to the Red Notice. Unable to resolve the issue, she was dismissed in October 2012. Although she managed to have the records deleted, "this was not before losing what had been a promising career". [3]

Numerous other cases are provided in the FTI report, including that of Benny Wenda, a campaigner for West Papuan independence; Patricia Poleo, an anti-corruption journalist form Venezuela; and even a potato farmer from Canada who was detained in Lebanon for a year after the Algerian authorities issued a Red Notice on the grounds that he had provided a substandard consignment of potatoes.

The Red Notice system can be of use. Perhaps the most high-profile case in recent months is that of former CIA officer Robert Seldon Lady, who was arrested in Panama after the Italian authorities issued a Red Notice seeking his arrest and extradition for less spurious reasons: his involvement in the "extraordinary rendition" of Abu Omar, who was subsequently flown to Egypt and tortured. [4] However, Lady was subsequently permitted to travel back to the United States. [5]

The Red Notice system

All of INTERPOL's 190 member states are able to issue Red Notices. They are based on national arrest warrants and call upon other national authorities to seek the arrest and extradition of an individual. Member states can determine what course of action to take on a Red Notice: "some countries, such as the UK, do not consider the Red Notice to be a valid legal basis for provisional arrest," according to FTI's report.

INTERPOL's General Secretariat is responsible for reviewing the content of Red Notices and ensuring that they comply with its rules, but the process of issuing Red Notices has been eased in recent years through the introduction of a new computer system known as 'i-link'.

This allows National Central Bureaus (NCBs, the national police units responsible for liaison between national authorities and INTERPOL) to upload Red Notices directly onto INTERPOL's databases. They are immediately visible to other NCBs with a "request being processed" notice attached while they await review by the General Secretariat. The Notice will be formally issued if the General Secretariat finds it compliant with the rules.

However, by the time this has happened:

"[O]ther NCBs may access this information or create local copies of it, creating a permanent risk to the individual even if the General Secretariat finds that the request was contrary to INTERPOL's rules."

While the use of Red Notices has increased steadily over the last decade (from 1,418 in 2001 to 3,126 in 2008), when i-link was introduced in 2009 their use rose sharply. In 2011, 7,678 were issued, and this figure rose to 8,136 in 2012.

NCBs also have the option of issuing Diffusions which, like Red Notices, can be used to request the arrest of a wanted person. These are issued by NCBs rather than the General Secretariat, whose approval is not required. Despite this, "both are widely treated as a valid basis for arrest." The arrest of Petr Silaev was based on a Diffusion issued by the Russian authorities.

Recommendations for reform

FTI's extensive report contains a number of recommendations for addressing the problems with Red Notices and Diffusions and argues that INTERPOL "cannot escape responsibility" for the undue restrictions these systems place on individual rights.

Arguing that "INTERPOL's protections against abuse are ineffective," the report recommends that INTERPOL should refuse or delete red notices where there are "substantial grounds to believe the person is being prosecuted for political reasons".

INTERPOL should also ensure that national authorities "provide an arrest warrant before they can obtain a Red Notice" because Red Notices can currently be issued on the basis of a reference to an arrest warrant - "a simple statement that one exists with basic details". Furthermore, INTERPOL "should conduct a thorough review of Red Notice requests and Diffusions against human rights reports and public information"; something which in many cases it appears not to do.

FTI also argue that draft Red Notices should not be "visible to other NCBs while under review except in urgent cases; the NCB should justify its use of the exception and INTERPOL should monitor exception usage closely".

There should also be continual review of Red Notices:

"INTERPOL should systematically follow up with countries which have reported arrests based on Red Notices, six or 12 months after it is informed of an arrest, and enquire as to the outcome of proceedings following the arrest".

Two other recommendations in the report relate to the inability of those subject to Red Notices and Diffusions to challenge the existence of their information in INTERPOL's databases.

Within INTERPOL, the Commission for the Control of INTERPOL's Files (CCF) is responsible for data protection issues with the organisation and is supposed to review individual requests for access to and deletion of personal information, but FTI's report argues that it is "unsuited to this responsibility, and lacks essential procedural guarantees".

In order to prevent continued abuse of the Red Notice and Diffusion systems, INTERPOL should:

"[E]xplore the idea of creating a separate chamber of the CCF dedicated to handling complaints, leaving the existing CCF to advise horizontally on data protection issues."

It should also "ensure basic standards of due process" by establishing four safeguards:

1. Adversarial proceedings with a disclosure process;
2. Oral hearings in appropriate cases;
3. Binding, reasoned decisions, which should be published; and
4. A right to challenge adverse decisions.

Four of the five members of the CCF are data protection experts. FTI's report argues that they do not have sufficient expertise in asylum and extradition law and that this undermines their capacity to determine whether many Red Notices should be deleted or kept in the system following complaints from individuals.

FTI argues that "by adopting these reforms, INTERPOL would increase the credibility of its work and improve its effectiveness", although it remains to be seen whether any of their recommendations will be implemented.

[1] Fair Trials International, Strengthening respect for human rights, strengthening INTERPOL, 27 November 2013
[2] Fair Trials International, Petr Silaev - Russia
[3] Fair Trials International, Rachel Baines - Middle East
[4] Ex-CIA Milan chief held in Panama over cleric abduction, BBC News, 19 July 2013
[5] Tim Walker, CIA chief wanted in Italy for 'rendition' on his way back to US, The Independent, 19 July 2013

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