Interpol Helps Dictators Hunt Down Dissidents—and Me
Russia, China, and Turkey are among the countries that use the international police organization to harass and hunt down critics.
In September, I applied for a visa for Iraq, a country I travel to fairly frequently for work.
It wasn’t granted initially and after some digging I learned that there was an Interpol notice attached to my name. Interpol, the International Criminal Police Organization, has 192 member countries. And one of them apparently was seeking my arrest and extradition.
In 2016, shortly after the failed coup in Turkey, I was arrested and imprisoned there. I was accused of being a CIA agent, an allegation made against countless people, and eventually I was released, but as far as I know my bogus criminal case remains open.
It seemed fairly obvious that Turkey would be the country responsible for an Interpol notice against me, but I didn’t know much about Interpol or its operations. I’d always pictured a group of uniformed agents globe-trotting in pursuit of the worst criminals alive.
“Interpol is mostly misunderstood because of Hollywood, which spreads the incorrect belief that Interpol is an international police force,” said Theodore Bromund, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a U.S.-based think tank. “Most international organizations are not well understood, and Interpol is no different.”
Essentially, Interpol acts as a police message board for its member countries. One member country can request that some or all other member countries detain, arrest, and/or extradite wanted persons through a variety of notice types. The agency doesn’t issue warrants or detain individuals, a point belabored by Interpol in a statement to The Daily Beast:
“Interpol does not have the authority to issue arrest warrants. Each Interpol member country decides for itself how to act on an Interpol notice, if at all, and are [sic] fully responsible for their decisions. Offices in member countries (known as National Central Bureaus) are similarly responsible for the information they provide to Interpol and should make sure their requests comply with Interpol’s rules.”
Among these rules is a constitutional article forbidding member countries from using Interpol to undertake “any intervention or activities of a political, military, religious, or racial character,” meaning that governments cannot use Interpol to hunt down dissidents.
In August 2017, while vacationing in Spain, German-Turkish writer Doğan Akhanlı was arrested by Spanish authorities acting on an Interpol “red notice” requested by Turkey. He was banned from leaving Spain for more than a month before Spain ultimately denied Turkey’s extradition request and allowed him to return to Germany.
An outspoken critic of the Turkish government, Akhanlı fled Turkey for Germany in 1991, obtaining asylum and eventually German citizenship. Following his detention, German Chancellor Angela Merkel accused Turkey of abusing Interpol and noted that Akhanlı’s was one of many such cases in which Turkey went after German citizens.
Marina Albiol Guzmán, a Spanish member of the European Parliament, echoed this criticism to The Daily Beast. “The arrest of Turkish journalists and left-wing activists in Spain following an Interpol order shows that we have a problem in the way in which they’re used.”
“Turkey is clearly the country attempting the most Interpol abuses,” said Bromund of the Heritage Foundation. Turkey has arrested, detained, fired, and/or placed travel bans on hundreds of thousands since the failed coup attempt in 2016. The use of Interpol against dissidents who have fled the country is hardly surprising.
Turkish officials have continued to seek red notices against a number of high-profile critics. In April of this year, an Istanbul court announced that it would seek a red notice against Can Dündar, an exiled Turkish journalist living in Germany. Dündar has been facing espionage charges in Turkey since reporting on the country’s weapons smuggling into Syria in 2015.
In 2017, Turkey announced it would seek a red notice against New York Knicks center Enes Kanter. He already had been detained briefly in Romania after learning that his Turkish passport had been canceled. “[The Turkish government] assumed that would work,” he told The Daily Beast. “The red notice came a little bit after that.”
Kanter is an avowed follower of Fethullah Gülen, a U.S.-based cleric Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has accused of plotting the failed coup attempt in 2016. Kanter’s statements against Erdogan’s government have made him a target. It’s unclear whether any warrant was issued, as the information isn’t available in Interpol’s public database.
Interpol has increased scrutiny of red notices in recent years, declining to issue them when evidence of criminality is deemed insufficient. In a statement to The Daily Beast, Interpol said the number of red notices found to violate the article against politically motivated warrants was extremely small but that “we accept that even one case is one too many, especially for the individual concerned, and continue to work with member countries to maintain the integrity of the notices system.”
But when a red notice isn’t an option, despotic regimes have another Interpol device at their disposal—the “diffusion.”
Interpol says a diffusion is a request for cooperation circulated directly among member countries. For a member country hoping to detain and extradite a dissident, it’s almost as easy as sending an email.
The agency claims to review each diffusion for compliance, but unlike red notices, these reviews don’t happen until a country has already submitted the notice.
In my case, an associate spoke to an employee at Iraq’s Ministry of the Interior and was told that Ankara’s Interpol National Country Bureau sent a diffusion request directly to Baghdad, likely when I was already in the country a few months earlier. It’s likely that Turkey realized a red notice attempt against me would fail but assumed that a diffusion request could go unnoticed until I was detained.
In its statement to The Daily Beast, Interpol said that “to imply wanted persons diffusions are used to avoid checks by the General Secretariat is misleading.”
Bromund disagrees. “It is not even clear that the Secretariat actually reviews all diffusions: As over 22,000 are sent annually, it would be even harder to review the diffusions than it would be to review red notice requests, and we know that Interpol does not review most of these for anything more than bureaucratic compliance with the requirements of the form,” he said. “The risk of the diffusion system is that through it abusive nations can achieve many of the effects of a red notice—the only difference is that diffusions, unlike public red notices, do not show up in the public section of Interpol’s online database—without even the limited oversight inherent in the red notice system. As such, cracking down on red notice abuse will likely lead the abuse to flow to diffusions where it is even less easily controlled—and indeed, there is some evidence that this is already happening.”
“Spamming countries is probably a good way to describe it in some cases,” said Alex Mik, campaigns and communications manager of Fair Trials, a criminal justice watchdog with a focus on Interpol abuses. “Red notices do face greater scrutiny than they used to, and so it isn’t too much of a jump to think that regimes might turn to other tools, like diffusions, which do not face as much scrutiny.”
Russia has used diffusions to hunt Kremlin critics in a number of cases. In 2017, Russian national Nikita Kulachenkov flew to Nicosia, Cyprus, to join his mother on vacation. As he passed through immigration at the airport, officers saw an Interpol diffusion notice from Russia and detained him.
“My ‘crime’ was taking a poster from the street,” Kulachenkov told me. “It was worth $1.55, but the FSB [Russia’s federal law enforcement agency] talked to the street artist who designed the poster [repeatedly] over the course of several months, and he agreed to say the poster was worth $60, bringing it just over the threshold of what would be considered a criminal offense. But that wasn’t the real reason they wanted to arrest me, of course.”
Kulachenkov worked as a forensic investigator at the Anti-Corruption Foundation, a nonprofit organization founded by Alexei Navalny, a Russian activist and politician. “Around 2014, many of those who worked with Navalny were facing arrest warrants,” Kulachenkov said. “Top prosecutors in Russia handled my case. It was totally absurd.” His home was raided several times, and his colleagues and family were interrogated repeatedly. He fled to Lithuania, where he was granted asylum in 2015.
After being interrogated by officers in Cyprus, Kulachenkov was taken to Nicosia’s central prison. He was held in a cell block with about 100 other prisoners, among them an arsonist and a murderer. There he languished for three weeks, until Cyprus decided not to extradite him to Russia and allowed him to return to Lithuania.
Following his ordeal, Kulachenkov applied to Interpol to have the diffusion notice deleted. The agency complied, citing the notice as politically motivated and thus non-compliant. But there is nothing to prevent Russia from submitting another diffusion request against him. “Russia can just send it again, and then I’ll be detained again somewhere,” he said. “This is the problem.”
Between 2012 and 2015, Russia sought the issuance of red notices against prominent author and Vladimir Putin critic Bill Browder on six occasions. Each attempt failed, and the European Council criticized these attempts. None of this prevented Russia from issuing a diffusion against him in Spain, leading to his arrest and temporary detention there.
Beyond the risk of unjust detention and extradition, diffusions are problematic from a records perspective. Interpol has no control over what member countries do with the information in diffusion requests before or after they are reviewed for compliance. They could remain in a country’s criminal database even after they’ve been deleted by Interpol.
In late September, Meng Hongwei, the president of Interpol, disappeared on an official visit to China. In October, Chinese authorities confirmed they had Meng in custody over bribery allegations. Meng’s wife said she feared her husband is dead, and she blamed Interpol.
A resignation letter purported to be written by Meng was sent to Interpol. Interpol Secretary General Jürgen Stock accepted it. On Nov. 8, Stock told journalists that he had no reason to suspect anything about the resignation was forced or wrong, and that Interpol was not allowed to further investigate the whereabouts or well-being of Meng.
“We are a rules-based organization,” Stock said. He added that it was not Interpol’s role to govern member countries. It’s unclear what led to Meng’s detention, but it is clear that Interpol will take no responsibility for it.
The irony here is that Meng, who had served as vice minister of public security in China since 2004 and who still held that position while serving as president of Interpol, had managed to get red notices issued on several occasions against dissidents Beijing wanted silenced.
After an associate explained my history with Turkey to the Ministry of the Interior in Iraq, I was granted a visa and traveled there in September unimpeded. With the help of Fair Trials International, I’ve applied to Interpol to get an official accounting of what notices have been attached to my name so that I can attempt to have them deleted. I have yet to get a response from Interpol, but Fair Trials International warns that the wait times for records and deletion requests made to Interpol can be months long. In some cases, the wait has stretched into years.
I can only speculate about what would lead Turkey to seek my re-arrest, two years after releasing me from prison. The diffusion notice was likely sent at the height of the row between Presidents Donald Trump and Erdogan over the detention of American pastor Andrew Brunson in Turkey—perhaps Turkey wanted another political prisoner to use as leverage against America. Or maybe the Turkish government has taken issue with my coverage of the continuing crackdown against dissidents. Whatever the case, I’ll be traveling carefully from now on. I’d advise anyone who has run afoul of the Turkish government in any capacity to do the same.
Interpol says its member countries must adhere to the agency’s rules and that each country is responsible for how it uses the agency. But in countries like Turkey and Russia, peaceful dissent is often deemed a terrorist act. Allowing such countries to wield the power of an international crime-fighting agency on policies that amount to an honor system is inherently irresponsible.