Most Wanted: Interpol's transparency

01 October, 2013

INTERPOL’s sketchy mechanism puts activists among world’s “Most Wanted”. A closer look at the agency’s database reveals suspicious Red Notice requests. But even more suspicious is what INTERPOL does not reveal.

What do an Australian, a Canadian, and an Egyptian have in common? While it may sound like the beginning of some nationalistic joke, it is not. We are talking about Julian Assange, Paul Watson, and Sayed Abdel Latif. And what they have in common is their status of “most wanted”: their names are among those of the almost 45 thousand Red Notice requests that INTERPOL has received since 2001.

The father of Wikileaks, Julian Assange, is internationally wanted since 2010, when Sweden issued a Red Notice against him. The environmental activist and founder of Sea Shepherd, Paul Watson, is victim of a similar fate: with two Red Notices, one signed by Japan and one by Costa Rica. The line between activists and fugitives dissolves even more, as we find among in INTERPOL’s database people like Sayed Abdel Latif, known for being victim of a Red Notice contested by human rights organizations. The former Egyptian regime issued a Red Notice against Latif in 2001. And the alert is still valid, despite the fact that the charges have been modified a few months ago, with the discovery that part of the accusations were based on a confession extorted through torture.

These are only a few cases in a long list of people that find themselves among INTERPOL’s “most wanted”, while humanitarian associations around the world try to defend their status of activists, political opponents, or asylum seekers. But what does it really mean to be the subject of a Red Notices? Who is in charge of filing them? And, most of all, what guarantees does INTERPOL offer to prevent that its police mechanism is not being abused for political purposes?

INTERPOL: “Just” an intermediary?

Cross-country crime investigations, spectacular arrest missions, infallible detectives and brilliant under-cover agents… Hollywood taught us to associate all of this with INTERPOL – the international crime police organization founded in 1923. But reality is slightly different.

INTERPOL doesn’t have its personnel carrying out arrests warrants nor does it have its own prisons. It is an organization that promotes collaboration among national police forces and law-enforcement agencies. By stating that its role is limited to coordinating and communicating data between member countries, INTERPOL shields itself from controversy: it is an intermediary subject that doesn’t deal with questions of guilt and innocence nor does it gather evidence about them. It “just“ makes data available to its member countries. Also personal data, like the one contained in the database of the well-know systems used to signal fugitives: the Red Notices.

A Red Notice is an international alert, whose consequences range on the basis of single cases, “at each state’s discretion”: from no action at all to arrest and detention; from limitation of international movement to extradition; from damages on reputation to denial of asylum requests; from loan refusal to bank accounts blocked.

Red Notices are a powerful tool, a tool in the hands of the 190 countries members of INTERPOL: a tool in the hands of democracies, but also of oppressive regimes. A powerful tool about which INTERPOL still isn’t transparent enough.

Red Notices’ booming activity: a 60% increase in three years

In 2012 INTERPOL emitted 8,136 Red Notices: a number without precedents.

source: data extracted from INTERPOL’s annual reports.

While previous increases were in the order of at most a few hundreds, in 2009 almost 2,000 more Red Notices were submitted than the previous year. What happened in 2009?

In 2009 INTERPOL introduced a new system to file Red Notices more rapidly and “efficiently”: I-Link. I-Link allows the National Central Bureaus (NCBs) of member countries to directly submit information in INTERPOL’s database:

“in a matter of seconds, member countries can draft and submit an alert seeking the arrest of a wanted criminal or warning of a potential threat, with the information recorded instantly into the Organization’s criminal database, and immediately visible to police around the world”.

Quite surprisingly, it’s not INTERPOL’s personnel that form these National Central Bureaus, but NCBs are made up buy each country’s own national police. This means that the incorruptibility, impartiality and independence of a country’s police forces have a fundamental weight in the neutrality of the Red Notices that are released.

Neutrality is among INTERPOL’s founding principles, and its Constitution is “explicitly forbidding INTERPOL from engaging in matters of political, military, religious and racial character”. The organization tries to prevent that its system is being abused of, and Red Notices can be challenged if considered flawed: they are reviewed, modified, removed or specified with precautionary measures. But questioning a Red Notice is not an easy task for any individual. First of all because they might not even know that such a notice is pending on their head. Secondly because the operation requires time and legal support, and can be done only after the Red Notice is issued. And so only after its effects may already have started.

Seeing 2009’s galloping increase in Red Notices, we can only agree on I-Link’s “efficiency”. But we also cannot ignore the issue of how INTERPOL’s guarantees the neutrality of these over 8,000 alerts. INTERPOL’s press officer declared that “a Red Notice is issued based on a presumption that the information provided by the police is accurate and relevant”. But what if this presumption is wrong?

Who wants who?

In 2011 the Center for Public Integrity (CPI) and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) analyzed the distribution of Red Notices among INTERPOL’s member countries. They discovered how Red Notices have been used “to go after political opponents, economic targets or environmental activists”. Furthermore about 28% of the studied ones came from countries with no political or civil rights, and nearly 50% came from countries rated as highly corrupted. Have things improved in 2012? There’s no way of knowing, as at the moment it is surprisingly impossible to repeat these statistics: INTERPOL’s press officer admitted that there is no break-down by country of the Red Notices released in 2012.

Luckily, there is an online database of Red Notices that member countries decide to make public. In this database, there are 1,136 Red Notices for 2012: meaning that – for whatever reason – member countries have decided to make public only a little more than one eight of all the Red Notices they requested last year.

Looking at the top countries for Red Notice emissions, first places obviously go to big nations, like the United States (118 Red Notices issued), Brazil (68) and Argentina (53). But there are also much smaller countries, and a surprise awaits already at position number four: Kyrgyzstan, with 50 Red Notices published in 2012…and a population 56 times smaller than that of the United States!

Among INTERPOL’s member countries who have emitted at least one Red Notice in 2012, the average is 2 Red Notices every million inhabitants. And several countries with a worrying situation in terms of democracy, corruption of police forces and human rights abuses are well above this average.

The 2012 Libya, still torn from the dramatic consequences of the NATO’s intervention and the fall of the Gaddafi regime, released 26 Red Notices, counting only the public ones: a rate of 4.22 per million of inhabitants. That is a rate 11 times higher than the US! A bit hard to trust in the political, ethnic or religious neutrality of arrest warrants issued in a country where a civil war is taking place. Even harder to trust it when you realize that the country ranks 134th out of 150 for democracy and 160th out of 174 in the Corruption Perception Index.

Kyrgyzstan has a even greater record, with 8.96 Red Notices per million inhabitants and a grave situation in terms of democracy. A score of 5 out of 7 – with 7 being the worst – in terms of political and civil rights ranks the country as 122 out of 150 for democracy, while for Transparency International the Kyrgyzstan marks a troublingly 154 out of 174 for corruption perception. Even more concerning is the fact that in the country there is in a complex ethnic situation, especially in the South, with violent outbreaks sometimes defined as a genocide against the Uzbeks. Human rights associations stress the risks for Uzbeks: accused of crimes with a higher frequency, they are then subject to unfair trails, cruel imprisonment conditions and even torture. In the reports by the US Department of State, the country is in known for the practice of arbitrary arrests and for the corruption among law-enforcement officers:

“Police frequently used false charges to arrest persons […]. As in 2011, NGOs and monitoring organizations, including Golos Svobody, CAC, HRW, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, and the OSCE continued to record complaints of arbitrary arrest during the year. […] Corruption remained endemic at all levels of society. […] The interethnic situation between ethnic Uzbeks, who comprised nearly half of the population in Osh, and ethnic Kyrgyz in the South remained tense and problematic, characterized by arbitrary arrests, detention, torture, and extortion of ethnic Uzbeks by members of the security services” (US Department of State).

In the light of this evidence, is it really reassuring that “a Red Notice is issued based on a presumption that the information provided by the police is accurate and relevant”? Does INTERPOL feel comfortable that human rights and neutrality are guaranteed, when the I-Link mechanism “puts data submission and control functions directly into the hands of officers in NCBs”?

Policing the Police. The right to data and accountability

INTERPOL has nothing to do with the democratic situation of its members, and in fact it underlines that it is up to each country to decide how to respond to a Red Notice. The organization insists in presenting itself as an intermediary agency, that “just” allows for the exchange of data between police forces. But regardless of this role, some issues about its responsibilities remain open.

From the data that is publicly available, only 97 countries out of 190 seem to have issued Red Notices in 2012. This increases the mystery: not only we do not now whether these 97 countries have published ALL the Red Notices they have released – for example in the case of Syria, with only one declared – but also we don’t know how many have been submitted by the other 93 members, among which China, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Morocco and Turkmenistan. Why is it not possible to have at least the raw number of Red Notices filed by the single countries?

Providing such information would not create problems related to privacy or security. By not providing it, INTERPOL is however withholding from the public vital information needed to assess its work. At the same time, it also seems a paradox that the organization doesn’t keep track – or is not able to reveal - the number of individuals that have been victims of a Red Notice abuse: the press office limited its response to the fact that about 3% of the Red Notices received are sent to the legal office for review.

Given that INTERPOL is “only” a facilitator of data exchange, the agency can wash its hands about the fate that attends Red Notice subjects. By saying it doesn’t deal with guilt or innocence, INTERPOL can overlook the fact that Red Notices are used to go after activists, dissidents and political opponents face. But there is still a duty it cannot refuse to respond to: release transparent data about its activity and that of its members.

Also published in Italian on Wired Italy.