Tiina Jauhiainen knows the reach of the United Arab Emirates firsthand. In 2018, Jauhiainen helped her friend and skydiving partner Sheikha Latifa bint Mohammed al-Maktoum escape the country after accusing her father, the ruler of Dubai, of restricting her basic freedoms and locking up her sister. Jauhiainen and Sheikha Latifa fled the UAE on Jet Skis and boarded a yacht, but they were captured by Indian commandos in international waters and sent back to the UAE, where Sheikha Latifa was returned to her family and Jauhiainen was detained for a few weeks.
Months later, back in her native Finland, Jauhiainen applied for a visa to Australia, where she wanted to visit a friend. Australia rejected her application, stating that she was the target of a criminal investigation. She later learned that she was named in a “red notice” requested by the UAE and issued by international policing agency Interpol — and only after a lawyer intervened did she get the notice rescinded. “It just shows how easily they can abuse the system,” Jauhiainen told The Intercept.
Now Jauhiainen and others who have been detained in the UAE are watching Interpol’s upcoming election with concern. Ahmed Naser al-Raisi, a senior official with the UAE’s Interior Ministry who oversees security forces and detentions, is running for president of the organization. Al-Raisi’s fate will be decided at a meeting of Interpol’s General Assembly in Istanbul next week, and human rights advocates have been waging a campaign to stop him and a Chinese official who is also running for office.
Interpol, which is headquartered in Lyon, France, and brings together police forces from 194 countries, has long faced questions about its vulnerability to politicization, in part because its members include governments that are notorious for human rights abuses and the repression of dissent. While the agency maintains that it is politically neutral and its constitution stipulates that it must operate “in the spirit” of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Interpol has come under increased scrutiny in recent years as authoritarian regimes around the world have exploited its systems — particularly the red notices the agency distributes to alert countries about wanted individuals — as a way to target activists, dissenters, and political opponents. Many abuses of the red-notice system date to after September 11, when a U.S. secretary-general, Ronald Noble, oversaw an expansion of Interpol’s reach, rolling out a digitization effort that led to an abrupt spike in alerts.
An unusually large number of seats are up for grabs at Interpol’s November 23-25 General Assembly, which was canceled last year because of the coronavirus pandemic. Members will elect a new president and replace most of the agency’s executive committee, which runs its day-to-day operations, as well as all members of the Commission for the Control of Interpol’s Files, which handles complaints about red notices.
While member countries are not obligated to act on an Interpol red notice, individuals targeted by them often face arrest and detention, sometimes for prolonged periods, as well as extradition. People named in red notices can also lose access to financial services or have their visas or passports canceled.
“It’s a policing organization: It’s an organization that’s run by police, for the benefit of the police, and the police don’t necessarily like to be very open about everything that they do.”
Calls for greater transparency about the agency’s safeguard mechanisms and warnings about abuse of its systems have intensified in the lead-up to the election. While the presidency has traditionally been a ceremonial position, China recently tried to use the role to expand its influence. The lack of transparency and standards for who can run for office, critics warn, is symptomatic of much deeper problems within Interpol.
“It’s not just the idea that Interpol’s president might come from one of the worst abusers of human rights,” said Bruno Min, who leads the campaign to reform Interpol at the equal justice group Fair Trials, “but the fact that the whole process is so opaque.”
“It’s a policing organization: It’s an organization that’s run by police, for the benefit of the police, and the police don’t necessarily like to be very open about everything that they do,” he added, noting that Interpol is careful not to openly rebuke its members. “They don’t like doing things that might embarrass or undermine certain countries. … They’re very careful not to be too critical, they’re very diplomatic.”
Interpol did not respond to a request for comment.
A Tool for Autocrats
Interpol’s work began in 1914, when police from 24 countries got together to coordinate fugitive hunts. After World War I, the group came under the control of the Nazis, and many countries stopped participating. The agency later regrouped, evolving into Interpol in 1956 and expanding beyond Europe and North America.
In the aftermath of 9/11, as the U.S.-led “war on terror” ramped up, Interpol’s work grew exponentially. A technological upgrade removed bureaucratic obstacles and made it much easier, and faster, for countries to issue red notices. The number of notices issued increased tenfold over the last two decades, with 11,000 going out last year. According to Interpol, there are currently more than 66,000 active red notices, though less than 8,000 are visible to the public.
As the number of alerts surged, reports of them running afoul of the organization’s commitment to human rights also multiplied. Critics have pushed for Interpol to better protect its systems from abuse. Some have also called on member countries to prevent the agency from becoming a tool for autocrats, including by forming voting blocks to oppose candidates from authoritarian regimes.
Much of the most recent criticism has focused on al-Raisi, the UAE official. Al-Raisi has actively campaigned for the presidency on a platform that includes expanding the agency’s use of technology, pointing to the UAE, which engages in extensive surveillance, as a model.
Several human rights groups have raised alarm about al-Raisi’s candidacy, with a coalition of 19 organizations pointing, in a joint letter, to the UAE’s “poor human rights record, including the systematic use of torture and ill-treatment in state security facilities,” and warning that his appointment would “damage Interpol’s reputation and stand in great contradiction to the spirit of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the organisation’s mission.” Al-Raisi, the group added, “is part of a security apparatus that continues to systematically target peaceful critics, rendering civic space virtually non-existent.” Some European officials have also opposed al-Raisi’s candidacy.
Critics have also noted the UAE’s record of using Interpol red notices to target individuals over bounced checks, a controversial practice common in several Gulf countries that “makes Interpol into some sort of international debt collection agency,” said Min. UAE officials did not respond to a request for comment.
The UAE has sought a greater role in the agency’s operations in recent years. In 2017, it made an unprecedented $50 million pledge to the Interpol Foundation for a Safer World, a Swiss-based, independent nonprofit that supports Interpol’s activities. Despite its high profile, Interpol itself is a rather small organization, with an annual budget of just over $150 million. Member countries are required to contribute in proportion to their economies. The UAE’s donation to the foundation — far larger than its required $260,000 contribution to the Interpol budget — “represents one of the largest single donations ever made to Interpol,” according to a report published earlier this year by the U.K.’s former director of public prosecutions, David Calvert-Smith. The report questioned whether the UAE is exercising “undue influence” over Interpol.
“I actually cannot believe that … I have to travel to the headquarters of Interpol to ask them not to make one of the men responsible for my torture their next president.”
The UAE also hosted Interpol’s General Assembly in 2018 and was scheduled to do so again in 2020 before the meeting was called off. (This year’s host, Turkey, has also drawn criticism for its history of targeting political dissenters.)
Jauhiainen is joined in her campaign against al-Raisi by two British citizens: Matthew Hedges, who was detained for nine months in 2018 while writing a dissertation on the UAE’s security strategy, and Ali Issa Ahmad, who was detained in Dubai in 2019 after wearing a Qatari T-shirt to a soccer game amid a feud between Qatar and the UAE. Both men were released following diplomatic pressure.
Hedges and Ahmad have filed legal complaints against al-Raisi in the U.K., France, Sweden, and Norway. “I actually cannot believe that almost three years after I was finally released, I have to travel to the headquarters of Interpol to ask them not to make one of the men responsible for my torture their next president,” Hedges said in a speech in Lyon in September.
Human rights groups have also raised concerns about other governments’ potential involvement in Interpol’s operations. In 2016, China’s then-vice minister for public security, Meng Hongwei, was elected president of the organization. He immediately sought to transform what had traditionally been a ceremonial role at Interpol into a position of greater influence and power, most notably by moving into Interpol’s Lyon headquarters with four Chinese assistants, while his predecessors had only visited a couple times a year. His contentious term was cut short in 2018, when he was arrested in China amid leader Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption crusade and was sentenced to 13 years in prison for bribery.
A Russian bid to install a senior official to Interpol’s presidency failed in 2018 after Western officials and human rights groups raised fears that the candidate would use the position to track and target critics of the Kremlin.
Now another Chinese public security official, Hu Binchen, is running for a seat on Interpol’s executive committee — reigniting fears that China could expand its control over the agency’s operations to target individuals wanted for political reasons.
“I think there is, in general, a quite strategic move from China and other authoritarian regimes to take control of these organizations while Western governments are distracted or losing interest.”
Last week, a coalition of legislators from across the world launched a campaign opposing Hu’s candidacy. The group, the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China, pointed to the recent arrest of Uyghur activist Idris Hasan in Morocco after Chinese authorities issued a red notice. While Interpol has since canceled the notice, Hasan remains detained in Morocco and fears extradition to China, where he faces detention and torture. Dolkun Isa, another Uyghur activist and president of the World Uyghur Congress, was briefly arrested in Italy in 2017 while traveling to address the Italian Senate. A red notice naming him was finally rescinded in 2018. (China joined Interpol in the mid-1980s and has issued red notices with increasing frequency since Xi came into power in 2012.)
As the Chinese government has continued to intensify its crackdown on minorities and critics, it has also sought to “bolster its legal mechanisms to extend its policing abroad,” Luke de Pulford, executive director of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China, told The Intercept.
“I think there is, in general, a quite strategic move from China and other authoritarian regimes to take control of these organizations while Western governments are distracted or losing interest,” de Pulford added. “Our concern is obviously in individual cases where activists and exiles are arrested and threatened for deportation or extradition but more broadly, the chilling effect that that has on these communities, on anyone seeking to criticize the Chinese Communist Party globally.”
Hu’s election to the executive committee, the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China members wrote in an open letter, “would be giving a green light to the PRC government to continue their misuse of Interpol and would place the tens of thousands of Hong Konger, Uyghur, Tibetan, Taiwanese and Chinese dissidents living abroad at even greater risk.”
In a separate statement published by the World Uyghur Congress, nearly two dozen human rights advocates wrote, “As activists in exile who are particularly vulnerable to the Chinese Government’s attempts to persecute dissidents abroad, we fear the potential election of Hu Binchen would have grave consequences.”
Critics of both the UAE and Chinese bids have warned that those countries can exert economic pressure to influence the votes of other countries.
In response to a question about Hu’s candidacy, the Chinese Embassy in Washington, D.C., pointed The Intercept to comments foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian made in a press conference Wednesday: “Chinese police have long maintained a practical and friendly cooperative relationship with Interpol and law enforcement departments of its members.”
Facing growing criticism, Interpol has undertaken a series of reforms in recent years. The agency adopted a policy meant to protect refugees from being targeted with alerts from their country of origin and calling on countries to notify Interpol before denying asylum claims following an agency notice. The agency also pledged to change how it vets alerts, for instance by ensuring that Interpol administrators review requests for red notices before they’re made available to member countries.
But while critics welcomed the changes, they warned that observers are not able to monitor whether the reforms are working. “Interpol says that is has very clear regulations around ensuring that political arrests don’t take place through Interpol systems, and what we would argue is that clearly their vetting process is not stringent enough,” said de Pulford, citing the cases of the Uyghur activists targeted by red notices.
Interpol does not publish data about how many red notices it rejects, making it hard to establish how well its vetting process is working. Countries can also bypass the vetting process by issuing “diffusions,” informal alerts to specific countries that theoretically carry less weight than red notices but often include many of the same details.
“We don’t have any information about how they’re able to tell whether a red notice is abusive or not.”
“We don’t have any information about how they’re able to tell whether a red notice is abusive or not,” said Min, of Fair Trials, which has worked with individuals targeted by illegitimate notices, including refugees and activists. “That really makes us question whether they’re actually capable of doing the checks that they say that they’re doing. … They won’t go into any further detail about how exactly it’s done.”
The lack of transparency was on stark display earlier this fall, when Interpol announced, in a statement scant on explanations, that it had reinstated Syria’s access to the agency’s databases nearly a decade after having restricted it early in the country’s war. Syrian activists and critics of President Bashar al-Assad have denounced the move as part of a broader international trend toward the normalization of relationships with Assad’s regime. They warned that Interpol’s decision is “handing Assad new powers to hunt down dissidents beyond Syria’s borders.”
“If I am in any country, I might be arrested, or kidnapped, or taken by anyone, because I am on the blacklist of the Syrian regime,” Kholoud Helmi, a journalist and activist with Families for Freedom, a group that advocates on behalf of Syrians detained or disappeared by the regime, told The Intercept. “Especially for those of us who are everywhere, speaking to the international community, attending events in different countries, all over the world, is this going to silence us in the future? Are we going to jeopardize our safety and security? Am I going to be arrested?”