On the eve of this week’s U.S. midterm election, Russian businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin appeared to acknowledge for the first time that he tried to interfere in the 2016 presidential election. Prigozhin, a close associate of President Vladimir Putin, issued a blunt statement on Monday that said, in part, “We have interfered, are interfering and will continue to interfere. Carefully, precisely, surgically and in our own way.”
Prigozhin wasn’t admitting anything the Department of Justice didn’t already know. Special counsel Robert Mueller had detailed his meddling efforts as part of the Justice Department’s investigation into Russian interference in the election. In 2018, a federal grand jury indicted Prigozhin for engaging in “information warfare against the U.S.,” and he was placed on a list of individuals wanted by the FBI, with a $250,000 reward for information leading to his arrest. U.S. officials also obtained a “red notice” from Interpol, requesting that the international police organization’s members arrest him if he came into their jurisdiction.
In 2020, Interpol quietly withdrew the notice. The only announcement of the move came from one of Prigozhin’s companies, though without an explanation of why it happened. Interpol and the Department of Justice remained silent. But now a hacked Interpol document reviewed by The Intercept reveals that the organization’s oversight body determined that the red notice requested by the U.S. was of a “predominantly political character” — and a violation of Interpol’s principle of political neutrality.
The emergence of the Interpol document — and Prigozhin’s admission to election interference, which he repeated in even stronger words in a statement to The Intercept — are likely to prove controversial. Mueller’s investigation continues to be a lightning rod in American politics, with former President Donald Trump still insisting it was a “witch hunt” aimed at unjustly connecting him to Russian involvement in the election he won against Hillary Clinton. Interpol’s determination that the red notice request was politically motivated might be seen as bolstering the claims of the former president and his supporters. But Prigozhin’s admission that he did in fact seek to interfere in U.S. elections is also likely to renew questions about Interpol at a time when the agency is already facing intense criticism that it is vulnerable to political exploitation.
The document reviewed by The Intercept is a partially redacted, 12-page decision from the Commission for the Control of Interpol’s Files, an independent body that reviews appeals against Interpol notices. It is marked “not for public dissemination” and includes “restricted” notations where material has been redacted. The CCF document was found in the correspondence of a Russian law firm representing Prigozhin, Capital Legal Services, or CLS. Earlier this year, in the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, hackers targeted more than 50 Russian companies and government agencies; at least 360,000 emails were hacked from CLS. In total, more than 13 terabytes of Russian documents were provided to Distributed Denial of Secrets, a transparency collective that has published the raw documents on its website. The Intercept and the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project formed a consortium of news organizations to investigate the documents.
Interpol, the CCF, and Prigozhin did not dispute the authenticity of the document, and The Intercept found no digital evidence that it had been tampered with. The document appears to have been redacted by the commission before being shared with Prigozhin’s legal team.
U.S. vs. Prigozhin
In addition to his alleged role in election interference, Prigozhin has long been known as the founder of the Wagner Group, a notorious mercenary outfit doing the Kremlin’s bidding in half a dozen conflicts around the world. He was originally connected to Putin’s orbit through his catering business, which is why the Western media dubbed him “Putin’s chef.” Prigozhin’s global and domestic profile was significantly raised following his mercenaries’ involvement in conflicts in Syria and multiple African countries, as well as after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine this year. Prigozhin is currently under sanctions both in the U.S. and Europe for his alleged election interference and his mercenaries’ actions in Libya and Ukraine.
For years, Prigozhin denied any involvement with Wagner, but he recently embraced his role as the group’s founder after it began playing an increasingly public and important role in Ukraine. In an investigation published last month, The Intercept detailed the lengths to which Prigozhin went to dispute earlier reports tying him to Wagner, relying on a network of U.S. and Europe-based attorneys in an effort to contest his worsening reputation as a global warlord.
The U.S. case against Prigozhin was one of the highest-profile prosecutions to emerge from the two-year Mueller investigation. Prigozhin was indicted along with 12 other individuals; two companies he controls, Concord Management and Consulting, and Concord Catering; and a troll factory he funded, the St. Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency. At a press conference announcing the charges, including “conspiracy to defraud the United States,” Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein accused Prigozhin and his co-defendants of seeking to spread “distrust towards the candidates and the political system in general.”
The case proceeded slowly, with only the two Concord entities showing up in court, via their U.S. attorneys. For two years the process was marred by judicial rebukes, a leak of documents shared in discovery, and growing concern by U.S. prosecutors that Concord’s team was exploiting the discovery process to obtain sensitive national security information, even as there was no real prospect that the company’s leadership would present itself to be held accountable in the U.S.
Prosecutors ultimately dropped the case against Concord Management and Concord Catering in March 2020, weeks before it was supposed to go to trial. “The calculation of whether a substantial federal interest is served by this prosecution … has changed since the indictment was returned,” Justice Department officials wrote in court filings. But the indictments against the Internet Research Agency and Prigozhin himself remained in force, as did the Interpol red notice.
Prigozhin’s attorneys had lodged a complaint against the red notice in late 2019, arguing, among other things, that the legal proceedings in the U.S. were of a political nature. According to the CLS emails, attorneys representing Prigozhin followed up with Interpol just days before the U.S. abruptly dropped the charges against the two Concord companies. Prigozhin’s attorneys told Interpol that they were sending a “memorandum with recent developments and other relevant information for further consideration by the Commission.”
It’s unclear whether the dropped charges against the two Prigozhin companies had an impact on Interpol’s red notice review. Because the document is partially redacted, the full scope of the CCF’s deliberations remains unknown. The document notes that the U.S. National Central Bureau, or USNCB — the U.S. representative body at Interpol — responded to the commission’s requests for information as it reviewed the case. The USNCB, according to the document, confirmed that “the United States remains interested in requesting the Applicant’s extradition on the charge should he be apprehended in a country from which his extradition is legally possible.” Feedback from Russia’s National Central Bureau was redacted.
The document also indicates that the CCF sought the input of Interpol’s General Secretariat as part of its review — a somewhat unusual step, according to Bruno Min, who has worked with political activists targeted by red notices and leads a campaign by Fair Trials, a human rights group, to reform Interpol. “It’s not in all cases that the General Secretariat is brought in to make representations regarding a complaint, so this might suggest that this was a red notice that they were quite keen to defend,” Min said.
The point of the CCF’s review was not to examine the underlying evidence in any criminal case, the document notes, but to ensure that red notices are compliant with Interpol guidelines. The CCF concluded that “there is a predominant political dimension to this case and that the information provided by the USNCB does not satisfy the requirements of Article 3 of INTERPOL’s constitution.”
The CCF’s decision appears to have hinged on the commission’s concern that the case against Prigozhin might be perceived as political — rather than on a conclusive determination that it was.
Keeping the red notice in place, the CCF concluded, “would have significant adverse implications for the neutrality” of Interpol.
Keeping the red notice in place, the CCF concluded, “would have significant adverse implications for the neutrality” of Interpol, causing the organization to be “perceived as siding with one country against another or facilitating politically motivated activities.” The conclusion is not a determination that “U.S. charges should not be borne out in national judicial proceedings or that they are not lawful,” the CCF adds, but that the red notice doesn’t meet Interpol’s “legal requirements.”
CCF’s wording is important, Min noted. “It’s worth noting that the CCF does not seem to be saying emphatically that the U.S. is using its criminal legal system for political purposes,” he said. “Instead, it’s saying that it’s concerned about it being ‘perceived’ as though it’s siding with one country over another over a political issue, and that’s the reason why the Red Notice doesn’t meet the necessary requirements under Interpol’s rules.”
In an explanation of its reasoning, the committee cited the “numerous declarations of U.S. government officials, and extensive media reports, as well as the information provided by the USNCB concerning this case,” along with the very mandate of the Mueller investigation, to “ensure a full and thorough investigation of the Russian government’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election.”
“This reveals that the scope of the inquiry is linked to possible electoral crimes but also specifically target [sic] a foreign government, namely Russia,” the commission concluded.
Interpol issues thousands of red notices and other kinds of alerts every year. According to the organization, there were 23,716 red notices and wanted individuals alerts in 2021. Some 1,270 alerts were denied or withdrawn that same year for various reasons, including 353 for violating Interpol’s principle of political neutrality — although those figures do not include notices that were rescinded after review by the CCF. In 2019-2020, the CCF processed 1,333 complaints and deleted 524 notices it found to be out of compliance with Interpol rules.
Interpol has become particularly sensitive to accusations that it is vulnerable to political pressure. Criticism of the agency has intensified in recent years as a number of authoritarian countries — from China to the United Arab Emirates — have sought greater influence within the agency and exploited the red notice system to target activists and political dissidents abroad. Last year, The Intercept reported on efforts by Chinese and Emirati officials to seek powerful positions at the agency. A previous Russian bid to install a senior official in Interpol’s presidency had failed earlier after Western officials and human rights groups raised fears that the candidate would use the position to track and target critics of the Kremlin.
Asked about the CCF document and the withdrawal of the red notice, a spokesperson for Interpol wrote in a statement to The Intercept that “[t]he General Secretariat does not comment on individual cases unless there are exceptional circumstances.” The statement added: “The principles of neutrality and independence are enshrined in INTERPOL’s Constitution and have been reaffirmed by the General Assembly on a number of occasions.”
A spokesperson for CCF wrote in a statement to The Intercept that “requests considered by the CCF are confidential and the CCF cannot comment on specific cases with third parties.”
The U.S. Justice Department declined to comment.
Pavel Karpunin, a partner at Capital Legal Services, the Russian law firm representing Prigozhin declined to comment on “pending, ongoing or past cases” and on his client’s recent statements. “Based on publicly available information, in reviewing Mr. Prigozhin’s case, INTERPOL found that it is subject to a predominant political dimension and does not satisfy the requirements of Article 3 of INTERPOL’s Constitution,” he wrote.
“Now about why we did it. We did it only because the U.S. boorishly interfered in Russian elections in 1996, 2000, 2008, and 2012. … 50 young guys, whom I personally organized, kicked the entire American government in the ass.”
In an email to The Intercept sent through one of his companies, Prigozhin denied that CLS emails had been hacked, and he accused “the FBI or the CIA” of disseminating the documents instead. He also wrote that “not only the inclusion on the wanted list, but, in fact, the so-called U.S. election interference trial itself was absolutely politically motivated.” But he confirmed overseeing a few dozen people who “were running blogs and social networks that ordinary Americans read” and “exposed problems that have existed in the United States for years and decades.”
He added, “Now about why we did it. We did it only because the U.S. boorishly interfered in Russian elections in 1996, 2000, 2008, and 2012. … 50 young guys, whom I personally organized, kicked the entire American government in the ass. And we will continue to do so as many times as needed.”
The CCF is intended to provide a system of checks and balances, enforcing a principle of neutrality that forbids Interpol from “engaging in matters of political, military, religious and racial character,” according to the organization’s constitution. While the commission reverses Interpol’s inclusion of certain individuals in its databases, the reasoning behind those reversals is not usually made public. The hacked document offers a rare look at that reasoning‚ and sheds light on Interpol’s delicate balancing act when addressing accusations of politicization.
Interpol’s General Secretariat assessed the U.S. request for a red notice and found it to be valid; the CCF reversed that decision.
As criticism of Interpol’s vulnerability to political influence intensified, the agency seems to have grown more sensitive to those accusations, and more eager to address them. After the arrests abroad of a number of prominent political activists, Interpol has undertaken a series of reforms, including instituting a policy meant to protect refugees from being targeted with alerts from their country of origin. The agency also pledged to change how it vets alerts, for instance by ensuring that its administrators review requests for red notices before they’re made available to member countries. In Prigozhin’s case, according to the document, Interpol’s General Secretariat assessed the U.S. request for a red notice and found it to be valid; the CCF reversed that decision.
According to the statement from Interpol’s spokesperson, “if the CCF concludes that the data concerned — a Red Notice for example — does not comply with INTERPOL’s rules, the CCF’s decision is final and binding on the Organization and the General Secretariat would promptly delete the Red Notice in question.”
But determining whether a red notice is political is not always so straightforward, Min noted. “They generally err on the side of caution,” he said, stressing that the CCF does not seek to make factual findings about the charges leveled against an individual. “I understand why they might have difficulties, because quite often it’s not abundantly clear whether something is an abusive red notice request. But then again, there are certain cases in which it should be bloody damn obvious, and they don’t seem to get that right.”
Min noted that while the CCF is less frequently accused of politicization than other bodies within Interpol, and while the agency as a whole has made significant efforts in recent years to increase its transparency, critics have at times raised concerns about the makeup of the commission. In 2020, when Prigozhin’s notice was lifted, a Russian prosecutor who sat on the commission at the time, Petr Gorodov, recused himself from the Prigozhin review, as required by Interpol rules; so did a U.S. representative on the commission at the time, Theresa McHenry. The remaining members of the commission who reviewed Prigozhin’s appeal were Sanna Palo, of Finland; Isaias Trindade, of Angola; and chairperson Vitalie Pirlog, a former Moldovan intelligence officer whose appointment to the position had raised concern.
“Just because you are a democratic state, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you can never fall foul of the rules.”
While Min’s organization mostly works with activists who were clearly targeted by authoritarian governments, accusations of politicization can be leveled against governments that are not regarded as authoritarian, he said. “Political motivation or political character, that can happen in lots of different contexts,” he added. “Just because you are a democratic state, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you can never fall foul of the rules.”
Still, Bill Browder, a British businessman and fierce Putin critic who successfully appealed for the removal of an Interpol notice requested by Russian officials, said that Interpol continues to be weaponized by authoritarian regimes. “Everybody accuses them of political motivation all the time, but they’re busy chasing Uyghurs all over the world and they don’t drop those cases,” Browder said, referring to an oft-cited abuse of Interpol’s notice system by Chinese authorities. “It’s something more sinister … that Russia somehow has its claws into Interpol.”
Free to Travel
While it was in effect, the red notice significantly restricted Prigozhin’s ability to travel to countries that have extradition agreements with the U.S. But its withdrawal was useful for more than arrest-free travel.
Prigozhin’s attorneys attempted to use the withdrawal in their attempt to contest European sanctions against him, according to other hacked CLS documents reviewed by The Intercept. In a draft appeal against European sanctions, Prigozhin’s attorneys noted that “on 30 June 2020, the Commission for the Control of INTERPOL’s Files declared the U.S. prosecution of the Applicant to be of a ‘predominantly political dimension’ and ordered the Red Notice issued against the Applicant to be terminated.”
Their arguments ultimately failed. Earlier this year, the General Court, the EU’s second highest court, upheld the sanctions.
Still, the red notice’s withdrawal provided some relief to Prigozhin. In a public statement issued through Concord at the time, Prigozhin welcomed Interpol’s decision and advertised his plans to travel to the Baltic states, Turkey, and Germany, where he might have been subject to arrest.
“Due to the fact that his plane is under sanctions,” his representatives wrote at the time, “he plans to fly on regular flights.”
Correction: November 18, 2022
This story has been updated to clarify a description of an Interpol notice about Bill Browder.