The International Criminal Police Organization, more commonly known as INTERPOL, is an international organisation facilitating international police cooperation. INTERPOL has 194 member countries. Each member country maintains a National Central Bureau, which links national police with each other to form INTERPOL’s global network.
INTERPOL has its headquarters in Lyon, France, various Regional Bureaus and Special Representative Offices around the world, as well as a Global Complex for Innovation (IGCI) in Singapore.
Among its various capabilities, INTERPOL has the ability to publish Notices which are international alerts allowing police in member countries to share critical crime-related information.
Notices generally contain two main types of information:
- Identity details (physical description, photograph, fingerprints, identity document numbers etc.)
- Judicial information (offence with which the person is charged; references to the laws under which the charge is made or conviction was obtained; references to the arrest warrant or court sentence etc.)
Types of Notices Issued by INTERPOL
- Red Notice – used to seek the location and arrest of a person wanted by a legal jurisdiction or an international tribunal with a view to his/her extradition. Red Notices are overwhelmingly the most frequent type of notice issued by INTERPOL.
- Blue Notice– used to locate, identify or obtain information on a person of interest in a criminal investigation.
- Green Notice– used to warn about a person’s criminal activities if that person is considered to be a possible threat to public safety.
- Yellow Notice– used to locate a missing person or to identify a person unable to identify himself/herself.
- Black Notice– used to seek information on unidentified bodies.
- Orange Notice– used to warn of an event, a person, an object or a process representing an imminent threat and danger to persons or property.
- Purple Notice– used to provide information on modi operandi, procedures, objects, devices or hiding places used by criminals.
- United Nations Security Council Special Notice– used to inform INTERPOL’s members that an individual or an entity is subject to UN sanctions.
- Diffusions – similar to the Notice, a diffusion is issued for the same purposes as notices but sent directly by a member country or an international entity to the countries of their choice. Diffusions are also recorded in the Organization’s police databases.
Conditions and process of imposing a Red Notice
Red notices are published at the request of a National Central Bureau or an international entity with powers of investigation and prosecution in criminal matters in order to seek the location of a wanted person and his/her detention, arrest or restriction of movement for the purpose of extradition, surrender, or similar lawful action.
The INTERPOL General Secretariat publishes notices based on requests from National Central Bureaus (NCBs) or authorised international entities. All notices are published on INTERPOL’s internal databases after a compliance check has been completed.
There are now approximately 58,000 active INTERPOL Red Notices. The public however can only see the 7,000 Red Notices that Interpol has chosen to publish. The rest are restricted to law enforcement use only.
INTERPOL’s Rules on the Processing of Data
There are various criteria which must nominally be met before a Red Notice is issued by INTERPOL. The criteria are set out in Interpol’s Rules on the Processing of Data (‘the INTERPOL rules’). Specifically, Article 83 dictates:
- An arrest warrant must have been issued by the country seeking the imposition of the Red Notice.
- If the person is sought for prosecution, the conduct constituting an offence must be punishable by a maximum deprivation of liberty of at least two years or a more serious penalty;
- If the person is sought to serve a sentence, he/she must have been sentenced to at least six months of imprisonment and/or there is at least six months of the sentence remaining to be served.
- Red Notices also ought not be issued in relation to offences apparently related to behavioural or cultural norms, those arising from private matters, disputes or family issues, or offences arising from violations of administrative law.
INTERPOL is also strictly forbidden under its constitution from undertaking ‘any intervention or activities of a political, military, religious or racial character’ and is meant to act in accordance with ‘the spirit of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights’.
While INTERPOL publishes and disseminates Red Notices, it is the requesting country that’s actually seeking help to find a wanted person. It is also important to note that this a voluntary system. No state is legally obliged to arrest somebody based on a red notice. INTERPOL recognises that ‘each member country decides for itself what legal value to give a red notice within their borders’.
Common Categories of Abuse
A legitimate and bone fide red notice is intended to alert police departments and law enforcement globally that a wanted person’s location is sought, generally with a view to securing an arrest and an extradition.
A Red Notice issued for an illegitimate or inappropriate reason can be considered to be an abuse of the INTERPOL system. This is in large part because the very fact of a Red Notice issued against a person’s name can make it extremely difficult for them to travel, work or generally deal with local law enforcement. Many countries will also arrest and detain individuals on the basis of an INTERPOL Red Notice without conducting any independent investigation. Therefore, the consequences of a spurious Red Notice can be significant.
The Strengthening Respect for Human Rights, Strengthening INTERPOL report published by Fair Trials International examines some of the types of abuses which occur in relation to INTERPOL Red Notices.
According to the report, there are three main types of abuse relating to the issue of Red Notices:
- Political abuse – for example, notices issued against exiled political activists or foreign asylum seekers.
- Corruption – this includes the issue of Red Notices by way of retribution or revenge, whether relating to personal matters or corporate affairs.
- Failure to seek extradition – by issuing what is in effect a malicious Red Notice with consequential impacts on the “wanted” person, but without any attempt to bring them back to the issuing country if located.
There are a number of existing issues when considering the prevalence of abuse of the INTERPOL Red Notice regime.
- Insufficient supporting material for notice requests from member states – Although it is intended that national law enforcement bodies provide evidence of arrest warrants before Red Notices are issued, this is not presently a requirement. Further, the arrest warrant requirement itself does not limit potential instances of abuse, as a corrupt or flawed system is likely to issue warrants or enter convictions on spurious grounds in any event.
- Lack of transparency in the publication of Red Notices – It is often unclear why INTERPOL makes some Red Notices public but not others. Further, INTERPOL has no obligation to provide information if contacted by a citizen who suspects they are the target of a non-public notice. The consequence is that many targets don’t know a Red Notice exists until they’re arrested crossing a border.
- Immunity and conflict of interest considerations – There is presently no recognised judicial recourse against abuse and countries are not penalised in instances of recognised abuse of the system. Further, there have been concerns about conflict of interest. In March 2017, in the midst of allegations that the UAE was using INTERPOL primarily as a means of facilitating debt collection, the UAE donated $54 million to INTERPOL, which roughly equalled the contributions by all other member states.
Which countries most commonly abuse Red Notices?
Whilst there is a lack of detailed public information around which states issue the most politically motivated or abusive Red Notices, limited information is available.
Russia, China and Turkey, which stepped up a crackdown on wanted fugitives in the wake of the 2016 failed coup bid against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, are presently regarded as the most egregious abusers of the Red Notice system.
Of the 7,000 or so public Red Notices, 2,631 are based on requests from Russia. The United States, by comparison, has requested 331 of the current public Red Notices, Canada 58, France 26, Japan 2, and the UK zero.
Outside Russia, China and Turkey, there are documented examples of abuse on the part of Egypt, Azerbaijan, UAE, Venezuela, Iran, Indonesia and Bahrain.
Case examples: Red Notice abuse in action
After persecution and torture at home in Egypt, Sayed Abdellatif fled his home country and sought asylum in Australia in 2012.
Abdellatif arrived in Australia by boat in 2012, with his wife and children.
He was detained indefinitely on the basis of a Red Notice issued by INTERPOL at Cairo’s request and spent five years held in a refugee detention centre before the notice was lifted in 2018.
It was later found that convictions recorded in absentia in Egypt were obtained using evidence obtained under ‘severe torture’.
Hakeem al-Araibi is a professional footballer who was granted refugee status and residency in Australia in 2017 after fleeing his native Bahrain. While travelling to Thailand in November 2018 for his honeymoon, he was arrested and detained by Thai authorities who commended extradition proceedings to return al-Araibi to Bahrain.
It was eventually revealed that Bahrain was granted a Red Notice under circumstances which contravened INTERPOL’s policies to protect refugees from the country they fled. It was later acknowledged by Australian authorities that negligence had resulted in relevant information pertaining to al-Araibi’s refugee status not being communicated to INTERPOL or Thai authorities.
Al-Araibi was eventually freed when Thailand discontinued extradition proceedings, and he returned to Australia in February 2019 after 76 days in Thai custody.
Viktor Yanukovych, the former president of Ukraine, was made the subject of an INTERPOL Red Notice on the request of Russia in 2015.
The publication of the Red Notice was followed by an application by solicitors acting for Yanukovych to have the notice removed on the basis that the cases against them were politically motivated.
In March 2017, INTERPOL deleted from its databases the red notice issued in respect of Yanukovych and additional data held on its files concerning his son, Oleksandr Yanukovych.
Cologne based novelist Akhanli was arrested and detained in Spain for two months following the issue of an INTERPOL Red Notice on the request of Turkey.
The relevant matters concerned an alleged robbery and murder in 2010 for which Akhanli was found not guilty. The Turkish government subsequently quashed and alleged that Akhanli had carried out the crime as the head of a terrorist organisation.
Following an inquiry in Germany, it was suggested that Turkey was ‘instrumentalising’ INTERPOL to hunt down and silence Turkish governmental dissidents who have emigrated outside the country’s borders. Upon Akhanli’s return to Germany, Akhanli’s arrest was strongly and publically criticised by German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Helsinki Commission Hearing & Proposed Bill
The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, commonly referred to simply as the Helsinki Commission, convened a hearing on 12 September 2019 specifically examining the use of INTERPOL Red Notices as ‘tools of transnational repression’ by autocrats, who seek to improperly exploit the system to silence state dissidents and personal adversaries.
The Commission issued an explanation for the hearing, stating that as modern technology permits political dissidents and human rights defenders to operate from almost anywhere on the planet, repressive regimes have increasingly tried to intimidate them using tools available as part of the INTERPOL regime. The prevalence of diffusions and Red Notices being used as a tool of harassment is said to undermine, not strengthen, transnational rule of law.
- Roger Wicker, US Senator for Mississippi chaired the hearing which involved a panel of experts who provided individual testimonies on abuse of the INTERPOL Red Notice system.
- Alexander Cooley, Director, Columbia University’s Harriman Institute for the Study of Russia, Eurasia, and Eastern Europe and Claire Tow Professor of Political Science, Barnard College, testified about harassment of political exiles and the denial of due process on detention. Specific examples of abuse on the part of Azerbaijan, Venezuela, India and Tajikistan were raised.
- Nate Schenkkan, Director for Special Research, Freedom House, examined the global campaign to punish and disrupt dissidents by Turkey after the attempted governmental coup in 2016.
- Bruno Min, Senior Legal and Policy Advisor, Fair Trials testified primarily on the need for greater transparency in INTERPOL’s processes for acceptance and review of Red Notice applications. It was also noted that, despite their ability to significantly impact civil liberties, INTERPOL diffusions were not subjected to the same level of scrutiny as other notices.
- Sandra A. Grossman, Partner, Grossman Young & Hammond, Immigration Law, testified on how autocratic governments are using the US immigration system to abuse exiles. US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) are known to use Red Notices to detain people and this is in turn exploited, often to detain persons with a legitimate claim for asylum.
On 12 September 2019, following the hearing, the Transnational Repression Accountability and Prevention (TRAP) Act was introduced in the Senate and House of Representatives with the express purpose of addressing politically motivated abuse of INTERPOL by autocracies.
If ultimately passed into law, the TRAP Act formally codifies limitations on how INTERPOL requests can be used by US authorities.
The Bill requires the Departments of Justice, Homeland Security and State, in consultation with other relevant agencies, to provide Congress with an assessment of autocratic abuse of INTERPOL, what the United States is doing to counteract it and how to adapt United States policy to this evolving autocratic practice. The State Department would also be required to publicly report on the abuse of INTERPOL in its annual Country Reports on Human Rights to create a transparent, public record of these violations of the rule of law.