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Interview: Browder Case Highlights Need To Prevent Abuse Of Interpol

Interpol's headquarters in Lyon, France
Interpol's headquarters in Lyon, France
In late May, Interpol rejected a request from Moscow to track the movements of American investor Bill Browder, who has been actively seeking an investigation into the 2009 death while in custody of his lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky. Russian authorities have accused Browder of tax evasion and attempting to illegally acquire shares in the natural gas monopoly, Gazprom.

RFE/RL correspondent Robert Coalson spoke with Alex Tinsley, a law reform officer at the London-based nongovernmental organization Fair Trials International, about the abuse of Interpol's mechanisms for political purposes by Russia and other countries and about what needs to be done.

RFE/RL: What is the significance of Interpol’s decision in the Browder case?

Alex Tinsley
Alex Tinsley
Alex Tinsley: What happened in the Browder case is that Russia put out a request seeking to use Interpol's channels to keep tabs on Mr. Browder's movements, and Interpol swiftly refused to allow Russia to use its channels in that way. It has been portrayed as a snub to Russia, but it was very much to be expected.

This is an incredibly well-publicized case, and it is not particularly significant that they actually stopped Interpol's channels being used to pursue Mr. Browder. What is more worrying is the fact that swift action hasn't been taken in the same way in other cases of political opponents who have been pursued through Interpol's channels.

RFE/RL: Before we move on to those cases, can you tell us more about what a red notice is and what are its consequences?

A red notice is an alert which lets law-enforcement agencies all around the world know that a particular person is sought by a particular country. It is published by Interpol at that country's request, and what happens is that when a person who is subject to an Interpol red notice is encountered at an airport or other forms of police checks, they are very likely to be arrested, because lots of countries will automatically arrest someone who is subject to a red notice. And then they will potentially spend time in detention, often for several months at the expense of their health while the question is decided whether they can be extradited or not.

But there are also lots of other effects -- there is a whole catalog of human impact that comes with a red notice. It can affect your ability to obtain credit, to keep professional licenses, open bank accounts. And people lose their jobs. People who need to travel and who need visas will find their visas being revoked and will not be able to travel. So it can really have some serious impact. It has been said that unlike a prosecution, there is no swift end to it. It just persecutes consistently over time.

William Browder
William Browder
RFE/RL: You said that Browder is not the only case of the alleged political use of Interpol by Russia.

On the subject of Russia, there are several examples of other cases of political opponents who have been pursued through Interpol's channels, sometimes with very serious human consequences for the people concerned, where Interpol hasn't acted swiftly to stop its channels being used.

The obvious example is the case of Pyotr Silayev. This is an antifascist activist from Moscow who was wanted by Russia in relation to his involvement in a demonstration about the destruction of the Khimki Forest in 2010. He was recognized as a political refugee [by Finland]; he's a well-known activist. But nevertheless, Interpol's systems were used to secure his arrest and he then spent time in detention before the Spanish courts again recognized that the case against him was political. And yet Interpol did not pick up this abuse of its systems.

And there are other examples, too. There is the well-known case of Akhmed Zakayev, the Chechen leader who lives in exile [in England] and who has been subject to a red notice for a long time and who also hasn’t had any assistance from Interpol. The Bill Browder case stands out as one where Interpol responded to very widespread publicity, but it is certainly not the rule.

RFE/RL: In Silayev’s case, the Russian request against him is based on an accusation of hooliganism. Yet, while he was vacationing in Spain, antiterrorism police burst into his hotel room in the early hours of the morning. He was held for nearly a week in a maximum-security prison without being able to communicate with his family. It all seems out of proportion. All this for hooliganism?

I think it is significant that people are willing to place such reliance on Interpol's communications. I mean, it shows how seriously anything is taken when it comes through Interpol's channels, that those sorts of resources were deployed for such an obviously petty charge based on a political dispute in a demonstration.

And this is the reason why so many people are arrested subject to red notices and why it is very important for Interpol to make the effort to detect these cases, to stop people from being arrested in the first place. It isn't satisfactory to rely on huge amounts of publicity, as in the case of Mr. Browder.

RFE/RL: Are there other countries in the former Soviet Union or elsewhere that have a reputation for using Interpol to attack their political enemies?

The problem of Interpol abuse is not restricted to Russia. That is the first point. It is, in fact, a global problem. We know of a case of a Venezuelan anticorruption journalist who took 18 months to get rid of her red notice despite the fact that she was recognized as a refugee in the United States.

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It is well known that Belarus, for instance, has sought to use Interpol's channels to pursue its political opponents. It sought the arrest of one of the candidates in the 2010 election who stood against [President Alyaksandr] Lukashenka, Ales Mikhalevich. Interpol, in fact, refused this request for a red notice, but in the meantime, Belarus had already been able to use Interpol's networks to circulate information to other countries and Mr. Mikhalevich, a recognized refugee in the Czech Republic, was arrested in Poland as a result of this, much to Poland's embarrassment.

So, the problem of the abuse of Interpol's networks is certainly not restricted to Russia. There is a problem in the countries you are concerned with. It is really a global problem. There are cases from Iran, Turkey, many different countries.

RFE/RL: Is there any risk for a country that is found to abuse Interpol in this way?

: Interpol's rules provide certain sanctions. It is not clear how these are applied or how frequently they have been applied. Some commentators have called for countries to be excluded if they repeatedly abuse Interpol's channels. That is not something that Fair Trials International supports. Our view is that the onus should be on Interpol to stop the abuses from happening so that, try as they might, countries can't succeed in abusing its channels, which renders the whole question of sanctions much less crucial.

RFE/RL: Is there anything else that you think needs to be mentioned?

One important thing is this: Interpol's systems are a vital law-enforcement tool and I think it is important to recognize that. Cases of abuse are a problem because they detract from Interpol's real purpose, which is to help police forces around the world cooperate in fighting crime. Some reform is needed to prevent abuses happening in order to strengthen Interpol's status and its ability to discharge that responsibility.

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