Yidiresi Aishan, a Uyghur activist living in Turkey, was detained in Morocco on July 19 at the request of the Chinese government after Beijing issued a red notice through Interpol, a global agency that brings together police forces from 194 countries.
Following his arrest, activists raised concerns that Aishan's case was politically driven and that, if returned to his native Xinjiang, the western Chinese province where Beijing has swept more than 1 million Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other Muslim minorities into detention camps, he could face a similar fate.
After international outcry, Interpol suspended Aishan's red notice, the electronic arrest warrant for the organization's most-wanted, and announced a review of his case. But nearly four months later, the 33-year-old remains in custody in Morocco, where local authorities continue to weigh his extradition back to China on alleged terrorism charges, despite Interpol withdrawing the warrant.
Aishan's case is one of many that both critics and experts say is evidence of authoritarian governments abusing Interpol's system to pursue dissidents abroad, where instead of tracking down drug traffickers, war crimes suspects, and alleged extremists, countries are using the agency's global reach to arrest and extradite exiled activists and political opponents.
Those concerns are set to grow as Interpol's general assembly meets in Istanbul for a three-day gathering where it is expected to elect its new leadership on November 25 amid warnings from human rights groups and Western lawmakers that the organization could end up under the sway of autocrats.
"If you let one big state actor behave with impunity, this is inviting other states to follow," Laura Harth, the campaign director for the rights group Safeguard Defenders, told RFE/RL.
Representatives from China and the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.) are bidding for top posts in the French-based policing body and their candidates have faced special criticism.
Hu Binchen, an official at China's Public Security Ministry, is expected to be up for a vacant spot on Interpol's executive committee, which along with the organization's president sets the body's policies and direction. Hu's candidacy is backed by the Chinese government, which stands accused of using Interpol's global network to disappear its citizens and target dissidents, particularly Uyghurs.
Major General Ahmed Naser al-Raisi, inspector-general at the U.A.E.'s Interior Ministry, is aiming to serve a four-year term as Interpol's president. Raisi stands accused of torture and has criminal complaints against him in five countries.
Human rights groups and experts warn that, if elected, both candidates could set a precedent and send a signal to other authoritarian governments that also stand accused of abusing Interpol to pursue opponents abroad, like Iran, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkey, and Venezuela.
"The election of Raisi or Hu would send a signal to other authoritarian governments that it is OK to abuse Interpol," said Edward Lemon, an expert at Texas A&M University whose research has focused on the agency. "They are likely to work with like-minded governments to stymie reform efforts pushing for greater transparency in Interpol and accountability for governments using the organization to pursue opponents."
Interpol did not respond to RFE/RL's request for comment about Aishan's case or concerns raised about Hu's and Raisi's candidacies.
Warnings Of Authoritarian Influence
Interpol says it refuses to be used for political ends and insists that the issuing of red notices is strictly monitored, with its constitution forbidding countries from using it to pursue political opponents. Amid growing criticism, the agency has also adopted reforms in recent years meant to protect refugees and asylum seekers, and pledged to improve how it reviews sending out alerts.
But activists and human rights groups say that Interpol's member governments continue to use the agency for their own ends and that this could grow worse under new leadership.
The Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China, a coalition of legislators from across the world, wrote in an open letter that Hu's election to the executive committee "would be giving a green light to the PRC (People's Republic of China) 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."
Locked Up In China: The Plight Of Xinjiang's Muslims
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty is partnering with its sister organization, Radio Free Asia, to highlight the plight of Muslims living in China's western province of Xinjiang.
Those warnings were echoed in a separate statement from the World Uyghur Congress, an international organization of the ethnic group's diaspora, who wrote that "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."
Dolkun Isa, a Uyghur activist and president of the World Uyghur Congress, was briefly arrested in Italy in 2017 due to a red notice while traveling to address the Italian Senate. (The red notice was ultimately rescinded in 2018.)
Asked about Hu's candidacy, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhai Lijan told reporters on November 17 that "Chinese police have long maintained a practical and friendly cooperative relationship with Interpol and law enforcement departments of its members."
The candidacy of Raisi has also led to warnings from human rights groups, with a collection of 19 organizations writing in a joint letter that the U.A.E.'s "poor human rights record, including the systematic use of torture and ill-treatment in state security facilities" should prevent him from obtaining the high-ranking post.
Accusations Of Overreach
Concerns about Interpol's leadership and its potential for misuse are not new.
A Russian bid to install a senior official to Interpol's presidency failed in 2018 after Western officials and human rights groups warned that the candidate would use the position to monitor and target Kremlin critics.
The agency has also seen a notable rise in the number of red notices it has issued in the last decade. Russia is responsible for issuing 40 percent of the thousands of arrest warrants that are issued by Interpol each year, according to a 2021 report by the Freedom House rights watchdog.
Another notable offender is Tajikistan, where research by Interpol expert Lemon showed that the country had 2,528 red notices in circulation by 2017 -- the equivalent of 2.3 percent of Interpol's total, despite Tajikistan only accounting for just 0.12 percent of the world's population.
While Lemon's research notes that a large portion of the red notices were Tajik citizens fighting with extremist groups in Iraq and Syria, a growing number were issued for members of political opposition parties like the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), including its leader Muhiddin Kabiri. (The red notice for Kabiri was ultimately removed in 2018.)
However, China's ability to exert more influence over Interpol has further raised alarm.
According to a study by Safeguard Defenders, Chinese police have issued 200 or more red notices per year since 2014, and possibly as many as 612 in 2016 alone. That escalation in 2016, says the organization, is linked to Beijing’s growing focus on targeting dissidents abroad and at home, especially Uyghurs.
Other research also points to growing transnational repression by China, experts say. A June report by the Oxus Society for Central Asian Affairs and the Uyghur Human Rights Project documented 1,546 cases of Uyghurs being detained or deported from 28 countries since 1997, including Kazakhstan, Pakistan, and Tajikistan.
"Regardless of the outcome of this week's general assembly," said Lemon, "the role of authoritarian governments within Interpol looks set to grow as they seek to use the organization to bolster their image on the global stage and pursue political opponents."
For Aishan, who remains in custody in Morocco, his fate is still uncertain.
According to Harth from Safeguard Defenders, despite requests from her organization and other groups for Interpol to publicly release information about why it removed the red notice placed on Aishan in order to better mount a legal defense against Moroccan authorities to fight his potential extradition to China, the agency has so far not complied.
"Interpol has a huge moral responsibility for what has happened here," said Harth. "They've recognized that this person should not have been arrested, but won't release new information to help explain why."