Crossroads Asia | Politics | Central Asia

Can US Legislation Halt INTERPOL Abuse by Central Asian Autocrats?

Bipartisan legislation introduced this week seeks to tackle abuse of INTERPOL by autocracies.

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Can US Legislation Halt INTERPOL Abuse by Central Asian Autocrats?
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On Thursday, U.S. Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee Hasting (D-FL) and Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (R-SC) introduced the bipartisan Transnational Repression Accountability and Prevention (TRAP) Act in the U.S. House of Representatives to tackle abuse of INTERPOL communications by autocracies. Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS) and Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD) plan to introduce the TRAP Act in the Senate on Monday.

Autocrats worldwide take advantage of INTERPOL Red Notices and diffusions – which are wanted persons communications but are not equivalent to arrest warrants nor valid proof of criminal charges – to harass, detain, and seek the extradition of political exiles by manipulating law enforcement authorities in democratic states. The press release for the introduction of the TRAP Act highlights INTERPOL abuse by Russia, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and China, among others.

Contemporary transnational flows of migrants, communications, and finances have permitted vocal political opposition to move into exile when repressed. Free from domestic security apparatuses and empowered by social media, exiled activists can influence public opinion in the otherwise tightly controlled societies of their origin.

Transnational repression is intended to extend the atmosphere of susceptibility to political violence common in authoritarian states to the safe havens exiles flee to, thereby ensuring their silence. The misuse of INTERPOL Red Notices and diffusions is one of the more visible tools of transnational repression employed by autocrats.

Kazakhstan was one of the earliest autocracies to request Red Notices, which are prohibited by INTERPOL’s own constitution from being political in character, to target regime critics abroad. In 2013, former Kazakh banker Mukhtar Ablyazov was arrested in France due to a Red Notice requested by Russia and spent three years in detention before the Conseil d’Etat, France’s highest court, blocked his extradition.

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Several of Ablyazov’s associates have also been subject to Red Notices. His bodyguard Aleksandr Pavlov was temporarily detained in Spain due to a Red Notice that INTERPOL eventually cancelled. Ablyazov’s son-in-law Ilyas Khrapunov and former Almaty mayor Viktor Khrapunov, who now reside in Switzerland, cannot travel due to Red Notices requesting their arrest and extradition.

Tajikistan’s misuse of Red Notices has garnered far less attention than INTERPOL abuse by Russia and Kazakhstan, but it has comparatively made much more extensive use of this tool of transnational repression. In the Journal of Democracy, Edward Lemon, DMGS-Kennan Institute fellow at the Daniel Morgan Graduate School, wrote, “Despite accounting for just 0.12 percent of the world’s population, Tajikistan has issued 2,528 Red Notices, or 2.3 percent of the total in circulation, including one against Muhiddin Kabiri, leader of the country’s main opposition party.”

Once the country’s second largest political party, the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT) that Kabiri heads was banned in 2015 and labeled an extremist group by the Tajik government. In 2018, INTERPOL cancelled the Red Notice for Kabiri, recognizing the political motivations behind it.

INTERPOL’s constitution provides sound protections for vulnerable exiles, but in practice continued violations of the organization’s rules indicate that its internal oversight process is incapable of preventing the circulation of unjust Red Notices. When individuals are aware they are the subjects of an INTERPOL communication, a lack of transparency and due process at INTERPOL makes it extremely difficult for already vulnerable exiles defend themselves.

Yuriy Nemets, managing member of NEMETS law firm, told The Diplomat that, “Because INTERPOL does not have the power to give an individual access to the information about her or him in the database without the requesting government’s consent, it is often impossible for individuals to successfully challenge abusive Red Notices and diffusions.”

Within Eurasia, the member states of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) have institutionalized the ability to persecute dissidents abroad via the blacklist of individuals and organizations maintained by the SCO’s Regional Anti-Terrorism Structure (RATS).

At Thursday’s Helsinki Commission hearing, Alexander Cooley, director of Columbia University’s Harriman Institute, testified that although the list targets “extremism, terrorism, and separatism, in practice human rights organizations have noted that member regimes use the SCO blacklist to deny each other’s political exiles and regime opponents regional safe harbor and asylum.”

The abuse of INTERPOL by Eurasian autocracies therefore targets exiles that have fled beyond the region, primarily to western democracies. Lemon told The Diplomat, “Ultimately autocrats know the justice systems in most democratic countries will prevent extradition. INTERPOL abuse is really more about harassment of individuals in democratic states, although it does also place restrictions on mobility.”

The U.S. TRAP Act cannot compel INTERPOL to reform, but it can eliminate the pattern of detentions by the Department of Homeland Security that are solely based on Red Notices requested by autocracies like Russia. The Act does also make a statement of U.S. policy that it will use its voice, vote, and influence within INTERPOL to improve transparency and enhance screening of INTERPOL communications for political motivations. The loopholes allowing autocrats in Eurasia and beyond to pursue political opponents who flee to democratic societies can be closed if other democratic states adopt similar legislation.

Ian J. Lynch recently graduated with a Masters in Middle East, Caucasus, and Central Asian Security Studies from the University of St Andrews in Scotland. He previously led the development of girls’ education programs in Afghanistan. He tweets at @Ian_J_Lynch.