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As Interpol Turns 100, Criticism Persists Over Abuse of Its Red Notice System


FILE - People walk past the Interpol logo at the headquarters of the international police agency in Lyon, France, Nov.8, 2018.
FILE - People walk past the Interpol logo at the headquarters of the international police agency in Lyon, France, Nov.8, 2018.

Interpol, the international police organization founded in 1923 to promote cooperation among law enforcement agencies, has transformed into a formidable crime fighting force in recent years.

Recent controversies over the misuse of its alert system by autocratic regimes, however, have cast a shadow over its reputation as an indispensable tool for global law enforcement cooperation.

Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco, speaking on Monday at a Justice Department event marking Interpol's centennial, lauded the organization's role in meeting emerging global threats, from terrorism to cybercrime and human trafficking.

"Over the past 100 years, Interpol has evolved to meet each one of those threats, and in doing so has made the world a safer place," Monaco told the attendees.

The ceremony in the Justice Department's famed Great Hall featured presentations by a pipes and drums band and a local police department color guard.

Top Interpol officials, as well as senior officials from the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security, the two agencies that manage Interpol's U.S. National Central Bureau in Washington, were in attendance.

Interpol publishes Red Notices, which are requests for police forces worldwide to locate and arrest a suspect pending extradition.

Any of Interpol's 195 member countries can request a Red Notice as long as it complies with its rules.

Interpol says a task force of lawyers and police officers, established in 2016, conducts a thorough review of all red notice requests as well as wanted persons diffusions. Diffusions are alerts sent by a member country to other member nations.

In addition, Interpol has an independent body, known as the Commission for the Control of Interpol's Files, that removes disputed Red Notices and other alerts from its system.

The commission, composed mainly of lawyers, provides an additional layer of scrutiny on abuse.

Despite the agency's efforts to ensure compliance, however, countries such as Russia and China have in recent years been accused of misusing Interpol's alert system for political purposes.

Interpol Secretary-General Jurgen Stock defended his agency's "robust" review system during the Justice Department ceremony.

"When repeated non-compliance occurs, preventive and corrective measures are applied to those member countries to protect the integrity of our channels," Stock said.

Interpol figures show the agency dismisses a significant number of noncompliant requests. In 2021, Interpol published nearly 24,000 Red Notices and wanted persons alerts while rejecting nearly 1,300 for noncompliance.

Monaco praised Interpol's increased scrutiny of alert requests and diffusions in order "to ensure that Interpol isn't misused in furtherance of transnational repression" by autocratic regimes.

But that hasn't stopped authoritarian regimes from abusing the system, critics say.

In 2021, activist Idris Hasan, a member of China's persecuted Uyghur minority, was arrested in Morocco based on a Red Notice issued by Interpol at China's request.

Though Interpol classified the Red Notice as "noncompliant" after Hasan's arrest, the case highlights "the inherent dangers of an international policing organization cooperating with non-rule of law countries prone to abuse such instruments for persecution that run counter to Interpol's constitution," human rights nonprofit Safeguard Defenders wrote in a report.

Critics say Russia is another serial abuser of the Interpol system.

In recent years, Russia has repeatedly requested that Interpol issue a Red Notice for the arrest of Bill Browder, an American human rights activist and critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

In 2018, Browder alleged that he was arrested in Spain on a "Russian arrest warrant" but an Interpol spokesperson told VOA she could confirm that "no Red Notice has been issued for Mr. Bowder."

Ted Bromund, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, said Interpol operates on the presumption that its member states act in good faith.

"As a result, there continues to be a lot of Interpol abuse through notices, through diffusions and through other mechanisms," Bromund said in an interview.

Bromund said that Interpol's data suggests that its review task force is failing to prevent questionable Red Notices filed by countries such as China and Russia.

The number of notices deleted by the Commission for the Control of Interpol Files remains "historically high," he noted.

"If the Notices and Diffusions Task Force were actually preventing all abuse, the commission … should not have to keep on deleting so many red notices," he said.

The Interpol spokesperson, Rachael Billington, took issue with comparing the two figures.

"When assessing the compliance of a Red Notice the task force considers information available to it at the time," Billington wrote in an email to VOA. "If, or when, new information is made available, the notice can be reviewed and if no longer found compliant, it will be cancelled by the task force and all member countries informed."

Both China and Russia have denied abusing Interpol.

The alleged Red Notice abuses aside, Interpol retains an essential role in global law enforcement cooperation. Its role in fighting crime has grown in recent years, as criminals increasingly operate across borders and online.

Interpol says police departments worldwide query its databases more than 20 million times a day, or roughly 250 searches per second.