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Authoritarian regimes are using Interpol to hunt down their critics

An international arrest notice, designed to deter crime, is being exploited by human rights violators, including China and Russia

Yidiresi Aishan, a 33 year old Uyghur activist has been held in a detention center in Tiflet in northwestern Morocco for over two months. The computer engineer, who has been living in Turkey with his wife and children since fleeing China in 2012, was transiting through Mohammed V international airport in Casablanca, on a journey from Istanbul to an unnamed European country, when local police detained him in July.

One week later, Moroccan authorities confirmed that Aishan had been arrested after a terrorism alert was issued by Beijing through Interpol. He now faces possible extradition to Xinjiang, China, where more than a million Uyghurs and members of other Muslim communities have been held in concentration camps in a crackdown described as “genocide” by the U.S. State Department in July.

“He’s in frustration, he’s really afraid. If he’s deported to China, it’s a death sentence for him,” said Abduweli Ayup, a prominent Uyghur activist. Ayup, who is based in Norway, where he runs an organization dedicated to assisting Uyghurs in exile in Turkey.

Ayup, who worked with Aishan at a Uyghur diaspora newspaper in Istanbul in 2016, told me that he speaks with his friend every week and that he is helping his family financially. 

“It’s devastating. He has three kids in Turkey,” Ayup said. 

Aishan’s case highlights how Interpol, the largest law enforcement organization in the world, with 194 member countries, can be used by authoritarian leaders and human rights violators to track down critics across international borders.

A red notice is an international electronic wanted persons notice issued and circulated by Interpol. The alert functions as a request to other countries to find and provisionally arrest criminal suspects who have fled abroad for extradition or other legal actions. Countries submit a red notice request to Interpol’s General Secretariat, which, after review, decides whether or not to release it to the police databases of member countries. Member countries can also issue a different alert called a diffusion, which notifies law enforcement authorities that they seek the arrest of a specific person. Diffusions are not published by Interpol but are circulated through the organization’s channels by the country itself.

While Interpol can serve as an effective vehicle for fighting crime, rights groups, lawyers and politicians have repeatedly voiced concerns that the issuing of red notices has been repeatedly abused by repressive governments — including China, Russia and Belarus — to target dissidents, journalists or political opponents seeking refuge in other countries.

“Democratic countries become aiders and abettors to oppressive regimes because of how Interpol works,” said Yuriy Nemets, a Washington D.C.-based attorney working on Interpol and extradition cases. He also runs the website Red Notice Abuse, which investigates how governments use Interpol’s mechanisms to persecute their opponents. “We talk about human rights and then don’t really do much to stop being duped into helping these violators of human rights.”

Aishan’s wife Buzainuer Wubuli told me that she worries about her husband. She says that she can only talk to him once or twice a week for a couple minutes. 

“The Moroccan police didn’t say anything, so my husband doesn’t know anything,” Wubuli said. “‘Is there any news?’ He asks me every time he calls me.” 

Yidiresi Aishan’s family in Istanbul, Turkey. Photo: Buzainuer Wubuli

Aishan is just the latest example of how red notices can be abused by authoritarian states. Last month, Makary Malakhouski, a Belarusian activist was detained near Warsaw after a red notice request from Minsk. Malakhouski was released the following day with the help of Polish politicians, lawyers and media. In July, Yevgeny Khasoyev, a Russian human rights campaigner was also detained in Poland after the Kremlin issued a red notice request. He has since been released. 

According to Interpol’s constitution, the organization, headquartered in Lyon, France, is forbidden from “intervention or activities of a political, military, religious or racial character.” However, criminal justice experts say that the system is vulnerable to abuse, including countries fabricating or misrepresenting charges against political dissidents.

“It’s very rare that there’s information in the red notice request that screams out abuse,” said Bruno Min, who leads a campaign for reform at Interpol at the U.K.-based NGO Fair Trials. “They’re usually described as being, for example, terrorist offenses or fraud offenses.”

Min believes the problem rests with Interpol’s universal membership, which grants every country equal opportunity to send out thousands of alerts annually, some of which can be vaguely worded or prone to political abuse. “If Interpol were able to, for example, figure out that this is a Uyghur man, living in exile in a country outside China, given what we know about the human rights situation in Xinjiang, you would hope that Interpol would take that into consideration when deciding whether that red notice should be allowed,” Min said. “That’s one thing that the case highlights — really questioning how good those mechanisms are.”

Attorneys, human rights activists and politicians have long pushed for reforms at Interpol, which currently has a backlog of over 66,000 active red notices. In 2019, U.S. politicians introduced the Transnational Repression Accountability and Prevention (TRAP) Act in the House of Representatives, which would aim to counter politically motivated Interpol abuse in the U.S., while encouraging reforms within Interpol. The bill has yet to pass the House. 

Amid growing criticism, Interpol has introduced a number of reforms in recent years. In 2015, it announced a refugee policy that would allow the removal of a red notice if an individual is classified as a refugee under the terms of the 1951 Refugee Convention. In 2016, it reformed guidelines for reviewing red notice requests by its General Secretariat, before they are circulated among other member countries. 

Other problems persist, however. Even though red notices can be removed, the risk of extradition persists and those under red notices face a broad range of difficulties, including being denied visas, bank services, jobs and political asylum.

“Interpol is an incredibly effective tool for governments not just to track down people, but to make their lives very difficult, even if they understand that the individual will never get extradited,” said Nemets. “Imagine, if it’s a political opponent who cannot go to the bank, cannot travel, get a job, cannot obtain legal immigration status. How much more hellish can you make somebody’s life?”

While Aishan’s red notice was canceled on August 25, based on as-yet-undisclosed new information received by Interpol, he remains in jail and could still be sent back to China after Beijing sent an official extradition request to Moroccan authorities to keep Aishan detained on the charges of inciting terrorism. 

Morocco ratified an extradition treaty with China in 2017. 

“If a previously issued red notice is found not to be in compliance with the Constitution and rules, it is deleted from INTERPOL’s databases,” said the organization’s General Secretariat in a written statement to Coda Story. “All member countries are also informed about the non-compliance of a notice or diffusion, and are asked to update their national databases accordingly, in addition to being reminded that INTERPOL’s channels may not be used for any communication regarding the case.”

On September 22, Morocco’s highest court of appeal set a new extradition hearing for October 27, adding at least another month to Aishan’s detainment. 

His wife Buzainuer hopes the court will make a decision soon. She worries that her husband, who lives with long-term respiratory problems, might be vulnerable to harsh conditions in detention. “And now winter is coming,” she said. “Every time the season changes or the weather gets cold, my husband coughs a lot, sometimes he can’t sleep because of coughing. I’m worried that he can’t stand it and will become seriously ill.”

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