Strongmen Find New Ways to Abuse Interpol, Despite Years of Fixes

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For years, strongmen and autocrats had a novel weapon in their hunt for political enemies. They used Interpol, the world’s largest police organization, to reach across borders and grab them — even in democracies.

An award-winning Venezuelan journalist was detained in Peru. An Egyptian asylum seeker was stopped in Australia. And Russia has tried repeatedly to secure the arrest of William F. Browder, a London-based human rights campaigner.

In response, Interpol has toughened oversight of its arrest alerts, known as red notices, making it harder than ever to misuse them. But as Interpol adapted, so did strongmen. They have turned to the agency’s lesser-known systems to pursue dissidents, a New York Times investigation has found.

Belarus and Turkey, for example, have turned Interpol’s database of lost and stolen passports into a weapon to harass dissidents or strand them abroad. Abuse of this important antiterrorism tool got so bad that Interpol temporarily blocked Turkey from using it. Belarus is now subject to special monitoring after Interpol spotted a wave of politically motivated entries, officials said.

And as the world took note of countries like Russia and China abusing red notices, Interpol has seen a rise in other alerts. Blue notices — alerts seeking information on someone — have roughly doubled in number over the past decade, Interpol data shows.

Countries are testing Interpol’s resilience at a key moment, just as the century-old organization prepares to elect its next leader.

Based in the picturesque French city of Lyon, Interpol serves as a digital bulletin board that helps law enforcement agencies worldwide share information about fugitives and crimes. At its best, it helps track down killers and terrorists.

But if governments cannot trust its databases, Interpol’s credibility would be critically undermined.

While Interpol now reviews every red notice before it is issued, it does not scrutinize blue notices until they have circulated. Those after-the-fact checks have identified 700 alerts since 2018 that violated Interpol’s rules, according to figures released for the first time to The Times.

“It’s concerning in the same way that the abuse of red notices was concerning 10 years ago and led to the reforms that we now have,” said Stephen Bailey, a lawyer and an author of the book “The Legal Foundations of Interpol.”

Mr. Bailey said he had worked to block several blue notices and passport database entries from India. All were ultimately found to violate Interpol rules, he said.

A dozen lawyers across the United States and Europe said they had seen an increase in cases involving the politically motivated abuse of such lesser-known Interpol systems.

Samuel Heath, an Interpol spokesman, rejected the idea that political abuse was rising. Rather, he said that Interpol’s improvements had made it easier to challenge decisions. Interpol was “continuously reviewing and improving our systems, including transparency,” he said. “The idea that our systems must not be used for political purposes is at the heart of our constitution.”

Even some of Interpol’s toughest critics acknowledge that, under its current secretary general, Jürgen Stock, the agency has made progress in cracking down on red-notice abuse. They worry, though, about what will happen after Mr. Stock steps down in November.

“The election of his successor will determine whether or not those reforms are retained and advanced or whether Interpol goes back to the Wild Wild West days,” said Ted R. Bromund, an analyst at the Heritage Foundation who focuses on Interpol.

The leading candidates are veteran Interpol officials from Britain and Brazil, and both say they are committed to continuing oversight.

Stephen Kavanagh, the British candidate, has played a key role in toughening the red-notice system in his current role as Mr. Stock’s No. 2. He pitches himself as a “trusted, experienced” leader and has a record of tackling corruption in policing.

Brazil’s candidate, Valdecy Urquiza, emphasizes Brazil’s neutrality in geopolitical affairs and has promised to improve diversity, serving people in all nations, including “Africans, Arabs and Asians.”

Neutrality is an Interpol cornerstone, but countries like Russia and China have used that to argue that the West should not dictate what red notices should be approved.

(The two other candidates, Mubita Nawa of Zambia and Faisal Shahkar of Pakistan, entered the race late and without any visible campaign.)

Voting will take place, most likely in June, in a secret ballot by members of Interpol’s executive committee: Argentina, Belgium, China, Egypt, India, Namibia, Nigeria, Spain, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and the United States.

Campaigning is a delicate balance. It requires appealing to countries that want to prevent abuse, as well as to those that misuse Interpol’s systems.

Britain has put its entire diplomatic network behind Mr. Kavanagh. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak personally endorsed him in a glossy campaign brochure. A former head of communications for 10 Downing Street, the prime minister’s office, is helping craft Mr. Kavanagh’s communications strategy.

British cabinet members bring briefing documents on Mr. Kavanagh’s candidacy to meetings with their foreign counterparts, according to two government officials with knowledge of the campaign. They, like some others, spoke on the condition of anonymity because Interpol cases and many details around its election are secret.

Some see the election as a test of British influence after Brexit, which cost the country its membership in Europol, the European Union law enforcement agency.

“Going through the withdrawal from the European Union made us pause and think, right, how do we best tackle crime?” said Graeme Biggar, who leads the National Crime Agency, often described as the British equivalent of the F.B.I. “And I think we collectively reflected that we had been undervaluing Interpol.”

Mr. Kavanagh, who is the son of a police officer and went into policing at 18, is seen as an Interpol insider, a veteran with connections in policing around the world.

Interpol has never had a secretary general from outside the United States or Europe, and Mr. Urquiza is finding receptive ears to his promise of being the change candidate. A lawyer by training, he has a background in combating human trafficking and in environmental policing, an area of particular importance in Africa, and international work.

The election process — rounds of secret balloting and quirky rules for deciding ties by drawing lots — is hard for anyone outside the room to track.

Governments are nevertheless eager to be wooed. Some officials were unabashed — speaking on the condition of anonymity, at least — about the horse trading. Governments might offer international funding or promise to vote a certain way on another issue.

“We are the beautiful bride in this vote,” one senior Nigerian official said.

“These things are all about the deal,” an Indian diplomat said.

Whoever wins will inherit an organization at a pivotal point.

“In terms of legacy, I want to hand over a house that is in order,” Mr. Stock said in an interview.

He believes it is. Interpol has undoubtedly made major strides in cleaning up its databases after years of expansion with little oversight. The agency previously gave countries the authority to instantaneously circulate red notices worldwide.

After years of denying problems, Interpol now has a team that reviews and approves red notices before they circulate.

But that is not universally popular, including among governments that will decide the election. Some, like Turkey and India, argue that the changes hamper police cooperation and that the West should not interfere with their affairs.

In December, a Russian minister railed against restrictions that Interpol has placed on the country. Russia is among six countries, officials said, under what are known as “corrective measures.” Those can range from tighter oversight of requests to a ban on posting on Interpol channels.

In 2021, Turkey publicly criticized Interpol for refusing to publish 773 red notices against followers of Fethullah Gulen, an exiled religious leader whose movement Turkey has accused of plotting a coup attempt against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in 2016.

Turkey has canceled the passports of hundreds of thousands of those it suspects to be followers of Mr. Gulen. One father said in an interview that he had been separated from his wife and two children for more than a year after his Turkish passport was seized during a trip through Germany in 2022. Turkey had logged it in Interpol databases as lost or stolen. He had not lived in Turkey for 20 years, he said, and helped manage the finances of Gulenist schools overseas.

He asked to remain anonymous but provided documents that corroborated his account. He lives alone in an unfamiliar country, unable to travel without a passport.

The governments of Belarus, Russia and Turkey did not respond to requests for comment. A spokesman for the Indian government described the accusations of abuse as “vague and unsubstantiated” and said that India rarely used blue notices, citing 58 last year.

Blue notices, the police requests for information like location, represent a newer challenge, one that Interpol is only now reviewing. Countries can instantly blast blue notices worldwide without Interpol reviewing them in advance. Each carries a note saying it has not been vetted.

Other communications, like direct messages between countries over Interpol systems, often get no checks at all but can lead to an arrest.

A blue notice issued by Russia alerted the American immigration authorities in 2019 about a Russian, Vitaly Bogomazov, living in Florida. Immigration officials arrested him for overstaying his visa. Mr. Bogomazov was awaiting an asylum decision, saying he was the founder of a company that published a newspaper that criticized President Vladimir V. Putin and the war in Ukraine.

The blue notice claimed he was wanted for the assault and homicide of a man who Russian court records showed was alive. Mr. Bogomazov challenged his arrest, saying he was a victim of a “fabricated, politically motivated” investigation, court records show.

He is living free in Florida while awaiting an immigration decision, the threat of deportation to Russia hanging over him.

Interpol officials say that blue notices ultimately receive the same checks as red notices, but not immediately. They have not said how long it takes to check notices that have been circulated.

“Using a different type of notice is not an effective method of circumventing our systems,” said Mr. Heath, the Interpol spokesman.

The Russian case highlights a challenge facing Interpol. Fugitives on assault or murder charges are exactly the kind of people its databases should flag. But how should Interpol evaluate cases in which there is evidence suggesting a genuine crime — in this instance an unverified video showing an assault — but also potential political motivation?

Though Interpol has focused on red-notice abuse, vulnerabilities remain, even when there is no evidence of political meddling.

In December 2020, Abril Meixueiro fled home to Colorado from Mexico with her young daughter. She had just been granted full custody in a divorce from a man she described as violent and controlling.

One night, she recalled, he “beat me for hours.” She filed a police report in Mexico and provided photographs of her bruised face and a blood-smeared wall. The police concluded that she was “experiencing serious violence,” and a judge issued a restraining order against her former husband. (In a phone interview, he said it was a “complete lie” to say that he had been abusive.)

Once in the United States, Ms. Meixueiro learned that he had filed a child abduction charge against her and that Interpol had issued a red notice at the request of the police in Mexico.

Mr. Heath, the Interpol spokesman, said that stopping child abduction was an appropriate use of Interpol databases. But he said that the agency was “concerned about the circumstances of this case” and would investigate. In the meantime, Interpol has redacted Ms. Meixueiro’s data from its systems.

“We will also look at whether there are wider lessons for how we respond to child-abduction cases,” Mr. Heath said.

For now, Ms. Meixueiro does not fly to avoid the risk of being flagged by Interpol databases and sent back to Mexico. When she needs to be in her office in Miami, she drives. The journey takes three days. She drives through the night, so that she can work during the day.

“I’m on the red-notice list next to all of these horrible people, serial killers, drug dealers,” she said. “Not him, who was prosecuted for domestic violence. But me who ran away from domestic violence? Who’s protecting her child? I am on their list?”

Reporting was contributed by Oleg Matsnev, Emiliano Rodríguez Mega, Flávia Milhorance, Gulsin Harman, Lis Moriconi, Sarah Hurtes and Suhasini Raj.

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