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Arrest of Pussy Riot’s Aysoltan Niyazova puts INTERPOL Red Notices under scrutiny again

Article by Fair Trials

At the start of June, Aysoltan Niyazova, a Turkmen dissident and a member of the Russian feminist punk band Pussy Riot, was released in Croatia after having been detained for a week after entering the country. Her arrest was reportedly on the basis of an INTERPOL ‘warrant’ issued at the request of the Turkmenistani authorities, and she continues to face the risk of extradition to one of the most authoritarian countries in the world.

INTERPOL ‘warrants’ aren’t in fact warrants at all. INTERPOL operates a system that circulates alerts known as ‘notices’ which are used by police forces across the world to ask their counterparts in other countries for cooperation and assistance. The most powerful and well-known of these notices, called Red Notices, are used to seek the arrest of a wanted person for the purpose of extradition. There are no international legal obligations that require a country to arrest someone who is subject to a Red Notice, so Red Notices could be more accurately described as international ‘Wanted Person’ posters, rather than arrest warrants.

However, this doesn’t stop certain countries from using Red Notices as though they are arrest warrants. People subject to Red Notices are often arrested and detained for lengthy periods of time, no matter how spurious the underlying criminal charges are.

Cases like Niyazova’s aren’t uncommon. Red Notices were designed to ensure that international fugitives, some of whom are highly dangerous, face justice for serious crimes. While most Red Notices are issued for legitimate reasons, there are cases in which INTERPOL’s systems and tools are misused for political ends, as tools of harassment and persecution. Authoritarian regimes know that INTERPOL Red Notices cause serious difficulties for their critics exiled abroad, and that they can put them in serious danger, even if they are refugees or they benefit from some other form of international protection.

INTERPOL does not want its systems to be used to target political dissidents, and they have rules and procedures that are designed to prevent the issuance of Red Notices that are politically motivated, or that violate international human rights standards. Responding to growing criticisms by Fair Trials and others around the misuse of Red Notices, the agency adopted a package of reforms in 2016, which included improvements to its processes for reviewing Red Notices before they are disseminated, to check for possible violations of INTERPOL’s rules on human rights.

Unfortunately, we don’t know very much about how effective these improved checking processes are. We know very little about how INTERPOL is able to identify cases of particular concern out of the thousands of new Red Notices requested each year, and since it releases very few statistics, we don’t know what proportion of Red Notice requests are refused.

Cases like Niyazova’s cast serious doubts on INTERPOL’s ability to make sure that its systems are protected from politically-motivated abuse. If INTERPOL did validate Turkmenistan’s Red Notice request to seek her arrest and extradition, it clearly failed to identify her not only as a political activist, but also a daughter of a deceased political dissident, and a member of one of the world’s best-known political bands. It would also come as a surprise that INTERPOL might have simply let Turkmenistan – a country described as ‘one of the world’s most oppressive and closed countries’ , and where political dissidents are known to be subject to arbitrary detention and politically-motivated prosecutions – issue a Red Notice, seemingly without the need for enhanced scrutiny.

If INTERPOL fails to prevent a Red Notice being issued against a high profile activist like Niyazova, then how can we trust that it has the systems in place to prevent abuse? The only way the agency can repair its damaged reputation is to be more transparent.

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