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Legacy of Egypt's 2012 NGO trial highlights the case for INTERPOL reform

editor - August 28, 2014

In 2011, journalist and media consultant Michelle Betz was shocked to find that she was one of 43 NGO workers charged in Egypt of operating without a licence and receiving foreign funding. In this guest post, Michelle talks about her experience.

It was bad enough to learn that I had been indicted by Egypt in the 2012 NGO case, but only a short time later my world seemed to collapse around me.

I was on vacation when I received a phone call informing me that Egyptian officials had asked INTERPOL to issue me (and several others) red notices to secure my arrest and extradition to Cairo to face trial. Not only were the charges bogus, but I had never actually worked in Egypt.

I had no idea what a red notice was or what the implications might be, but I quickly learned just how serious the situation was. My work in media development requires frequent travel around the world; if I couldn't travel, I couldn't work. My career came to a screaming halt.

I found that Egypt had also issued a lesser-known diffusion notice against me. I began educating myself on red notices and diffusions, the power of INTERPOL and its member states, and the inability of regular people, such as myself, to obtain due process or even receive basic information about their cases. What I learned shocked me.

Member states can unilaterally put out a diffusion notice, without any review from INTERPOL or even the country of citizenship of the alleged criminal, which is then distributed to other countries. With no basic safeguards, this system has reportedly become rife with abuses including the harassment of individuals for political crimes.

At that point, my quest to seek answers became truly farcical. I tried to contact INTERPOL as the U.S. Justice Department would not answer my questions. I was referred to my “local law enforcement agency”. The INTERPOL website offers no advice or support for those facing difficulties with their system. After speaking to numerous people at Washington D.C. Metro Police Department, I was finally referred to a lady who, although sympathetic, didn’t even know what INTERPOL was, let alone who the local INTERPOL liaison was, if there even was one.

I repeatedly sought clarification from both the U.S. Departments of Justice and State about what would trigger an airport stoppage, my rights, who could help me, how could I determine whether there were any countries I could travel safely to, even on whether getting a new passport would help. More than two years later, I still await answers.

It is ironic that in a news release dated 23 April 2012, INTERPOL stated that: “Anyone seeking the truth about INTERPOL’s involvement, or otherwise, in any matter should contact the organization directly in order to ascertain the facts, rather than making statements based on ill-founded rumour and speculation.” Of course, the problem is that INTERPOL will not take calls from individuals to answer questions and ascertain facts.

In the end, INTERPOL made a statement in which they asked member countries to erase the diffusion notices from their databases. But I have no way of knowing if the information was removed, how long they might remain active, or even if I am at risk of future diffusions from the Egyptian authorities.

In June 2013, the Egyptian prosecutor publicly stated they will again seek extradition and issue international wanted notices through INTERPOL after my colleagues and I were tried in absentia by what many have portrayed as a kangaroo court and sentenced to five years hard labour.

Due to the lack of information available from INTERPOL concerning my case, the past two and a half years have been incredibly stressful and frustrating. This organisation and its procedures, to which the U.S. and nearly 200 other countries are signatories, lack accountability.

Although politically-motivated cases may be a minority of those pursued using INTERPOL’s systems, our stories need to be heard and the injustice we are facing needs to be addressed.  Otherwise INTERPOL risks being misused as a tool for oppression by authoritarian and corrupt governments.

This is a guest post written by Michelle Betz, senior media development consultant at Betz Media Consulting, and may not reflect the views of Fair Trials International. Michelle works to build capacity amongst journalists around the world to ensure accurate and responsible reporting. Read the full article on Index on Censorship.

To find out more about Michelle's case, read this case summary.

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If you are a journalist interested in this story, please call the media team on +44 (0) 7749 785 932 or email [email protected]

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