Report

The Scourge of the Red Notice

How some countries use Interpol to go after dissidents and debtors.

Jürgen Stock, the secretary-general of Interpol, is seen walking as he gives a press conference in Dubai on Nov. 21. (Karin Sahib/AFP/Getty Images)
Jürgen Stock, the secretary-general of Interpol, is seen walking as he gives a press conference in Dubai on Nov. 21. (Karin Sahib/AFP/Getty Images)

Pancho Campo is no stranger to international travel. A onetime Olympic tennis player, Campo spent much of his early career on the move. After he retired from the game, he went on to become a wine expert and established branches of his business in Florida and Spain, where he lives.  

So when Campo arrived at Chicago O’Hare International Airport in 2009, he was surprised to hear that an Interpol Red Notice had been issued for him for extradition to the United Arab Emirates.

“That’s when the nightmare started,” he said.

Interpol’s General Assembly at the end of last month made headlines when a senior Russian security official was nominated for president of the international police agency, sparking concerns that it could be co-opted by the Kremlin. Russia has been known to issue Red Notices through the Interpol system in pursuit of its political enemies abroad.

But while the Russian candidate lost out to one from South Korea, lawyers and others who interact with the agency say it’s increasingly plagued by other problems, including a lack of transparency and abuse of its rules by authoritarian regimes.

Campo’s case appears to highlight the way the UAE—which hosted Interpol’s General Assembly—uses the agency as its private international debt collection agency, according to Michelle Estlund, a lawyer whose practice specializes in Interpol defense work.

Red Notices issued by Interpol’s 194 member states are usually reserved for people suspected of committing serious crimes. But under the UAE’s sharia-influenced legal system, some foreigners who did business there have found themselves on Interpol’s wanted list for business disputes, bounced checks, or even credit card debt—things that in many countries do not carry criminal penalties.

There is no public information about how many Red Notices are issued by the UAE for these relatively minor matters. But one British-based group that helps people in this predicament says it is now seeing at least two cases a month.

Under the UAE’s credit system, customers are often asked to write a check for the value of any bank loan they take, which is then held as a security. If the loan is defaulted on, the bank can then cash the check to recover its money. But because the sum is often high, it’s not unusual for the check to bounce. The Gulf state of Qatar, which has a similar credit system, sentenced British businessman Jonathan Nash to 37 years imprisonment last year for a check that could not be covered.  

“In the UAE, all you have to do is get sick and not be able to pay your mortgage bill,” Estlund said. “What grabs people’s attention about Interpol Red Notice cases is that it could be you, it could be me.”

Campo’s problems began in 2002, when he dissolved his event-planning business in Dubai, which had stopped being profitable in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. His Lebanese business partner, who had invested $500,000 in the company, filed a complaint with the authorities in the UAE, and the next year, Campo was tried in absentia and found guilty of commercial breach of trust. Campo said he was never informed that a case had been opened against him.

Campo, now 57, is a citizen of both Spain and Chile. Although the United States and many Western European countries are unlikely to extradite a person on the basis of a Red Notice alone, that didn’t stop it from derailing Campo’s life.

Unable to travel to the United States, he closed his business in Florida and at one point had to turn to his family for financial support. He estimates that he spent nearly $280,000 in legal fees until the Red Notice was finally removed this year—nine years after he was first prevented from entering the United States. As Campo was well known in the world of wine, industry publications in Europe picked up the story and portrayed him as a crook. “Once you’re listed, you can damage someone’s reputation and psychologically damage them for the rest of their lives,” Campo said.

Other people targeted with Red Notices can have their travel visas canceled and bank accounts closed or have difficulty traveling internationally. “There’s nobody who comes to me who isn’t having anxiety,” Estlund said.

The United States does not consider a Red Notice alone as grounds for arrest. But in some cases, the cancellation of a visa can render a person undocumented, triggering detention, according to lawyers who spoke to Foreign Policy. Some of their clients have been held for months for remaining in the United States after losing their visa status due to a Red Notice, while asylum and immigration hearings proceed.

Advocates, lawyers and academics all stressed that the majority of Red Notices are issued for people suspected of committing serious crimes. But a number of authoritarian countries, including China, Turkey, Venezuela, and many members of the former Soviet Union have been accused of gaming the system in pursuit of opposition figures and dissidents. This is in violation of Interpol’s constitution, which calls on countries not to use the system for political ends and to act within the spirit of international human rights standards.

But much of the data remains concealed.

“It’s a police organization, and we accept that there may be certain types of information that they may not be able to disclose,” said Bruno Min, a senior legal and policy advisor with Fair Trials, a global criminal justice watchdog. “But we have been concerned about the lack of information that would help to illustrate the problem.”

Interpol does list some Red Notices on its website, but not all. Lawyers who deal in the matter say a significant portion of people don’t find out they are wanted until they are arrested.

The number of Red Notices issued each year has increased from 1,418 in 2001 to 13,048 in 2017. This rise has been largely attributed to the introduction of a new web-based communication system, which has streamlined the process of filing Red Notices. Prior to its introduction in 2002, the notices were issued on paper.  

“The old system was not worth abusing, because it was so slow,” said Theodore Bromund, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation. Bromund fears that abuse of the system may have also increased as authoritarian regimes have learned they can use it to disrupt the lives of dissidents and debtors outside of their borders, even if they’re not ultimately extradited. “In other words, dictators are learning from each other,” he said.

Edward Lemon, a Kennan Institute fellow at the Daniel Morgan Graduate School, estimates that per capita, Tajikistan may be one of the worst offenders. The former Soviet republic accounts for about 0.12 percent of the world’s population but has issued 2.3 percent of the Red Notices in circulation last year. Lemon said that a significant portion of these are likely to be for Tajiks who have gone to fight with extremist groups in Syria and Iraq. But following a failed coup attempt in 2015, Tajikistan began issuing Red Notices for members of political opposition parties.

Historically the poorest of the former Soviet republics, Tajikistan has used the Red Notice system to “export repression in a way which is pretty cost-effective,” said Steve Swerdlow, a Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “It’s just remarkable to me that Interpol allows itself to be exploited in this way by governments who have track records for extraordinary repression,” he said.

Interpol did not respond to a request for comment for this story. The organization has undertaken a number of reforms in recent years in a bid to crack down on illegitimate Red Notice requests. It is now prohibited to issue a Red Notice against people with refugee status if the notice comes from the country that they fled. While Interpol itself is not able to investigate crimes, in 2016 the organization established the Notices and Diffusions Task Force to review Red Notices for compliance with Interpol’s principles. Fair Trials estimates that there are between 30 and 40 people engaged in the review process, but little information is made public about how this review takes place or how thoroughly they are able to vet the thousands of notices issued each year.

“Despite some of these reforms that we’ve seen, Interpol is still a major obstacle for peaceful activists around the world,” Swerdlow said.

There are currently no penalties for countries that misuse the system. Bromund of the Heritage Foundation cautioned that the abuse would continue until there was an incentive to stop. “There is no downside whatsoever, expect maybe the reputational risk, but does Vladimir Putin care about that?” he said.

Correction, Dec. 3, 2018: Pancho Campo was stopped from entering the United States at Chicago O’Hare Airport in 2009. A previous version of this article said he was detained.

Amy Mackinnon is a reporter at Foreign Policy@ak_mack

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