When 'criminal' is political
Repressive regimes are manipulating Interpol

The Washington Times, December 2000


Since its founding 75 years ago, Interpol, the International Criminal Police Organization, has played a key role in fighting transnational crime. In its purview is the recovery of stolen art, the hunt for international terrorists and drug-runners, and efforts to eradicate cyber-terrorism, all laudable aims. Interpol's official public documents tout its role in promoting and protecting human rights. According to Interpol's Constitution, "it is strictly forbidden for the Organization to undertake any intervention or activities of a political .. . . character."

Today, that institution's reputation is being blemished - and its constitution violated - as the Interpol system is regularly being used by repressive regimes in the persecution of their political opponents.

On Dec. 12, Spanish police, acting on a Russian warrant distributed through the Interpol system, arrested Vladimir Gusinsky, the Russian media owner. Mr. Gusinsky is under attack in his home country because his television and press outlets have regularly run exposes on official corruption and reported courageously about the Russia government's devastation of Chechnya.

While the Russian warrant focuses on criminal allegations of fraud, many press freedom experts believe these charges are politically motivated and linked to his criticism of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

This is by no means the first such instance in which a prominent press critic or dissident has been persecuted with the aid of Interpol. In mid-July, Italian authorities responded to an Interpol alert and detained Akezhan Kazhegeldin, a former prime minister of Kazakhstan and his country's leading opposition figure. Mr. Kazhegeldin ran afoul of Kazakhstan's authoritarian President Nursultan Nazabayev and launched an opposition movement against him in early 1998. After he was prevented from running in the country's 1999 presidential race, Kazakh authorities launched criminal cases against Mr. Kazhegeldin, accusing him of embezzlement and tax fraud. Mr. Kazhegeldin was eventually released from arrest and allowed to travel to London.

Last June, Peruvian journalist Baruch Ivcher was arrested. Mr. Ivcher owned Peru's sole independent television and was known for crusading journalism and outspoken criticism of the regime of Alberto Fujimori. Mr. Ivcher was stripped of ownership of the station and of his Peruvian citizenship. Mr. Ivcher, whose citizenship and TV station have been restored since the collapse of President Fujimori's regime, had been defended by leading Western human rights groups and has been praised by U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

This support did not prevent Mr. Ivcher from being detained by Polish border police after his name turned up in a computer search based on an Interpol alert.

These cases are not isolated incidents. They reflect the trend by dictators to criminalize their political opposition. Tyrants today do not brazenly arrest their opponents for anti-state agitation and make of them prisoners of conscience. Rather they charge them with financial irregularities or other criminal charges to avoid the appearance of political repression.

In 1999, China's communist authorities issued a global Interpol alert for the arrest of Li Hongzhi, leader of China's Falun Gong spiritual movement. The high visibility of Falun Gong led Interpol to quickly quash China's request. But the fact remains that for several days, the Interpol system was misused for several days and the arrest request was facilitated by Interpol until it was reversed by the organization's headquarters in Lyons.

There are several fundamental flaws in the current Interpol system. One is inadequate staffing at the central headquarters, which handles the thousands of documents posted by national law- enforcement services. Second, is the very nature of Interpol's network of affiliated National Central Bureaus. These are staffed and run by the police and security structures of the member countries. But as Interpol's 177 members include such repressive police states as China, Cuba, Iran and Iraq, the basic data being distributed by Interpol globally deserves careful review.

No one would suggest that Interpol should be dismantled. Nor is it reasonable to expect the human rights violator countries to be expelled - they do at times cooperate in legitimate criminal cases. Yet how can the worrying flaws in the Interpol system be addressed to protect the rights of political dissenters and journalists?

One answer is better training. Interpol structures in the democracies should have internal experts capable of assessing the political nature of requests emanating from repressive regimes. This can be provided either by creating expert international departments or by establishing formal channels linking such police and interior ministry forces with foreign ministry experts.

Interpol also should be pressed to establish a well-staffed, expert unit to rapidly review and assess the arrest and alert request from repressive states and quash those that are political motivated.

Finally, Interpol must have the ability to investigate and respond to the abuse and misuse of its system by members of the Interpol system. Interpol did so very publicly in the case of Falun Gong leader Li Hongzhi. It has not done so in the cases of Mr. Ivcher and Mr. Kazhegeldin. Nor is it likely to do so in the case of Mr. Gusinsky.

Ironically, Interpol has historically been misused by repressive regimes. In the 1930s, Interpol - then based in Vienna - was used by Nazi authorities to persecute their political enemies. Interpol even established a commission that helped advance Nazi racist aims by investigating the "Gypsy threat" and persecuting Jews.

If Interpol cannot today enforce its own regulations and protect the rights and mobility of the opponents of tyranny, it will erode public confidence in the institution and weaken its ability to combat legitimate transnational crime. The malfunctioning of the international law-enforcement system and its manipulation by the enemies of freedom should also set off alarm bells about efforts to construct and involve the United States in an International Criminal Court with the participation of many repressive states.

Adrian Karatnycky is president of Freedom House.

The Washington Times, December 2000