Russia’s latest attempt to arrest Bill Browder shows how autocracies abuse Interpol

Russia has tried five times to arrest Bill Browder, a financier who has spent years campaigning against Putin’s government.
Russia has tried five times to arrest Bill Browder, a financier who has spent years campaigning against Putin’s government.
Image: AP Photo/Remy de la Mauviniere
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Bill Browder used to be Russia’s biggest foreign investor; now he is one of its harshest critics. The Russian government tried three times between 2012 and 2015 to get Interpol, the international policing organization, to issue a global “red notice” for Browder—a request for other countries to arrest him.

All three times, the attempts failed, with Interpol declaring them politically motivated. This year the Kremlin has changed tactic and twice unilaterally issued a different type of notice—a “diffusion,” an arrest request that isn’t public and isn’t vetted by Interpol itself. The latest one was filed last week, on Oct. 17, and within the US immigration bureaucracy it apparently triggered an automatic ban on Browder, who is a UK citizen. It took the US a day (paywall) to realize its mistake and revoke the ban. Interpol took nine days to finally block Russia’s warrant, Browder says.

“It’s outrageous that Russia has repeatedly abused the Interpol diffusion system for political and criminal purposes,” he wrote in an email to Quartz. “The only way to stop their abuse is to take away Russia’s right to unilaterally post diffusions and have any future notices vetted by non-Russians at Interpol headquarters.”

He’s not alone in that belief. Browder’s case is one of many examples of Russia and other autocratic states like Turkey, China, and Azerbaijan using Interpol (paywall) to crack down on critics abroad. Experts say policy changes are badly needed.

What are “red notices” and “diffusions”?

Essentially, a red notice lets one country signal to all other Interpol members (every country except North Korea) that it wants a person arrested with an eye to extradition. It’s not an arrest warrant—police forces don’t have to obey it—but if the requesting country chooses to publish it on Interpol’s public database, the person can also be cut off from their bank accounts and, in theory, the entire global financial system.

Red notices have to be, at least nominally, screened by Interpol before being sent out, but diffusions can be sent without checks and balances. They’re slightly less powerful—banks can’t see them, so won’t cut the targets off—but are a faster way to request an arrest. And whereas red notices are global, a diffusion can be sent just to selected states. For example, if you wanted Qatar to arrest a Saudi citizen, you might just send the Qataris a diffusion so as not to tip off the Saudis.

How are they abused?

So far, so helpful for fighting crime. The problem is that “if it’s not a valid notice or diffusion, it can ruin your life,” says Michelle Estlund, an American lawyer who specializes in Interpol and writes the Red Notice Law Journal.

What’s more, it’s easy for countries to send out politically motivated notices but not easy to get off them. Fair Trials International, a human-rights NGO, says it’s been approached by dozens of people who have been victims of the system (pdf, p.3), many of whom are being politically persecuted. It points to data showing that when checks and balances on red notices were eased in 2009, their use skyrocketed. It’s not alone in these complaints—earlier this month, the European Union called on Interpol to reform its red-notice mechanism to stop abuse.

In 2016, about three red notices were issued every two hours. Interpol doesn’t publish data on diffusions, but Ted Bromund, a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation and expert on Interpol, says the number is even higher—far more than the institution can realistically vet. “You have the equivalent of Genghis Khan with a telegraph,” he says.

What should be done about it?

Browder says Interpol has told its members that Russia will not be able to use its channels on his case in the future. (Quartz was not able to independently verify this, but Browder said he had a letter from Interpol, which he cannot share for legal reasons.)

That’s not as effective a remedy as it seems, Bromund says, arguing that Russia could simply accuse him of a different crime and restart the process. He adds that Interpol doesn’t technically have the power to stop Moscow issuing diffusions “any more than it can stop a member nation from sending an email”—it can only delete them when one is sent. “In other words, while this is good news, it doesn’t do much more than address this latest abusive effort by Russia—the underlying problems remain,” Bromund wrote in an email.

Instead, he argues, Interpol should suspend or expel countries that continually abuse the system. “It’s not going to stop until it’s made clear that you will get kicked out if the system is abused,” he said in a phone interview, pointing out that Interpol’s charter provides for this.

But expelling or suspending countries has an unwelcome consequence for law enforcement, Estlund argues. “Then you have a situation where you’re creating safe havens for criminals,” she said by phone. Her solution is to put far more scrutiny on requests from countries that have abused the system and are known for being corrupt.

Is anything going to change?

Here’s the problem: Much to the chagrin of human-rights defenders, Interpol has been run by (paywall) a Chinese official as president and a Russian official as vice-president since November 2016.

That’s indicative of a slow shift at the agency, Bromund says. Where the US, UK, and France used to dominate Interpol’s funding and priorities, it now takes in more money and technical help from such entities as the United Arab EmiratesFIFA, the International Olympic Committee, and Russian cyber-security firm Kaspersky Labs. “Western financial leverage over Interpol’s budget has shrunk dramatically,” says Bromund.

On top of that, he laments, where autocratic governments use Interpol as political organization, the West continues to naively treat it solely as a crime-fighting body; the US delegation consists of police officers rather than diplomats and politicians. “As long as the West continues to treat it as essentially apolitical while everyone else treats it as political, it’s unlikely that… anyone with vaguely good intentions can do a lot to change it because we simply don’t have the diplomatic savvy,” he said.