PRAGUE — Western politicians, activists and pundits may have breathed a sigh of relief when the Interpol General Assembly elected not to put a Russian nominee at the head of the worlds top policing agency.
They shouldnt have. Whoever may nominally be in charge (the presidency instead went to South Koreas Kim Jong Yang), the international policing system has already been hijacked by autocrats like Russian President Vladimir Putin who are using it to crack down on their critics and have powerful Western allies to help them.
For almost a year now, Ive been collecting interviews with dozens of Russian dissidents and their lawyers, and they all say the same thing: Even in Europe, they dont feel that they have escaped Putins reach.
Indeed, Putin has been using Interpol arrest warrants to repatriate political refugees back to Russia, with the assistance of authorities in the West. In some cases, Russian political refugees fell victim to exchanges of confidential information between European officials and Russian authorities. Western officials also tend to look away when the dissidents in question are Muslim.
“Waiting and not knowing when and if they will send me back to my torturers is more agonizing than actual torture,” Tumso Abdurakhmanov, a Muslim and Chechen from a tiny ethnic minority of 1.5 million in southern Russia, recently told me in Warsaw. “I would rather die here and now, then face a deportation.”
Russian abuse of Interpol is just the tip of the iceberg.
Abdurakhmanov fled persecution in Chenchnya, a region that is run as the personal fiefdom of Ramzan Kadyrov, a thuggish Putin surrogate who is known to routinely terrorize minorities and government critics.
But getting to the EU wasnt a reprieve for Abdurakhmanov. After court fights against politically motivated Interpol “red alerts,” he was denied refugee status by Polish authorities, despite protests from leading human rights organizations that brought public attention to his case.
There are more than 20 similar cases in the EU this year alone, and hundreds more are pending.
Russian abuse of Interpol is just the tip of the iceberg. Putins veteran diplomats run key U.N. policing agencies too: Vladimir Voronkov is in charge of the U.N.s counterterrorism agency, while Yury Fedotov has been heading U.N.s Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) since 2010.
Since the failed coup of 2016, Turkey has tried to lodge some 60,000 Interpol Red Notices, or flags for arrest | Oli Scarff/Getty Images
“Both agencies appear instrumental in the Russian international hunt for dissidents,” according to Alex Obolenets, an Israeli lawyer helping Russians political refugees. He cites a recent example in which Interpol refused to strike down a warrant as politically motivated for one of his clients, a Russian dissident Pavel Okruzhko. Despite backing by a top human rights watchdog, the agency defended its decision by citing the U.N. counterterrorism resolutions, among others.
The door to Interpol abuses was opened in the wake of 9/11, when the U.S. set a dangerous example by using counter-terrorism laws to bypass domestic and international protections of due process and human rights in the global hunt for terrorists.
This eroded the system of international law, allowing repressive regimes to follow in their footsteps.
The Kremlin, in particular, has instrumentalized Interpol to whitewash domestic repression, such as the persecution of Crimean Tatars in the annexed Ukrainian region of Crimea or human rights abuses in the Muslim-dominated Caucasus regions in southern Russia.
A simple search in the Interpol database reveals hundreds of Chechen names, more than American and Chinese profiles combined. For a Russian region with a population of just over 1 million thats a suspiciously large number of “criminals on the run.”
If you are a Russian, Turkish or Azeri dissident seeking refuge in Europe, you dont really care who was elected the next head of Interpol.
To make matters worse, a rising number of EU countries are denying the asylum requests of Chechen political dissidents from Russia, which openly violates domestic, EU and international laws.
In August, for example, Poland deported a prominent Chechen dissident, Azamat Baiduyev, who had received political asylum in the EU in 2007, back to Russia, where he disappeared with no trace right after. In July, Slovakia openly defied the U.N. and extradited Aslan Yandiev, another Muslim dissident and asylum seeker from Russia.
Putin is by no means the only one to have successfully hijacked Interpol.
The autocratic regime of Ilham Aliyev in Azerbaijan has been exploiting the police agency in a successful hunt for critics all across Europe. And here, he is only following the playbook of his even more successful neighbor: Turkeys Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has launched an unprecedented hunt for his critics abroad.
Turkeys President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, left, with Russian leader Vladimir Putin | Mikhail Klimentyev/AFP via Getty Images
Since the failed coup of 2016, Turkey has tried to lodge some 60,000 so-called Interpol Red Notices. It is still unclear how many of these have been accepted, but dozens of Turkish dissidents in my region of Eastern Europe alone have been hunted down on the back of those notices, some shipped back to torturers in Turkey.
Whats most disturbing is that the West keeps ignoring these voices. If those running for their lives from revengeful autocrats cant count on the West to guarantee their safety, we have to face the unsettling fact that there are major loopholes in our global policing system.
If you are a Russian, Turkish or Azeri dissident seeking refuge in Europe, you dont really care who was elected the next head of Interpol. The system has been rigged for years.
Maxim Eristavi is a nonresident research fellow at the Atlantic Council based in Prague.