When Iranian political activist Rasoul Mazrae sought shelter from his own government, he fled, headed for Norway via Syria.
He was followed by a petition from Iranian officials that Interpol, the international police agency, list him as a fugitive. Despite the United Nations recognizing him as a political refugee, the same Syrian government that today is cracking down on its own dissidents used that Interpol alert to deport Mazrae to Iran in 2006.
Mazrae was jailed for two years. His family told a UN rapporteur he was tortured to the point of paralysis, had blood in his urine and lost all of his teeth.
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Mazrae was sentenced to death, and human rights observers lost track of him. "We are not aware that his death penalty has been carried out, but we cannot be absolutely sure," said James Lynch of Amnesty International.
What Syria and Iran used to go after Mazrae was an Interpol "Red Notice." This system of notices, little known outside legal circles, is being exploited for political purposes by some of the 188 member nations that belong to the 88-year-old international police cooperation agency.
Interpol's primary purpose is to help police hunt down murderers and war criminals, child sex offenders and wildlife poachers. But a five-month investigation by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists shows a little-known side to Interpol's work: In cases from countries such as Iran, Russia, Venezuela and Tunisia, Interpol Red Notices are not only being used for legitimate law enforcement purposes, but to round up political opponents of notorious regimes.
For countries that want to abuse Interpol, "it's a way to extend their arm to harass opponents - political or economic," said Kyle Parker , policy director of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, a human rights body of the U.S. Congress.
ICIJ analyzed a snapshot of Interpol's Red Notices, published on December 10, 2010. It includes 7,622 Red Notices issued at the request of 145 countries. About a quarter of those were from countries with severe restrictions on political rights and civil liberties. About half were from nations deemed corrupt by international transparency observers.
The Islamic regime of Iran's use of Interpol stands out not just because of the Mazrae episode, but also because of people like Shahram Homayoun.
He fled Iran in 1992 after the mullahs took over. After he settled in Los Angeles, Homayoun started a satellite TV station to beam a message of civil resistance into the homes of Iranians.
His audience has scribbled his slogan in Farsi, Ma Hastim - "We Exist" - on walls and bridges around the country. In 2009, he called on Iranians to gather at the tomb of the ancient Persian ruler Cyrus the Great. That's all. Just show up at his tomb, like a flash mob. That fall, he prompted Iranians to show up at their local bakery every Thursday and ask for bread.
He's definitely a troublemaker.
"Apparently, the Interpol thinks so too," Homayoun said, laughing at a reporter's quip.
In December 2009, Iran charged him with inciting "terrorism against the Islamic regime such as writing slogans [on walls] and resisting the security forces," and, at Iran's request, Interpol issued a Red Notice and put Homayoun on its global most-wanted list.
Now officially an Interpol fugitive because of the Red Notice, Homayoun can't leave the United States. He'll probably never again see his parents in Iran. Fortunately for Homayoun, the U.S. won't arrest him, let alone send him to Iran.
How the System Works
Interpol Red Notices originate from police in member countries who send them as domestic arrest notices. Interpol then generally sends them out as global Red Notices. The notices allow police in other countries to arrest suspects for extradition.
The agency operates a closed communications system linking police via vast international databases. Interpol works to raise police standards with training in forensics and investigations. It plays an essential and celebrated role in fostering international cooperation. Its current chief is Ron Noble, a former U.S. federal prosecutor and oft-mentioned candidate to one-day lead the FBI. Noble has served as chief of the Secret Service, U.S. Customs and the bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
Interpol's member nations span from democracies to dictatorships. Iran, North Korea and Libya are members. Their requests to Interpol are treated the same as those from democracies like Canada, Britain or France.
In theory, Interpol cannot get involved in "any intervention or activities of a political, military, religious or racial character," according to its constitution.
Interpol's chief lawyer, Joël Sollier, said the agency works hard to ferret out cases chiefly motivated by politics, rather than crime. "If we don't," he said, "we are dead."
International cooperation is based on trust. If Interpol is seen as political, Sollier said, it loses credibility.
But there's no way to publicly determine how often Interpol catches politically motivated cases. Here's why:
Interpol, the world's largest international police organization:
- Isn't transparent. It doesn't have to share any data with anyone, other than its own police members, and its own appeals body. Its operations are mostly opaque, in the name of protecting sovereign law enforcement information. The statistics it publishes don't reveal how often it finds cases are political, or when its power has been abused.
- Isn't accountable to any outside court or body. That's because Interpol isn't a creature of governments. It's more like a huge, private police club.
- And Interpol is putting more power into the hands of national police forces -- partly to save time and money.
Critics of Interpol -- lawyers who've dealt with it and human rights observers -- say Interpol's workings make it vulnerable to abuse by countries that target people for political reasons.
And, they say, countries use Interpol's Red Notices against their enemies because it's a terrific weapon. International banks will close accounts. If subjects cross some borders, they can wind up locked up for months with no recourse, or sent back to the country pursuing them.