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FactCheck: are Interpol red notices often wrong?

“The Australian Federal Police takes [red notices] very seriously but knows it must examine the veracity or otherwise of those claims because quite often claims, even against Australian citizens who’ve…

Interpol red notices should not be taken at face value. AAP Image/April Fonti

“The Australian Federal Police takes [red notices] very seriously but knows it must examine the veracity or otherwise of those claims because quite often claims, even against Australian citizens who’ve had red notices out against them, have been found to be wrong.” - Then immigration minister Brendan O'Connor, June 17, interview with Fairfax Media.

O'Connor’s questioning of the Interpol warnings known as “red notices” came after the organisation charged with facilitating international police cooperation admitted it had made a mistake. Interpol had issued a red notice stating that asylum seeker Sayed Ahmed Abdellatif had been convicted in Egypt in 1999 of premeditated murder and possession of explosives.

Interpol withdrew those allegations, although Abdellatif still remains subject to a red notice on the lesser charges of his alleged membership of an illegal extremist group and of creating forged travel documents. He denies all the allegations, saying any confession was a result of torture.

O'Connor’s remark that red notices were often wrong is at odds with the statement by the Australian Federal Police’s deputy commissioner, Peter Drennan, that police “rely heavily on the Interpol red notices” and that he had never come across an inaccurate one before.

So how reliable are red notices? O'Connor’s claim is hard to prove definitively because credible figures about Interpol’s accuracy aren’t available. A spokeswoman for O'Connor’s office told The Conversation that the statement was based on confidential information he received while minister for Home Affairs. We’ll have to take his word for that, although his office was unable to provide examples of Australian citizens subject to red notices that later proved inaccurate.

What we do know is that countries are increasingly using red notices through Interpol - 190 countries now participate - to help locate “wanted” persons. In 2011, these international requests with the view to the arrest and extradition of targeted people rose to about 26,000 warnings (including all types of Interpol notices and requests) – in contrast to 16,000 in 2010.

Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) such as Fair Trials International have questioned the effectiveness of Interpol as a crime-fighting organisation because of its limited internal controls to tackle political abuses.

The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe has called for reforms. It highlighted a failure to detect and prevent politically-motivated misuse and expressed “concern about the abuse of the red notice system by states whose judicial systems do not meet international standards”.

So O’Connor’s call to examine the “veracity or otherwise of those claims” is justifiable. We do know that red notice warnings are not always complete and have sometimes proved inaccurate. They are not legally binding and they are not always based on a court decision. Interpol’s acknowledgement that a person subject to a red notice deserves the presumption of innocence can be drowned out by political motivation and unreliable information.

Interpol’s credibility has also been dented because some of its members have poor human rights records and corrupt, undemocratic governments. Countries such as Belarus, Egypt, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iran and Indonesia have all been accused of abusing the red notice networks for political purposes.

Russia, for example, recently used a red notice request to encourage the extradition of Petr Silaev, a young Russian activist, on the offence of “hooliganism” – the same vague charge used to punish and imprison the punk band Pussy Riot.

Despite Petr’s initial arrest and detention in Spain, Spanish authorities later dismissed Russia’s extradition request as a form of political harassment. Nonetheless, Petr remains confined to Spain and on Interpol’s databases.

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, an Australian, and anti-whaling activist Paul Watson have found themselves subject to controversial Interpol red notice. Their supporters claim the notices were politically motivated, although Sweden (in the case of Assange) and Japan (in the case of Watson) would argue they have been properly applied.

Verdict

Interpol red notices should never be taken at face value. There is evidence that they are sometimes politically motivated and some have proved inaccurate, but claiming they are “often wrong” is a stretch.


Review

The check is correct. Out of the roughly 7,000 red notices issued every year, some are used for political purposes in contravention of Interpol’s own rules. There are a number of high profile cases which highlight this.

As an international organisation, Interpol generally accepts at face value the information submitted by its members. It is up to other nations to decide on the reliability of the information and to decide whether or not to action requests.

Australia exercises this discretion and any police action is testable in our courts in the first instance. Any request for extradition based on a red notice must go through the normal extradition process. But there is no evidence that overall the notices are “often wrong” and no Australian figures that would back up this claim. – Grant Wardlaw


The Conversation is fact checking political statements in the lead-up to this year’s federal election. Statements are checked by an academic with expertise in the area. A second academic expert reviews an anonymous copy of the article.

Request a check at checkit@theconversation.edu.au. Please include the statement you would like us to check, the date it was made, and a link if possible.

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