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Revealed: Syrians pay tax to rebuild after war but see little benefit | Global development

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Um Ahmed left everything when she and her four children fled their home south of Damascus at the beginning of a decade-long civil war – toys scattered around all corners of the house, the certificates she earned when she qualified as a pharmacist.

After moving repeatedly, they now live in the Rukn al-Din neighbourhood of the capital in a gloomy rental flat. It is a far cry from their previous home, which was filled with light from dawn until dusk.

“My house was furnished, the pharmacy was full of medicine, and now I have nothing,” lamented Um Ahmed, who asked to be referred to by her nickname due to a fear of reprisals from the government. “It has all become a dream.”

The ruins of her 100sq metre house in Daraya, a former base for the opposition Free Syrian Army, cost 25,000 Syrian pounds ($20) to clear of debris. She was out of money before she could even begin to think of rebuilding.

An estimated 6.2 million people have been internally displaced by Syria’s long-running civil war, which has plunged the country into a deep economic and humanitarian crisis. A further 5.6 million have fled and are registered as refugees. In 2018, the United Nations estimated the cost of destruction from the war at some $388bn, nearly 20 times more than Syria’s entire economy was worth last year.

The west has balked at paying for Bashar al-Assad to rebuild Syria. The EU and the US have said they will not support the reconstruction of the country until there is a political transition.

Syria is set to hold presidential elections this Wednesday, a process widely denounced as a sham designed to give the incumbent a veneer of legitimacy.

The election is also supposed to suggest the country is moving forward, despite the fact that war is ongoing and the economy has collapsed: the government cannot afford to subsidise enough bread for its citizens, let alone rebuild its destroyed cities.

With international funds not forthcoming, the Syrian regime has levied its own tax to finance reconstruction. In 2012, it formed a committee to help rebuild the country under the control of the then deputy prime minister and minister of local administration, Omar Ghalawanji, who was put on the EU’s sanctions list the same year.

It was while watching state television in May 2014 that Um Ahmed learned about the Syrian Reconstruction Committee and its promise to help people rebuild their shattered homes. She submitted a claim.

A man walks past a banner depicting Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, in Damascus
A man walks past a banner depicting Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, in Damascus. Photograph: Yamam Al Shaar/Reuters

The committee has raised an estimated 386bn Syrian pounds ($307m), according to an analysis by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), its Syrian partner SIRAJ, and Finance Uncovered. But there is little evidence that the money has been spent helping civilians such as Um Ahmed who, like thousands of others, has heard nothing since applying for compensation.

Available records show that the regime’s reconstruction committee has mostly allocated funds levied from the tax to government ministries and public institutions, making it impossible to track what is spent. Some of the funds that OCCRP did manage to trace, though a small proportion of the whole, went to refurbish military facilities and housing for government forces. Money spent on civilians has often gone to those in pro-government areas.

These findings are consistent with research from the Carnegie Middle East Center, which found Assad’s regime has used “selective reconstruction” to shore up its political and economic power in some areas, while ignoring poorer social classes that the regime views as threatening.

In July 2017, the reconstruction committee granted 175m Syrian pounds for maintenance work in Mazzeh 86, a Damascus neighbourhood and a backbone of support for the regime. Meanwhile almost nothing has been rebuilt where Um Ahmed lived in nearby Daraya, a former base for the opposition Free Syrian Army, even though it was heavily damaged in the war.

Mazhar Sharbaji, a governance officer from the Local Administration Councils Unit, an opposition group that monitors reconstruction efforts, said the committee “allows for the disbursement of money taken from reconstruction funds, explicitly to the military, police and security services [it] has clearly given money to military security, internal and political security sectors at the expense of civilian victims”.

The reconstruction committee did not respond to several requests for comment. A media officer at the ministry of finance directed OCCRP to the ministry of information to obtain permission to submit questions to the committee. The approval is yet to be granted.

In 2013, the tax was set as a 5% levy on direct taxes, such as on the sale of real estate and renewal of car licences, as well as indirect taxes such as VAT and fees for legal cases (income taxes were exempt).

The cash-strapped government doubled it to 10% in 2017 when Zubair Darwish, then director general of Syria’s general commission for taxes and fees, told Syrian state newspaper Tishreen the money would be spent on “supporting restoration and rebuilding what was destroyed, as well as supporting the resettlement of displaced families”.

The then minister of finance, Mamoun Hamdan, explained the government needed to collect more funds to rebuild infrastructure and private properties destroyed in the war.

As the public was led to think the taxes were going to rebuild their homes, a system was set up to allow citizens to apply for compensation to a subcommittee in each Assad-controlled governorate who would in turn send claims to the central reconstruction committee for approval.

But a review of documents by OCCRP, SIRAJ, and Finance Uncovered suggests this has not happened. Data from open sources, parliamentary debates and state media indicates Syria’s government allocated 30bn Syrian pounds to the reconstruction committee in 2013, then 50bn Syrian pounds (worth $40m at today’s exchange rates) every year since – a total of 380bn Syrian pounds, or over $1.4bn. Contributions from the reconstruction levy have increased over the years from the equivalent of $56m in 2016 to $132.4m in 2020.

Spending disclosures, meanwhile, show commitments totalling just 263bn Syrian pounds, leaving a potential underspend of 117bn Syrian pounds (approximately $229m, though the value of the pound has fluctuated wildly during this period). Where the money lies remains a mystery.

The documents suggest less than 10% – 24.2bn Syrian pounds – of the funds allocated to the committee since 2014 has been spent on rebuilding citizens’ homes.

By contrast, 90.3% of the budget has gone to government ministries and public institutions, where it has been impossible to ascertain how the great majority of it has been spent. A small fraction, 1.32bn Syrian pounds, could be pinpointed as having been spent on Syria’s military and security forces.

“Society’s lack of oversight on the work of government entities allows the regime total freedom to make use of public resources, even humanitarian assistance,” said Haid Haid, a senior consulting research fellow at Chatham House in London.

“Therefore, the regime can use this money to maintain itself and ensure its continuity either by using it for police and security matters, or to finance itself.”

The Syrian architect Mazhar Sharbaji, who has researched how war-torn countries such as Lebanon, Germany, Japan and South Korea managed to rise from the ashes of war, said the committee “has clearly given money to military security, internal and political security sectors at the expense of civilian victims”.

It is a contention that is difficult to prove, given the lack of transparency. But Sharbaji used the example of Daraya, his hometown. About 70% of the city is partially demolished, and around half is wrecked beyond repair, he said, with electricity almost non-existent and infrastructure and sewage systems completely destroyed. According to Sharbaji, no housing or infrastructure has been built over the past three years.

Men chat near damaged buildings in Daraya, near Damascus, in 2014
Men chat near damaged buildings in Daraya, near Damascus, in 2014. Photograph: Reuters/Alamy

Analysis of published spending decisions, meanwhile, revealed the reconstruction committee in 2016 granted 50m Syrian pounds to 167 members of the army and the police, 350m Syrian pounds for the restoration and modernisation of military hospitals in the coastal towns of Latakia and Tartus, in traditionally pro-regime areas, and approved paying for the reconstruction of homes belonging to wounded auxiliary forces who fought with the Syrian army.

While those funds are a small part of overall spending, Osama Kadi, head of the Syrian economic taskforce, which monitors reconstruction efforts, suggests the reconstruction tax is being used to bail out governmental finances.

“Lack of transparency and widespread corruption within successive Syrian governments for five decades makes it difficult to determine the fate of the huge monies that the regime has obtained from Syrians in the name of reconstruction,” he said.

“Nearly 10 million Syrians still live outside their homes, all the infrastructure continues to suffer from structural problems, as electricity and water are constantly cut, in addition to other services, and basic goods are not well available.”

Former rebel-held cities where the Syrian regime has regained control, such as Old Homs and the surrounding countryside, Rif-Dimashq, Aleppo, Dara’a, Deir Al-Zour, and many others, where the government has been collecting taxes, meanwhile remain in rubble.

“Syrian citizens and businesses are the victims of a systematic government effort to collect funds through a reconstruction tax, while completely failing to deliver,” said economic journalist Sameer Tawil.

Mohammad Bassiki reports for SIRAJ and Nick Mathiason for Finance Uncovered. Ali Ibrahim (SIRAJ) contributed reporting.

This story was completed with support from Journalismfund.eu’s Money Trail Project.

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‘I was born a fighter’: the champion boxer changing young lives in Zimbabwe | Global development

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Beneath a corrugated iron roof in the crowded Harare suburb of Mbare, a group of boys darts back and forth across a smooth concrete floor, firing a series of rapid punches into the air.

A wiry older man, dressed in low-slung tracksuit bottoms and flip-flops, watches their moves, encouraging them to “Jab! Jab! Jab!”.

It’s a long way from a glamorous black-tie occasion in Glasgow in January 1998, when Arifonso Zvenyika beat Scotland’s Paul Weir to take the Commonwealth flyweight title for Zimbabwe.

Nicknamed “Mosquito” – reflecting his 50kg fighting weight and his deadly skills – Zvenyika is one of the country’s most successful boxers.

However, there is little to show for those early triumphs. Now 45, Zvenyika lives hand to mouth, hustling like so many others in a country where up to 90% of working-age adults are not formally employed.

When he’s not struggling to put food on the table for his own family, he trains young people for nothing at the Mosquito Boxing School of Excellence.

“I grew up without anything – even now I don’t have anything, but I can share boxing with less privileged children,” says Zvenyika, who is proud to have been born and raised in Mbare.

“The champions always come from the ghetto,” he says.

Three times a week, up to 20 young people – aged from eight to their early 20s – gather for fitness training and to develop their technical skills.

Arifonso Zvenyika at his Mosquito Boxing School of Excellence in Harare.
Arifonso Zvenyika at his Mosquito Boxing School of Excellence in Harare. Photograph: Nichole Sobecki/VII

Zvenyika says that he particularly focuses on boys and young men who struggle to remain in school and spend time on the streets.

“Some of the kids are totally poor and not even going to school. Some draw back from training as they don’t have shoes,” says Zvenyika.

One of the boys, 16-year-old Noel Sunday, says: “Both my parents are unemployed. I only did four years of school. I haven’t done my O-levels.”

A chalkboard in the gym reminds the young boxers to “Go hard or go home” and lists 10 rules. Eating, smoking and even laughing and jokes during sessions are prohibited.

“Boxing not only teaches discipline, but also positive values. It’s a low-cost, high-impact sport,” says David Mutambara, a former chair of Zimbabwe’s Sports and Recreation Commission.

“But there is a scarcity of resources in this country. We get people who have natural, raw talent. The skills development needed to polish that raw talent is lacking.”

Zvenyika is reliant on others to provide training space, and is constantly on the hunt for more equipment. The school is short of gloves, pads, punchbags and headgear.

The rest of the time he spends looking for work.

“I’m shy to say it, but I can’t afford to feed my family properly,” he says. “We eat bread without butter, we drink tea without milk.”

A few miles from the centre of Harare, Mbare is chaotic and densely populated. It’s a first stop for arrivals to the capital who come looking for work.

“My family makes money running around the marketplace and helping to carry people’s luggage,” says Tatenda Kachepa, 22, who has trained with Zvenyika for five years and is one of the club’s star boxers.

Harare’s Mbare neighbourhood
Children playing in Mbare, Harare’s first high-density suburb, which was established in 1907. Today the buildings are dilapidated and overcrowded. Photograph: Nichole Sobecki/VII

The pandemic pushed many people already struggling to earn a living into desperation.

“We are now 15 people living together at my father’s place,” says Kachepa, who is still trying to complete his schooling. “During Covid, we haven’t made any money. It’s been a dog-eat-dog situation.”

Substance abuse, already widespread in Harare’s low-income areas, has become more of a problem during the pandemic.

Illicit alcohol, marijuana and methamphetamine – better known as crystal meth or by its street name mutoriro – are all popular among young people.

“I’ve been there myself,” says Zvenyika of his own drug-taking past. “It hurts me to see these young kids doping. I’m trying to find ways to stop them.”

Zvenyika’s story is a familiar one – from rags to riches, followed by a slide into bad choices and prison.

“My mother tried her best, but she didn’t have money to send me to school,” says Zvenyika, who turned professional at 17. “I took up boxing as something to resolve my pain and calm me down.”

After his talent took him to Zambia and Australia, as well as to Scotland, Zvenyika crashed back down to a very different reality.

Accused by a neighbour of stealing a radio – Zvenyika insists he was framed – in 2000, the boxing champion was sentenced to two and a half years in prison.

Students at the Mosquito Boxing School of Excellence, Harare
Young boxers training at the Mosquito school. They lack gloves, headgear and punchbags, but levels of enthusiasm remain high. Photograph: Nichole Sobecki/VII

Although he continued to fight after his release, Zvenyika’s imprisonment – and a stroke while in jail – effectively ended his professional career.

“I’ve been in prison, in hospital, in a hooligan’s cell. I don’t want others to fall into that pit,” says Zvenyika. “I’m trying to move them to be good people.”

And he is confident that Mbare’s younger generation has sporting potential.

“People paint a bad picture of Mbare, but it’s a talent hub,” he says. “Young guys can get into bad things, but training keeps them busy.”

Strict lockdowns closed the club for much of the past 18 months, but as of last month Zvenyika has welcomed back his young students.

He is determined to keep the Mosquito boxing school open, despite the challenges.

“I was born a fighter and I’ll die a fighter,” he says. “Boxing might leave me, but I’ll never leave boxing.”

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Le Pen vows to ‘dismantle’ wind-power plants

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French far-right leader Marine Le Pen has vowed to tear down wind turbines in France if voted president. “If I am elected, I will put a stop to all construction of new wind parks and I will launch a big project to dismantle them,” she said on RTL radio Thursday. “Mme. Le Pen would cause blackouts,” French environment minister Barbara Pompili said, as wind-power creates 8 percent of France’s electricity.

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Has Interpol become the long arm of oppressive regimes? | Interpol

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Flicking through the news one day in early 2015, Alexey Kharis, a California-based businessman and father of two, came across a startling announcement: Russia would request a global call for his arrest through the International Criminal Police Organization, known as Interpol.

“Oh, wow,” Kharis thought, shocked. All the 46-year-old knew about Interpol and its pursuit of the world’s most-wanted criminals was from novels and films. He tried to reassure himself that things would be OK and it was just an intimidatory tactic of the Russian authorities. Surely, he reasoned, the world’s largest police organisation had no reason to launch a hunt for him.

In the months that followed, Kharis kept checking Interpol’s gallery of thousands of international fugitives. He finally came across his mugshot, glaring back at him like a hardened criminal. “My God,” he exclaimed, now terrified.

“This guy is a terrorist; that guy is a murderer; this guy abducted children – and there’s me,” he remembers thinking as he looked through the Interpol register.

It was while running a large construction company in Russia that Kharis first found himself on the wrong side of the authorities. His firm, ZAO Rosdorsnabzhenie, had a government contract in 2010 to renovate shipyards near the far eastern city of Vladivostok. He says his business partner, Igor Borbot, told him about high-level officials embezzling money from the project.

Alexey Kharis
Alexey Kharis at home in Palo Alto in July. He spent 15 months locked up in Californian prisons. Photograph: Talia Herman/The Guardian

Kharis says he was targeted after he threatened to speak publicly about the ministerial corruption and refused to give false testimony against Borbot. Kharis says agents from Russia’s Federal Security Bureau told him during interrogation in 2013: “Your partner is going down – you can help us or you can go down with him.”

He had hoped – naively, he says now – that investigations in Russia would clear his name. The Interpol notice confirmed he was wrong. It outlined major fraud charges carrying a 10-year prison sentence, alleging that Kharis was part of a “criminal group” that had stolen tens of millions of pounds from his own company.

Ted Bromund, who testified in Kharis’s case in the US as an expert witness, spent days scrutinising the case files and came to believe that the charges were baseless. “They don’t seem to have any substance whatsoever,” he says.

Bromund, an international affairs specialist with a rightwing US thinktank, the Heritage Foundation, concluded that this was the latest in a pattern of Russian attempts to weaponise Interpol with trumped-up requests to arrest its nationals. According to the US rights organisation Freedom House, Russia is responsible for 38% of all public red notices.

Far from indicating that Kharis had committed a crime, Bromund wrote later in his testimony, the notice “proves only that the Russian Federation filled out the appropriate Interpol form”. Interpol declined to comment on Kharis’s case, beyond confirming the status of his red notice.

US immigration authorities did not share this view of Interpol’s request, however. The Department of Homeland Security used it to argue that Kharis was a “flight risk” and he was detained in San Francisco in 2017. Kharis spent the next 15 months in California prisons.

His wife, Anna, published a blog during this time. “Many tears and sleepless nights followed,” she wrote of his detention, telling the children their father was away on a business trip. She describes Kharis as “a caring father” who would “spend the night rocking the cradle and then head off for his business early in the morning”. He called every night to tell their two young children everything was OK. But with no release date, prison took its toll.

The command centre of Interpol in Lyon.
The command centre of Interpol in Lyon. Critics say the organisation is too understaffed to scrutinise red notices adequately. Photograph: Andrew Matthews/PA

First mooted in 1914, Interpol was established in 1923, in large part to stop people from committing crimes in one country and fleeing elsewhere with impunity. The organisation has been misused by oppressive regimes before – in 1938, the Nazis ousted Interpol’s president and later relocated the organisation to Berlin. Most countries withdrew and it ceased to exist as an international organisation until after the second world war.

The 194 member states support searches for war criminals, drug kingpins and people who have evaded justice for decades. Its red notices are seen as a vital tool and the closest thing to an international arrest warrant, leading to the location of thousands of fugitives each year.

Red-notice subjects have included Osama bin Laden and Saadi Gaddafi, the son of Libya’s former dictator. As criminals move around an increasingly interconnected world and terrorist incidents increased, the use of Interpol’s system has mushroomed. In the past two decades, red notices increased tenfold, from about 1,200 in 2000 to almost 12,000 last year. (There are also other forms of Interpol notices, such as yellow for missing children, black for unidentified dead bodies.)

Bar chart of Interpol red notices

Alongside the growth of the most-wanted list, international legal experts say there has also been an alarming phenomenon of countries using Interpol for political gain or revenge – targeting nationals abroad such as political rivals, critics, activists and refugees. It is not known how many of roughly 66,000 active red notices could be based on politically motivated charges; Interpol does not release data on how many red notices it rejects. But a number of reports, including from the US Congress, the European parliament and academics have documented the misuse of Interpol in recent years. Bromund says: “I don’t think there’s any dispute that […] the number of abusive red notices is growing.”

Seeking to manipulate Interpol is a feature of transnational repression, in which countries extend their reach overseas to silence or target adversaries. Tactics range from assassinations, poisonings and dismemberments to blackmail, spying on citizens’ phones abroad and threatening families left behind. The methods may differ, but they are intended to send a similarly menacing message in an era of global movement: you may leave your country but you can still be punished.

Interpol’s move earlier this month to reinstate Syria’s access to the organisation’s databases and allow it to communicate with other member states was strongly criticised by opposition activists. Anas al-Abdah, head of the Syrian opposition’s negotiating body, said Interpol’s decision had given Bashar al-Assad’s regime the data-based means to wage another war against the Syrian people.

Toby Cadman, a British barrister working on Syria-related war crimes prosecutions, said in response to the decision: “Interpol’s systems are opaque, with no real oversight or accountability, and routinely abused by states like Syria.

“It’s quite straightforward to get a red notice issued – you don’t need to provide that much information, and Interpol is underfunded and understaffed,” he said, but added: “Getting a red notice removed, even in European countries such as the UK or the Netherlands, can be slow and difficult.”

A red-notice subject’s fate can vary wildly. Some countries see red notices as an alert system while others treat them as arrest warrants, incarcerating people or co-operating with extradition proceedings against them. People may have their assets frozen, their passports confiscated and their movements restricted – as well as the reputational damage from being designated as an international criminal.

Bahraini football player Hakeem al-Araibi being arrested in Bangkok.
Hakeem al-Araibi, a Bahraini football player who sought asylum in Australia, at a court in Bangkok in 2019. He spent 76 days in detention in Thailand. Photograph: Sakchai Lalit/AP

Some first learn of their Interpol wanted status when they cross a border. For Hakeem al-Araibi, a Bahraini footballer living as a political refugee in Australia, it was on his honeymoon in Thailand in 2018. He was arrested with his wife after Bahrain issued an Interpol notice accusing him of vandalism. (Al-Araibi fled Bahrain after athletes who took part in pro-democracy protests were arrested, beaten and allegedly tortured while detained.) Interpol revoked the notice when Australia notified it of al-Araibi’s refugee status, but that did not prevent al-Araibi from spending 76 days in Thai prisons. Al-Araibi’s case is one of several to have sparked a public outcry in recent years.

Another political activist pursued abroad through Interpol’s red notices was Petr Silaev, a Russian environmentalist and anti-fascist who was charged with “hooliganism” after demonstrating in 2010 against plans for a motorway to be built through the Khimki forest outside Moscow. He fled the country as the Russian authorities rounded up fellow protesters and was granted political asylum in Finland. In 2012, however, he was arrested in Spain after an Interpol alert and detained in a high-security prison. He spent months fighting extradition to Russia.

The human rights organisation Fair Trials said Interpol’s decision had left Silaev under threat of arrest whenever he crossed a border and called on the organisation to justify its decision and “explain whether it is helping Russia to pursue anyone else across the globe on hooliganism charges”.

In the UK, Benny Wenda, a separatist leader from West Papua who escaped from prison in Indonesia and was granted asylum as a political refugee, had a politically motivated red notice issued against him by Indonesia. It was later deleted.

“We must not misuse international organisations like Interpol for such purposes,” said the then German chancellor Angela Merkel, after a Turkish-born German writer, Doğan Akhanlı, was arrested in 2017 on the back of a Turkish Interpol notice while on holiday in Spain.

However, only three months ago, Moroccan authorities arrested Yidiresi Aishan, an Uyghur activist, after China sought his extradition; Interpol later cancelled Aishan’s red notice after a review but he still faces the threat of deportation to China. Last month Makary Malachowski, a Belarusian opposition activist who had fled to Poland, was detained in Warsaw after Alexander Lukashenko’s government issued a red notice.


“People expect you’re not going to believe them because what has happened to them is so crazy,” says Michelle Estlund, a Florida lawyer representing wrongfully accused clients wanted through Interpol.

Estlund began helping Interpol-targeted clients 12 years ago, when a Venezuelan woman facing a red notice accusing her of fraud sought the criminal lawyer’s help. Estlund initially refused but has since worked with red-notice subjects from Russia to Ecuador, and remains shocked by how the law can be misused.

The rise of online platforms for dissidents to criticise governments is fuelling a desire to shut down opposition voices, she says. “It’s just so against what we expect to see in any justice system, even abusive ones. The things the client goes through before they get to me are mind-boggling.”

US lawyer Michelle Estlund
‘It’s very easy to either fabricate or manipulate information to create a charge of embezzlement,’ says US lawyer Michelle Estlund. Photograph: Josh Ritchie/The Guardian

Interpol’s constitution forbids the organisation’s use for political matters and it announced in 2015 that it would remove a red notice if that person had been recognised as a refugee. Its work must also fall within the spirit of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which demands fair trials and free speech, and prohibits arbitrary arrests. Interpol says it screens every wanted-person request. In an organisation with such seemingly clear safeguards, what is going on?

Weeding out questionable requests for international arrests falls to a specialist squad at Interpol’s Lyon headquarters, created in 2016. Turkey says Interpol has rejected 773 requests to detain people over suspected links with the popular movement Hizmet, led by the US-based Turkish cleric Fethullah Gülen, a former ally of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (Interpol confirmed the figure was more than 700). Turkey’s government regards members of the Gülen movement as a terrorist group responsible for plotting the failed 2016 coup and has criticised Interpol for hindering its prosecution efforts. There have been reports that Ankara attempted to upload as many as 60,000 names to Interpol, including via its stolen-passport database, but the organisation denied that figure.

Interpol’s interventions against Turkey are among a number of publicly known examples of the organisation’s efforts to stop politically motivated notices in recent years. Yet some fear Interpol too often believes its members are working in good faith and providing it with accurate information. “Interpol is there to help the police do its work under the assumption that the police does its work honestly,” says Rutsel Martha, Interpol’s Dutch former legal chief and author of a study of the organisation. “That’s the system, so the first reaction is to do with the immediate situation, then legal controls kick in later in the process.”

Among the easiest ways to craft misleading arrest requests is to accuse people of financial crimes such as money laundering, whereas a murder charge requires evidence of a dead body and political charges may break Interpol’s rules. “It’s very easy to either fabricate or manipulate information to create a charge of embezzlement or misappropriation or gaining unjust profit,” says Estlund. When she looks into red notices, she often finds charges to be unsubstantiated.

What critics regard as a low level of proof required for a red notice can be seen in the case of a Turkmen human rights activist, Annadurdy Khadzhiev, who was detained in Bulgaria in 2002 over an Interpol notice accusing him of embezzling $40m (£30m) from Turkmenistan’s central bank. The alleged theft, however, took place four years after Khadzhiev had stopped working there. “It was objectively impossible for him to have committed the said crime,” according to the findings of a Bulgarian prosecutor cited in a 2014 European court of human rights judgment.

Russian-born Lithuanian refugee Nikita Kulachenkov
Nikita Kulachenkov recalls Cypriots laughing at the charges against him: ‘Russia really wants you through Interpol for €60 of theft?’ Photograph: Courtesy of Fair Trials

A less-formal Interpol option for hunting fugitives, called “diffusions”, are often regarded as more vulnerable to misuse. Through these alerts, Interpol members can send arrest requests directly to each other. That is how Nikita Kulachenkov, a Russian-born Lithuanian refugee, spent several weeks imprisoned in Cyprus, after he was detained at the airport in 2016 en route to visit his mother.

Kulachenkov faced a five-year prison term in Russia for allegedly stealing a street artist’s drawing. His Interpol alert was issued after he began working on investigations for the Anti-Corruption Foundation in Russia, founded by the opposition politician Alexei Navalny, who was poisoned with the nerve agent novichok last year and is now imprisoned in Russia.

Kulachenkov claims he found the poster on a street and is adamant that the poster’s value was invented to create a politically motivated charge. He was investigated by Russia’s top prosecutors, who raided his Moscow flat. More than a year before his detention in Cyprus, Kulachenkov had pre-emptively written to Interpol asking it to reject calls for his arrest as he was being targeted for his anti-corruption work. Interpol acknowledged his concerns, and a spokeswoman said later that it checks all diffusions.

Now living in Berlin, Kulachenkov still fears being stopped if he crosses certain borders – Interpol data on wanted individuals can remain on national police computer systems even after it has been revoked. Kulachenkov recalls incredulous Cypriot authorities laughing at the charges against him, saying: “Russia really wants you through Interpol for €60 of theft?”


Interpol’s secretary general for the last seven years, Jürgen Stock, is unexpectedly open about the threat to Interpol’s credibility from problematic notices. He finds it frustrating that he sometimes finds out from newspapers, rather than his organisation, about wrongful arrest requests, such as those involving refugees. He says countries do not always notify Interpol about a person’s refugee status, which he regards as a “shared responsibility”.

Jürgen Stock at a podium at Interpol's headquarters in Lyon
Jürgen Stock, Interpol’s secretary general, at its headquarters in Lyon. He acknowledges there is more to be done but admits that he has no ‘silver bullet’ for what needs to be done. Photograph: Romain Lafabregue/AFP/Getty

The 62-year-old has faced a “parallel pandemic” of Covid-related crimes including fake vaccines and other substandard medical products as well as fighting a wave of cyber-attacks and telecom scams. Stock describes Interpol’s “bread and butter job” as targeting “child abusers, murderers, fraudsters”.

Stock does not give figures about Interpol’s tools being misused against political opponents and refugees but he insists that these notices are a “small number of cases” compared with the “overwhelming majority” of legitimate ones. However, even his rough estimate of no more than 5% of notices being improperly applied each year could mean hundreds of potentially wrongful arrest requests.

Under Stock, Interpol has strengthened its oversight body – the commission for the control of Interpol’s files (CCF), which reviews appeals and can delete red notices – and publishes more information about decisions on complaints. He has also bolstered the specialist squad that reviews notices before they are published. Critics have welcomed the changes, but some say the system is still not robust enough. Stock acknowledges that there is more work to be done. “I don’t have the silver bullet at [this] stage for what else we can do,” he says, but stresses that he is committed to further strengthening safeguards, where possible, during his final three years in the post.

A key challenge, lawyers say, is how long it can take to get non-compliant notices removed – and the damage that can happen in the meantime. This was the case for Selahaddin Gülen, a US permanent resident and nephew of Fethullah Gülen who was detained in Kenya last October, after an Interpol notice accused him of sex crimes involving a minor. (He denies the charges, which his lawyer called a “false dossier”.)

Seven months later, after he reported to Kenyan police in May as part of his bail requirements, Gülen was detained again and deported to Turkey. “He had been completely illegally transferred without even a Kenyan court ruling,” says Nate Shenkan, research director at Freedom House. “That’s a pretty obvious case of Interpol abuse.”

Selahaddin Gülen in handcuffs standing between two Turkish flags
Selahaddin Gülen in a photograph provided by the Turkish intelligence service. His wife calls his detention and deportation from Kenya a kidnapping. ‘I have not heard from him since that day,’ she says. Photograph: AP

Gülen’s lawyers asked Interpol to remove the red notice in December, arguing it violated rules on political motivated notices. An expert witness argued that after the 2016 attempted coup Turkey had reopened charges that had been dropped in 2008. In July, Interpol stated that Gülen’s red notice had been removed. But it was too late for Gülen: he was already in Turkish custody and now faces multiple charges including for terrorism offences, according to local media. Gülen’s wife has called her husband’s detention and deportation from Kenya a kidnapping. “I have not heard from him since that day,” she said in a video.

The CCF is composed of eight specialists who usually meet every few months. In 2018, the most recent year for which data is available, it ruled that 48% of the 346 complaints it took forward had broken Interpol’s rules.

Interpol’s penalties for members flouting its rules include blocking countries from accessing its databases and supervising use of its systems for up to three months. It says these are “corrective measures”, not punishments, and have been in place since at least 2011.

Some countries are taking matters into their own hands to curtail abuse of Interpol’s processes. In the US, a bipartisan group in Congress based around the Helsinki Commission is seeking to pass the Transnational Repression Accountability and Prevention (Trap) Act, which was proposed in 2019 to restrict arrests based on Interpol red notices and prevent foreign governments from persecuting citizens abroad.

Interpol is ultimately governed by its members, which include countries that may seek to game the system. Next month, member states’ representatives will gather in Istanbul to elect the organisation’s next president. Among those vying for the position, and reportedly a frontrunner, is a controversial candidate: Ahmed Naser al-Raisi, a senior security official from the United Arab Emirates who is on Interpol’s executive committee. Human rights organisations and lawyers accuse Raisi of overseeing a “notoriously abusive” state security apparatus that has imprisoned dissidents and misused Interpol’s red notices. A report earlier this year for International Human Rights Advisors by David Calvert-Smith, a former British judge and director of public prosecutions, concluded: “Not only would an Emirati president of Interpol serve to validate and endorse the [UAE’s] record on human rights and criminal justice but, in addition, Maj Gen al-Raisi is unsuitable for the role. He sits at the very top of the Emirati criminal justice system [and] has overseen an increased crackdown on dissent, continued torture, and abuses in its criminal justice system.”


Kharis left prison in late 2018, after a US federal judge invoked evidence of Russia abusing Interpol procedures and of “serious flaws” in its wanted-persons system. Supporters in court cheered and hugged Kharis’s wife, Anna, who was in tears.

Alexey Kharis with his wife, Anna, and 10-year-old daughter at home in California.
Alexey Kharis with his wife, Anna, and daughter, Emilia, at home in California. Interpol only lifted his red notice last summer, four years after it had been approved. Photograph: Talia Herman/The Guardian

His release has not ended the judicial struggle, which one US congressman called a “harrowing tale of mistreatment”. Kharis was tracked with an electronic ankle monitor until this summer, an experience he called a constant walk of shame. His movements are restricted and monitored by GPS, while he awaits a decision on his asylum request, which was initially rejected.

Now based in Palo Alto, California, Kharis is trying to rebuild his life. He has set up a virtual restaurant company and works as an accountant. This summer he took his family on holiday in California. His judicial process rolls on, marbled with wins and losses. Last summer, nine months after Kharis’s appeal to Interpol and four years after his red notice was issued, Interpol told him his wanted status had been revoked. “I still think that Interpol does good,” he says. “But it’s too easy to abuse the system. We’re talking about people’s lives.”



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