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Suspect No.1: Why Fort Detrick Lab Should be Investigated for Global COVID-19 Origins Tracing

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Observers found that things only get more complicated when the origins of the coronavirus – an already difficult scientific issue – is entangled in political manipulation tricks. Combing through more than 8,000 pieces of news reports related to the lab-leak theory, the Global Times found that as many as 60 percent of the coverage was from the US alone.

It is worth noting that many media outlets in the US-led Western world, which hyped the lab-leak theory, are only willing to focus on the Chinese labs though they have been thoroughly investigated by the World Health Organisation (WHO), while turning a blind eye to the more suspicious American biological research institutions, such as the infamous US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) at Fort Detrick, Maryland.


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AP Photo / Ng Han Guan

Journalists gather near an electric fence looking into the P4 Lab in the Wuhan Institute of Virology as the World Health Organization team visit on a field trip in Wuhan in China’s Hubei province on Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2021

The USAMRIID was temporarily shut down in 2019 after a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) inspection. Although this mysterious lab reported the reason for the closure as “ongoing infrastructure issues with wastewater decontamination”, the explanation was not persuasive enough.

The Global Times found that the lab’s failure to control toxins seemed to have alarmed the Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction related institutions in the US.

Resurgence of Lab-Leak Theory

A joint study into the origins of COVID-19 by Chinese experts and the WHO in March dismissed the “lab-leak” conspiracy theory. More evidence pointed to the fact that the virus had probably jumped from bats to humans via another intermediary animal, and it was “extremely unlikely” that it leaked from a lab, the study report said.

Nonetheless, the lab-leak theory has not disappeared; instead, especially from the beginning of May, it has been largely promoted by some US politicians and media outlets as a “plausible science.” In an article published on Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists on May 5, without any evidence, science writer Nicholas Wade claimed that “proponents of lab escape can explain all the available facts about SARS2 considerably more easily than can those who favour natural emergence”.

Days later, The Wall Street Journal reported on May 23 that three researchers at Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) “became sick enough in November 2019 that they sought hospital care,” and they had “symptoms consistent with both Covid-19 and common seasonal illness.” The WSJ report quoted a “previously undisclosed US intelligence report”.


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REUTERS / JONATHAN ERNST

US President Joe Biden delivers remarks on the US COVID-19 vaccination effort at Green Road Community Center in Raleigh, North Carolina, US June 24, 2021

On May 26, President Biden stated that he had ordered the US intelligence community to “redouble” its efforts to investigate the origins of COVID-19. The US national security adviser Jake Sullivan even claimed on June 20 that China will face “isolation in the international community” if it doesn’t cooperate with a further probe into the origin of the COVID-19 pandemic, Bloomberg reported that day.

Pressure from politicians and the media seems to have affected some authoritative medical scientists in the US, including Director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), Anthony Fauci. On May 11, after Rand Paul, a Republican to the Senate, accused Fauci of helping the Wuhan lab “create” the virus, Fauci strongly denied the accusation but said he is “fully in favour of any further investigation of what went on in China”.

This sudden change in the attitude of some US experts is due to the political pressure they have received, a Chinese virologist told the Global Times. “Western media like to ask the experts misguiding questions, like, ‘is (lab leak) absolutely impossible?'” said the virologist who requested anonymity.

It’s very difficult for experts to answer a question like that, as the possibility, although very little, still exists, the virologist said. “All they can say is, ‘it’s possible,'” he told the Global Times. Actually, most experts usually add “but it’s highly unlikely” after “it’s possible,” but the media only presents the part which confirms their own bias, he said.

Big data shows the US is pushing the narrative of the COVID-19 lab-leak theory. Among the 8,594 pieces of news report related to “lab leak” that database GDELT collected since 2020, 5,079 were from the US, accounting for 59 percent. Following the US were the UK (611 pieces) and Australia (597 pieces). Almost all the coverage targeted the WIV lab.

While the US is solely focused on Chinese labs, the US seldom pays attention to the fault in its own domestic labs, some of which have even triggered virus-related accidents before. According to an August 2020 article by ProPublica, an independent newsroom that produces investigative journalism, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill reported 28 lab incidents involving genetically engineered organisms to safety officials at the National Institutes of Health between January 2015 and June 2020.

“Six of the incidents involved various types of lab-created coronaviruses,” ProPublica said in the article. “Many were engineered to allow the study of the virus in mice”.

Weirdly, very few US mainstream media outlets have raised the question of whether there is the possibility that COVID-19 was leaked from US labs, said the Chinese virologist. “They dare not ask that”, he said.

In an article published on the independent political blog site Moon of Alabama on May 27, the author pointed out that some Westerners’ hyping of the Wuhan lab leak conspiracy is similar to the trick the US played in pushing the Iraq War in 2002 – the US claimed “Saddam Hussein will soon have a nuclear weapon”, which was “obvious nonsense,” the author said.

“The ‘lab leak’ theory is similar to the WMD claim – evidence-free speculation long promoted by a neoconservative leaning administration that was extremely hostile to the ‘guilty’ country in question”, said the author.

The lab-leak theory, therefore, “isn’t just about an implausible, evidence-free tale of a SARS-CoV-2 lab escape”, the author noted. “It is a campaign launched to depict China as an enemy of humankind”.

International Concerns on US Bio-Labs

The US has many bio-labs in 25 countries and regions across the Middle East, Africa, Southeast Asia and the former Soviet Union states, with 16 in Ukraine alone. Some of these labs have seen large-scale outbreaks of measles and other dangerous infectious diseases, according to media reports.

The international community has frequently expressed concern over the US’ biological militarisation activities in other countries.

In October 2020, Deputy Chairman of the Security Council of Russia, Dmitry Medvedev, said that the US research activities in bio-labs in members of the Commonwealth of the Independent States have caused grave concern. The US not only builds bio-labs in these countries but also tries to do so in other places across the world. However, its research lacks transparency and runs counter to the rules of the international community and international organisations.

Anatoly Tsyganok, a corresponding member of the Russian Academy of Military Sciences and associate professor of Faculty of World Politics at Lomonosov Moscow State University, told the Global Times that biological and bacteriological weapons tests on US territory are prohibited by the US Congress. He said that the US military has been and is still carrying out tests of biological and bacteriological weapons in Georgia.

This is done under the guise of providing sick people with various therapeutic vaccines conducted by the US military and American private contractors at the Richard Lugar Center for Public Health Research, Tsyganok said. Related tests have been exposed by various media outlets.


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AP Photo / HECTOR RETAMAL

(FILES) This file photo taken on April 17, 2020 shows an aerial view of the P4 laboratory at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in Wuhan in China’s central Hubei province

In December 2015, 30 patients at the research centre who were being treated for hepatitis C died. Twenty-four of them died on the same day, and their cause of death was listed as “unknown”, according to Tsyganok and Russia news outlet.

Residents of neighbourhoods around these labs often complain about health problems.

Bulgarian journalist Dilyana Gaytandzhieva published a story about the Lugar centre in early 2018. In her interviews for the report, most residents who lived nearby the labs complained of headaches, nausea and high blood pressure. They also said there was black smoke coming from the lab.

USA Today reported that since 2003, hundreds of incidents involving accidental contact with deadly pathogens occurred in US bio-labs at home and abroad. This may cause the direct contacts to be infected, who can then spread the virus to communities and start an epidemic.

A member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Armais Kamalov said in an interview with TASS in early June that the development of genetically engineered viruses as biological weapons should be subject to the same worldwide ban as the testing of nuclear weapons. He mentioned US labs in Georgia and Armenia as reference.

“There are a lot of labs, which are bankrolled today by the United States Department of Defense. It’s no secret that they are in Georgia, Armenia and other republics. It’s surprising that access to such labs is off-limits, and we don’t understand what they are doing there”, he said.

What Had Happened in July 2019?

The terrible safety records of American biological labs around the world shows a possibility of a virus escaping from an American lab. Many point to the shutdown of Fort Detrick lab in July 2019.

In July 2019, six months before the US reported its first COVID-19 case, the Army laboratory at Fort Detrick that studies deadly infectious material like Ebola and smallpox was shut down after the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a cease-and-desist order. CDC officials refused to release further information after citing “national security reasons.”

The USAMRIID in Fort Detrick said in August 2019 that the shutdown was because the centre did not have “sufficient systems in place to decontaminate wastewater” from its highest-security labs, the New York Times reported.

What exactly happened at Fort Detrick in the summer of 2019? Some US media previously turned to CDC to get answers, but many key contents in the report had been redacted.


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AP Photo / Andrew Harnik

FILE – In this March 19, 2020, file photo laboratory scientist Andrea Luquette cultures coronavirus to prepare for testing at U.S. Army Medical Research and Development Command at Fort Detrick in Frederick, Md., where scientists are working to help develop solutions to prevent, detect and treat the coronavirus

In early June, a Virginia-based Twitter user got the CDC documents on the inspection of the Fort Detrick under The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Global Times found that most of the documents were emails between CDC officials at various departments and USAMRIID from 2018 to 2019. Although some of the emails were covered by an ABC-affiliated television station in Washington, the report did not catch much attention.

The emails revealed several violations at the Fort Detrick lab during CDC’s inspections in 2019. Four of which were labelled serious violations.

One of these serious violations, the CDC said, was one inspector who entered a room multiple times without the required respiratory protection while other people in that room were performing procedures with a non-human primate on a necropsy table.

This deviation from entity procedures resulted in a respiratory occupational exposure to select agent aerosols, the CDC said.

In another serious violation, the CDC said the USAMRIID had “systematically failed to ensure implementation of biosafety and containment procedures commensurate with the risks associated with working with select agents and toxins.”

Other violations included lack of proper waste management where waste wasn’t transported in a durable leak-proof container, which creates the potential for spills or leaks.

The CDC documents show that it sent a letter of concern to USAMRIID, which resulted in a temporary shutdown of the Fort Detrick lab in 2019.

In an email on July 12, 2019, the CDC said the USAMRIID reported two breaches of containment on July 1 and July 11, 2019, and this demonstrated a “failure of USAMRIID to implement and maintain containment procedures sufficient to contain select agents or toxin generated by BSL-3 and BSL-4 laboratory operations.”

“Effective immediately, USAMRIID must cease all work involving select agents and toxins in registered laboratory areas until the root cause investigation has been conducted for each incident and the results have been submitted to FSAP for review”, the CDC said.

The FSAP (Federal Select Agent Program) is jointly comprised of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Division of Select Agents and Toxins and the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service’s Division of Agricultural Select Agents and Toxins. The programme oversees the possession, use and transfer of biological select agents and toxins, which have the potential to cause a severe threat to the public, animal or plant health or to animal or plant products. Common examples of select agents and toxins include the organisms that cause anthrax, smallpox, and bubonic plague.

Three days later, Fort Detrick replied the email by saying that it had submitted messages in response to the immediate action, but the messages were deliberately blotted out.

The message was submitted by a director for Strategic Studies (Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction) at the USAMRIID whose name was also blotted out.

Fort Detrick’s public statement released in August 2019 said the shutdown was due to problems in decontaminating wastewater. But it’s not clear whether the statement was consistent with CDC’s inspection results.

The management of such high-level labs, in general, must be very strict with regular inspections. Various systems should be able to ensure that no potential risks can occur, and equipment failure and wastewater leakage certainly should not occur, a Chinese scientist from the WHO-China virus origins tracing team who requested anonymity told the Global Times.


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REUTERS / NIH/Handout

Colorized scanning electron micrograph of an apoptotic cell (red) infected with SARS-COV-2 virus particles (yellow), also known as novel coronavirus, isolated from a patient sample. Image captured at the NIAID Integrated Research Facility (IRF) in Fort Detrick, Maryland

The wastewater problems revealed major loopholes in the management at the Fort Detrick lab, and one has to wonder what else was leaked with the mismanaged wastewater.

“Some highly pathogenic pathogens in the laboratory were likely released. And the US military never told the public about what they were doing”, the scientist said.

It is highly likely that researchers at Fort Detrick may have been infected accidentally but showed no obvious symptoms. In this way they could have brought the virus to the outside world, the scientist said.

“Under the circumstances of no obvious symptoms, 9 of the 10 individuals may not have known that they were infected and it’s possible that more than 90 percent of the transmission routes had been lost when the virus was finally detected. This is also why the tracing of virus origins is difficult to conduct,” he said, noting only serological survey on a large scale could find some of the early infections.

Why Not Open Fort Detrick Lab

Several virologists and analysts interviewed by the Global Times urged the Fort Detrick lab to open its doors for an international investigation since international experts have already visited the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

Many Western politicians and media outlets pinned the blame of the pandemic on Wuhan, saying that Wuhan was where the virus was first detected and where the virus came from despite mounting evidence that it’s not the case.

In a recent example in June, a research study run by the National Institutes of Health’s All of Us Research Program found evidence of COVID-19 infections in the US as early as December 2019, weeks before the first documented infection in the country.

Peter Ben Embarek, a member of the World Health Organization (WHO) team tasked with investigating the origins of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), attends the WHO-China joint study news conference at a hotel in Wuhan, Hubei province, China February 9, 2021.

Wuhan recorded the earliest COVID-19 symptoms from a patient on 8 December 2019.

When asked to give more details on the study, a media person with the All of Us Research Program told the Global Times that the programme “has nothing further to add” from the information it had already released.

As for why the virus was first detected in Wuhan, the anonymous scientist said that the virus was difficult to be detected at an early stage, especially in autumn and winter with more cold cases. And it would not attract attention until a large number of people were infected. That’s what happened in densely populated Wuhan, the scientist said.

China’s public health system is very sensitive especially after the SARS outbreak in 2003, but this is not always the case abroad, especially when the population density is low and the virus does not spread so fast, the expert said.

“The novel coronavirus was first discovered by three Chinese companies at the same time. It is very simple to detect these things, and China has lots of such third-party companies with strong medical detection ability”, he said.

Without going back to earlier serum samples elsewhere now, it is going to be difficult to find the source of the virus. The retrospective studies that have been done in China have not found any evidence. It’s important for the world to work together now to sort through the evidence and do early serological investigations where necessary, he said.

Zeng Guang, former chief epidemiologist of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, told the Global Times that laboratory leak is easy to identify, as infections are bound to show signs, whether it is an operational problem or an infection of lab staff.


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REUTERS / THOMAS PETER

Staff members in protective suits stand at Hubei Provincial Hospital of Integrated Chinese and Western Medicine where members of the World Health Organization (WHO) team tasked with investigating the origins of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) are visiting, in Wuhan, Hubei province, China January 29, 2021.

The WHO experts assessed the lab-leak hypothesis when they visited Wuhan and found no evidence, and the speculation on its possibility in a Wuhan lab should have ended by now. In the meantime, we should put a question mark on other hypotheses, such as other labs around the world, Zeng said.

Zeng said the US is afraid of WHO’s an inspection in the same way it was done in China, Zeng said.

The US, the only country obstructing the establishment of a Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) verification mechanism, has systematic problems, Zeng said, adding that the US is afraid that the investigation into its labs would lead to more of its dirt being dugout.

This article was originally published by The Global Times



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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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Norway killings ‘appeared to be’ Islamist ‘terrorism’

Voice Of EU

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Wednesday’s murders “appeared … to be an act of terrorism” Norway’s ‘PST’ intelligence service said Thursday, noting that the killer, Danish national Espen Andersen, had been a “known” threat. Andersen was a Muslim convert and extremist, but might also have had psychiatric problems, Norwegian police said. Norway’s terrorism-threat level was “moderate”, the PST added, while monitoring the risk of “follow-up actions, revenge actions” by either “extreme Islamists” or “right-wing extremists”.

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