[Interview] Turkey is the worst of the worst when it comes to transnational repression: Dr. Edward Lemon

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Transnational repression expert Dr. Edward Lemon said in an interview with the Stockholm Center for Freedom that Turkey was one of the countries that abused mechanisms of international organizations such as INTERPOL the most. “Turkey is the worst of the worst when it comes to transnational repression, which is evident from a dataset compiled by Freedom House last year. In 2017 Turkey tried to put over 60,000 individuals on INTERPOL’s wanted lists,” he said.

As part of SCF’s interview series “Freedom Talks,” SCF research director Dr. Merve R. Kayıkçı talked to Dr. Lemon about transnational repression, Turkey’s misuse of INTERPOL and possible steps to ensure a safer world for exiles and political asylum seekers.

Dr. Edward Lemon is President of the Oxus Society for Central Asian Affairs and Research Assistant Professor at The Bush School of Government and Public Service, Texas A&M University, Washington, D.C., campus. He was previously Assistant Professor of Eurasian Affairs at the Daniel Morgan Graduate School, a Global Fellow at the Wilson Center and a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at the Department of Political Science at Columbia University. His research has been published in DemocratizationCentral Asian AffairsCaucasus SurveyJournal of DemocracyCentral Asian Survey, the Review of Middle Eastern Studies and The RUSI Journal. He is editor of the book “Critical Approaches to Security in Central Asia” (Routledge, 2018).

For the general audience, what is transnational repression? What are some of the mechanisms states use to wage campaigns of transnational repression?

Transnational repression looks at the ways in which all authoritarian regimes target individuals and citizens who have left the country. Those targeted could be migrants or exiles, or even members of the diaspora community in different countries around the world.

Even though they’ve left the country and the country’s physical boundaries, and they’re in another jurisdiction, authoritarian states can still reach into those other jurisdictions, other countries, and they can target individuals and effectively impose upon them certain punishments. This is to signal to them that their voice and their continued activism have consequences. Effectively, it is an attempt to silence members of the exile, diaspora, migrant communities, particularly by authoritarian regimes.

These practices run the gamut from the more dramatic and the newsworthy events that we’ve seen. For example, the assassination of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Consulate in İstanbul back in 2018. There was also the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal by the Russian government in Salisbury in the UK. These instances of attempted or successful assassination attacks often make global headlines. But at the same time, there are a series of more mundane, everyday forms of surveillance, such as tracking people, threatening them and using international institutions, such as INTERPOL, to have them detained when they’re crossing a border or arriving at an airport.

There are a whole host of different techniques that authoritarian regimes in particular use to try and silence and prevent anyone who’s left the country from continuing to be active in politics.

Transnational repression is not new. What are some of the characteristics that define it today?

The murder of Leon Trotsky in Mexico City back in 1944 with an icepick was a historical example of transnational repression during the Cold War in particular. The US and Soviet regimes were sponsoring various forms of transnational oppression around the world.

But I think it has increased in frequency in recent years, and I think that’s a result of increasing migration and the fact that mobility has increased. There are more people traveling to different parts of the world and moving to different parts of the world.

For example, before the pandemic around 120 million Chinese citizens traveled each year. Many of them traveled on business or for tourism, but some of them were also monitored by the state. Mobility has increased, and information technologies have transformed this landscape and allowed authoritarian regimes to reach into diaspora and exile communities online and hack into their different social media profiles.

So these factors have increased the amount of transnational repression. Also, transnational repression has been institutionalized through organizations like INTERPOL. Authoritarian regimes have often created their own international organizations such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which brings together the Central Asian states, China, Russia and Pakistan. This organization was founded by states to counter extremism and tackle terrorism and separatism. However, the interpretation of those terms by countries like China and Russia is very broad, and they are using it to pursue political opponents and create new legal norms that bypass international standards such as a non-refoulement.

So these different factors have led to the rise of transnational repression around the world and have been affecting hundreds of thousands of people.

How does Turkey’s transnational repression relate to larger global authoritarianism? Is there anything that makes Turkey’s current wave of transnational repression unique?

Turkey is the worst of the worst when it comes to transnational repression. You can also see this in a dataset compiled by Freedom House last year. In 2017 Turkey tried to put over 60,000 individuals on INTERPOL’s wanted lists using a mechanism called a diffusion.

INTERPOL can be used in two ways to target members of the opposition, activists and obviously criminals. There are direct notes, which are slightly more formal and are requests to arrest someone in a foreign jurisdiction. There is also something called diffusions, which Turkey tried to use. Imagine that you have all the police forces in the world on an e-mail chain and you send very basic information about an individual such as their citizenship, date of birth and what crime they committed. This basically is a diffusion. Turkey used these mechanisms to pursue people whom they have associated with the so-called coup attempt in 2016, such as members of the Gülen movement.

In most cases perpetrators of transnational repression do not openly acknowledge their actions. But in the case of Turkey, Erdogan loves to brag about such cases. What are the implications of this in terms of international law and diplomacy?

I think it’s very concerning that this is normalized and celebrated. I also think it’s worrying it has been normalized through formal institutions such as INTERPOL. But there is a misconception about INTERPOL. An arrest warrant by INTERPOL does not mean there is an international consensus of the guilt of a person. INTERPOL is just a platform for sending requests to different police forces.

It is very concerning that countries like Turkey are at the forefront of misusing INTERPOL. But Turkey is not only carrying out transnational repression itself; it is also becoming an important site for transnational repression by other regimes such as China.

So I think Turkey, like Russia, is unique insofar as it’s both a leading user of transnational repression abroad, but also in collaborating with other governments to remove people from its territory.

Historically, Turkey has been a safe haven for Uighurs. However, there have been recent reports that Turkey has been deporting them to China. Can you elaborate on why Turkey has been cooperating with China on the Uighur issue?

There is a level of economic interaction between the countries, which is an important factor. There are important trade and investment deals between China and Turkey, which China has begun to use. This is called economic statecraft. So the Turkish police act as agents of a foreign government, namely, the government of China, although most of those individuals returned are refugees. They are women and children; they are not extremists or terrorists as is said by the Chinese government. So I think money plays a key role. Turkey wants to have a positive relationship with China, given its rising power. Turkey also wants to play a bridging role between the West and states like China and Russia. For the Turkish government the costs are minimal, and the benefits potentially outweigh them. This is unfortunate because we’re talking about people’s lives here, and those people are being returned or have disappeared.

In an article you mention that authoritarian states use INTERPOL to signal the legitimacy of their claims. Can you elaborate on this point? What kind of message does INTERPOL send when they respond to the requests of authoritarian states?

INTERPOL was founded to facilitate communication, collaboration, cooperation between police forces around the world. According to its constitution, it’s supposed to be neutral. It’s supposed to act within the spirit of the universal declaration of human rights. Its constitution says that it shouldn’t be used against individuals who are accused of political crimes. Instead, it’s supposed to be dealing with what are called common law crimes, such as drug trafficking, and international sex offenders. But unfortunately, the organization, like so many other international organizations, operates off the principles of neutrality and sovereign equality. For example, an arrest request from the Erdoğan government is the same as a request from the British government or the American government.

There is an assumption that each country has a judicial system that isn’t deeply politicized. This means that the organization accepts arrest requests from any country. There is then a review process, theoretically, whereby INTERPOL can check the details of each request that’s coming through. But they’ve been overwhelmed by the rising number of Red Notices and diffusions that have come through that system. So they are not able to check everything that goes through their system.

INTERPOL is important because it’s an international organization. INTERPOL by virtue of sending an arrest request is actively asking another government to arrest someone who’s wanted for a crime. The person is not necessarily guilty. They have not been tried. They are returned to the country to face justice. But there is a misconception that if INTERPOL issues an arrest warrant, then you are wanted by INTERPOL, which is technically not true. You are actually wanted by a government, such as Turkey, that is using INTERPOL as a platform. This is an important misperception that you see in the Turkish media, the Chinese media and the Russian media, which use these arrest warrants to claim that there’s an international consensus around the guilt of a person.

What are some steps of reform INTERPOL can implement to prevent abuse by authoritarian states?

INTERPOL has come under increasing scrutiny from individual scholars and organizations like Fair Trials, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. These organizations have raised a red flag about the way in which it has been manipulated by authoritarian regimes. There has been a response to criticism by the introduction of some reforms. These reforms include increasing the number of staff who are reviewing the processes of how Red Notices and diffusions are used through INTERPOL. A new mechanism has been introduced whereby individuals who have refugee status in another country can petition to have their Red Notice revoked and removed from INTERPOL’s databases. The leader of the Tajikistan opposition successfully petitioned to have his Red Notice removed, for example.

Certain challenges do remain, as INTERPOL continues to lack transparency. We still don’t know or have information on which countries are abusing INTERPOL. We do not know the nature of the complaints sent to INTERPOL. We don’t have information about the precise process by which INTERPOL is reviewing Red Notices. The primary goal of the organization is to fight crime, and there is the impression that if some people get abused through the system, that’s OK if INTERPOL, for example, breaks up an international pedophile ring. So they don’t feel that they need to be very transparent about what they’re doing.

However, there are a number of concrete steps that states could take against countries like Turkey. There is a stipulation within INTERPOL’s rules that if a country is found to be abusing INTERPOL’s databases, then it can be banned. The country can be removed from being able to issue arrest requests through INTERPOL, and it can be banned from accessing the INTERPOL databases.

That’s the only mechanism that’s never been used, but theoretically there is a possibility to effectively temporarily expel or at least prevent countries like Turkey from accessing its databases. But in fact, what we’ve seen is the opposite. Countries like the United Arab Emirates have become the largest donor to INTERPOL and have played host to the general assembly of INTERPOL. There is a strengthening of the authoritarian presence within INTERPOL, and in fact one of the leading candidates to take over as president of the organization is a senior official from the United Arab Emirates. There is certainly an argument to be made that the organization is at least being partially captured by the interests of authoritarian states.

Does the international community have any kind of counter-mechanism against states’ attempts at transnational repression?

For an exile it is much better to be in a rule-of-law jurisdiction. The United States, European countries and places like Canada do have a legal system that by and large provides protection for individuals. The courts in these countries abide, for the most part, by the principle of non-refoulement. I am personally involved in various cases where I provide expert testimony relating to cases of individuals from countries in Central Asia. In most cases those testimonies are taken seriously, and you can build a strong case that an individual is going to be subjected to torture if they go back home and therefore it is against international law for them to be returned.

Although there have been mistakes in the past where individuals have been made to return, in most cases exiles living in rule-of-law countries have certain safeguards preventing them from being returned. Of course, there are more everyday forms of surveillance, like hacking into people’s phones. Some authoritarian states even send their agents abroad. For instance the Turkish government has been sending agents to countries with a large diaspora such as Germany. There are many people within the Turkish community who work as spies and informants on behalf of the Turkish government. Also, governments have carried out what is called proxy oppression. They use relatives back home to put pressure on those who have left the country. So I think Europe is certainly a safer place for people. However, there are still ways in which authoritarian governments can reach citizens who have left the country.

And I think the European Union is somewhat aware of this. I credit the community of scholars, human rights activists and some of our productive partnerships that we have managed to elevate this problem to something that is now being talked about. In the US there is now a section in annual reports that are put out by the State Department on human rights that discusses transnational repression in the context of each country. I think such awareness is important because transnational repression relies on cooperating with other governments. It is not possible for the Turkish security services to go into a country and grab someone. They need to be collaborating with the security services in the country in which they’re operating.

Do you think cases of transnational repression can or should be taken to the European Court of Human Rights, and what would the implications be?

Turkey has been taken to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) on some of these issues. ECtHR rulings are not tremendously helpful if the complaining party is back in a prison in their home country. Of course, it shows they were unjustly detained and that there is an international ruling in favor of them and their innocence. It is definitely useful at that level, although it does not guarantee their freedom. So the ECtHR ruling would be symbolic rather than having any concrete effect.

If INTERPOL was taken to the ECtHR and it was ruled that the person was unjustly handed over, it would be regarded as just a mistake. There’s not much INTERPOL can do at that point. Theoretically it should be using its own channels to try and push for that person’s release. Yet in most cases I don’t think this happens. There is certainly a lot of denial of responsibilities on the part of organizations like INTERPOL. If a person was wrongfully returned, INTERPOL could also see this as collateral damage and would focus on the larger issue that a terrorist was caught in the process, or a criminal group was foiled. When you look at their messaging, human rights are very rarely mentioned, and they only focus on positive stories and maybe a little bit of reform. But really, INTERPOL has not been very honest about the scale of their problems as an institution.

What would you recommend to rights groups and activists who campaign against transnational repression?

Continuing to raise awareness of such cases, as transnational repression is very important.

Collaborating with academics and looking at their datasets is important. There are scholars who are collecting data on this that can be used by such groups. I think there are fruitful collaborations to be had between advocacy groups and scholars because many scholars working on this such as myself feel a duty and a responsibility to try and change the situation to advocate for individuals. We also feel a responsibility to try change the way that organizations like INTERPOL are operating.

Advocates can try to push individual countries to increase safeguards in protecting refugees. They can also push countries to not signing extradition treaties with certain countries and making sure that judges are fully briefed about the way in which INTERPOL is abused. Some of my colleagues have been looking at how the Chinese government has been sending malware to the phones of activists and other individuals. So if these people open certain links, malware is installed, and the Chinese government can scrape all the data from that phone. So just being aware of some of these issues of digital security is also important.

Countries within INTERPOL should also push for better safeguards and transparency within international organizations. Naming and shaming is important, too. Organizations like INTERPOL need to prepare reports listing the countries that have filed the most complaints and that have tried to abuse the system.

This would be a useful tool to make a case against certain countries like Turkey to perhaps be suspended. But unfortunately, at this point there seems to be a lack of political will. So it falls upon the activist and academic community to continue trying to push for the spread of transparency.

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