Turkey is set to host INTERPOL’s 89th General Assembly in İstanbul November 20-25, after intense lobbying efforts by the Turkish government, despite it being an oppressive state that attempted to upload as many as 60,000 names on INTERPOL’s wanted list in 2017. A glaringly obvious irony is that Turkish Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu, as the head of Turkey’s law enforcement, has been trying to persuade INTERPOL to have political opponents arrested worldwide while being linked to various corruption cases including drug trafficking.
INTERPOL is an inter-governmental organization founded in 1923, consisting of 194 member countries and assisting national police forces in combating crimes globally, especially crimes related to terrorism and cybercrime. During the last century, there have been rising concerns that the global police organization is being abused by powerful authoritarian states. An increase in the rate of migration in recent years has seen INTERPOL becoming complicit in the suppression of people in exile, asylum seekers, political opponents and diaspora members.
Daily British newspaper The Guardian just last week published a detailed article related to how INTERPOL has become the long arm of oppressive regimes. The article detailed the story of California-based Russian businessman Alexey Kharis, who had a government contract in 2010 to renovate shipyards near Russia’s far eastern city of Vladivostok and was subsequently detained in San Francisco in 2017, spending the next 15 months in a California prison. Kharis’s photo was uploaded to INTERPOL’s gallery among those of thousands of international fugitives at the request of Russian authorities after he threatened to talk about ministerial corruption in the tender. Kharis was released in 2018 after a US federal judge decided that Russia had abused INTERPOL procedures.
Bahraini footballer Hakeem al-Araibi, who fled to Australia in 2014, was arrested along with his wife in Thailand in 2018 and spent 76 days in Thai prisons based on an INTERPOL Red Notice after Bahrain accused him of involvement in the Bahraini uprising of 2011. INTERPOL also issued a Red Notice at the request of Turkey for Selahattin Gülen, a permanent US resident and the nephew of Fethullah Gülen. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan accuses Muslim scholar Fethullah Gülen, spiritual leader of the Hizmet (Service) movement, which runs schools around the world, of orchestrating a July 15, 2016 coup attempt in Turkey and has since then embarked on a merciless crackdown on Gülen followers, targeting in particular members of the Gülen family. Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MIT) detained Selahattin Gülen with the agreement of the Kenyan authorities last October, following the issuance of an INTERPOL Red Notice accusing him of sex crimes, which he denied. INTERPOL later in July removed his Red Notice, but it was too late as MIT had brought him back to Turkey.
Turkish mafia boss Sedat Peker was arrested during the early 2000s on charges of involvement in organized crime, but he later developed ties with celebrities, journalists and even politicians including Erdoğan. He has accused Soylu of turning a blind eye to international drug trafficking. Peker first fled to the Balkans last year to avoid prosecution and currently resides in Dubai. A few months ago during an appearance in his wildly popular YouTube video series, Peker mentioned that Soylu is working together with Mehmet Ağar, a former chief of police and interior minister who has been running a drug trafficking and extortion scheme using state institutions.
There is no doubt that the Erdoğan government will leave no stone unturned during the upcoming summit in November in efforts to convince INTERPOL to issue Red Notices for Gülen followers abroad. In reality, members of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) are grappling with fears of themselves being listed by INTERPOL. Turkish police and prosecutors conducted the country’s largest corruption case against Erdoğan’s inner circle including his son Bilal Erdoğan on charges including bribery and money laundering. When questions arose regarding state-owned HalkBank’s role in helping Iran evade US sanctions in December 2013, Erdoğan managed to obscure details related to the case by jailing all security and judiciary members involved in the investigation. However, the US Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York later filed a criminal indictment charging Turkish Iranian businessman Reza Zarrab and the former deputy chief executive of Halkbank, Mehmet Hakan Atilla, in March 2016 for conspiring to evade US sanctions on Iran. A US federal appeals court says the Turkish bank must face criminal charges on account of evading sanctions against Iran by processing billions of dollars of Iranian oil revenue, AP reported last week.
INTERPOL may issue Red Notices for senior AKP members for involvement in financial crimes. A Red Notice is an alert to all INTERPOL member states that an individual is a wanted fugitive and is essentially a request by INTERPOL on behalf of one member state. If Erdoğan loses power, the new leadership may call for Red Notices to be issued for AKP members. Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) Deputy Chairman Erdal Aksünger claimed in 2018 that INTERPOL had issued Red Notices for former Turkish economy minister Zafer Çağlayan and Turkish state lender HalkBank’s former general manager Süleyman Aslan but that their names were not listed on the INTERPOL site.
INTERPOL’s possible Red Notices for AKP leaders will likely extend beyond the 2013 corruption scandals to include drug trafficking from Latin American nations to Turkey as this is an international crime falling under the global police unit’s focus. Peker claimed in May that Erkam Yıldırım, the son of former Turkish prime minister Binali Yıldırım, had been involved in a scheme to import cocaine from Venezuela to Turkey. Binali Yıldırım is a long-time political ally of Erdoğan. Peker also accused AKP leaders of sending arms to Syrian jihadist groups including the al-Qaeda-linked al-Nusra.
According to the London-based Spotlight on Corruption, thousands of Turkish millionaires are now emigrating and moving their money to countries like Malta, Greece, Portugal and England. Several Turkish media outlets have also reported on the flight of corrupt AKP officials as they search for greener pastures elsewhere. When the rule of law returns to Turkey, a new government is likely to call for Red Notices to be issued for these AKP members overseas.
INTERPOL’s constitution does not allow the global police network to hunt political dissidents or refugees and stipulates that the organization must work within the “spirit of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” but perhaps due to budget and personnel constraints INTERPOL has become a mechanism for transnational repression by oppressive regimes. The efficacy and success of INTERPOL’s global network is deeply dependent on trust. In the case of the Turkish police force, orders are taken from an authoritarian Turkish government leading to the excessive use of force against peaceful protesters, and reports claim that torture and rape are regular occurrences in many police stations. Only time will tell whether INTERPOL will hunt AKP members involved in international money laundering and drug and arms trade, or whether the world’s largest police unit will be swayed by Erdoğan’s “generosity.”