Alex Tinsley – The case of Benny Wenda, leader of the West Papuan independence movement, is a perfect illustration of the need to reform Interpol and its abused red notice system.
In 2002, Benny escaped from prison in Indonesia where he had been threatened, harassed and prosecuted on trumped-up charges. The UK, recognising persecution, granted him asylum. Benny, who now lives in Oxford with his wife and five children, went on to establish himself as the leader in exile of the West Papuan cause.
Last year, Benny discovered that he was the subject of an Interpol red notice. The notice, issued at Indonesia's request, designated Benny as a wanted criminal and put him at risk of arrest throughout the world. Consequently, he could not risk travelling and had to decline invitations to speak about West Papua at international conferences. The notice also appeared on Interpol's website, complete with Benny's picture and allegations of violent crime, staining his reputation.
Benny came to Fair Trials International, to ask what we could do to help. Indonesia's angry response to the Guardian's coverage showed it was not going to drop the red notice. The UK government was unwilling to demand that Interpol remove it; safely taking proceedings in Indonesia was unrealistic; and there was no court Benny could turn to.
So we used the only avenue open to us and wrote to the Commission for the Control of Interpol's Files, arguing that Indonesia was abusing the red notice system for political purposes. We have just learned that the Commission agreed with our view. Interpol accepted the conclusion and removed the red notice.
This result is welcome, but it begs the question: how was the world's largest policing organisation dragged into such a clearly political case, in breach of its cardinal rule of political neutrality? Some of Interpol's 190 member countries have appalling human rights records and are notoriously corrupt, yet it appears there is no effective system to stop these countries using Interpol's red notice system to persecute refugees and exiled political activists. Indeed, since last year's Guardian story, other victims of abusive red notices have approached us for help.
Preventing misuse of Interpol is not only important for people such as Benny, it is also critical to Interpol's own credibility and effectiveness. Last month, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe passed a resolution expressing concern about abuse of the Interpol red notice system by states whose judicial systems do not meet international standards. Opposing the motion was Russia, routinely condemned for its arbitrary criminal trials by the Council of Europe and declared a country of concern by the UK Foreign Office - and one of the biggest red notice users.
To protect its own standing, Interpol must weed out suspicious red notices before they find their way on to police databases the world over. Flaws in its current systems would be less worrying if affected individuals had access to a fair, transparent process to raise their complaints. Unfortunately, the commission we applied to in Benny's case falls short: sitting only twice a year, it operates behind closed doors with no hearings and does not give reasoned decisions. Interpol usually follows its views, but can ask it to "think again" if it disagrees.
Through dialogue with Interpol in recent months, we have learned a lot about how this important crime-fighting organisation works. Interpol states that it keeps its systems under regular review, and we are hopeful that, in light of cases such as Benny's, they will be persuaded to develop new safeguards to prevent countries using red notices to export persecution. Without these reforms, people like Benny, and Interpol's own reputation, will continue to suffer.