Russia's Swiss EnablersThursday, May 05, 2022
Long known as a destination for war criminals and kleptocrats to stash their plunder, Switzerland is a leading enabler of Russian dictator Vladimir Putin and his cronies. After looting Russia, Putin and his oligarchs use Swiss secrecy laws to hide and protect the proceeds of their crimes. Close relations between Swiss and Russian authorities have had a corrupting influence on law enforcement personnel in Switzerland and have led to the resignation of numerous officials, including the head prosecutor of Switzerland. A recent Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project investigation found that Credit Suisse catered to dozens of criminals, dictators, intelligence officials, sanctioned parties, and political actors, and identified problematic accounts holding more than $8 billion in assets. According to the Financial Times, Credit Suisse also asked investors to destroy documents linked to yacht loans made to oligarchs and tycoons. This briefing examined the relationship between Switzerland and Russia in light of Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Panelists discussed how a compromised Switzerland affects U.S. national security and whether the United States should rethink its strategic bilateral relationship with Switzerland. Related Information Panelist Biographies How the Swiss Law Enforcement Capitulated to the Russians in the Magnitsky Case - Bill Browder
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Swiss Attacked for Going Easy on Seizing Russian BillionsThursday, May 05, 2022
The $7.6 billion in Russian assets seized to date by Swiss authorities is “insulting,” outspoken Kremlin critic Bill Browder said at briefing on Russian money in Switzerland. It’s “a lot of money in absolute terms but Switzerland is one of the main destinations for dirty Russian money,” said Browder. Given the Swiss Bankers Association has said there’s as much as 150 to 200 billion Swiss francs ($202 billion) in Russian assets in the country’s banks “I would almost say it’s slightly insulting,” he said. Browder, who has also highlighted what he perceives to be Swiss prosecutors’ soft approach to investigating Russian financial crime, called on the U.S. to review its cooperation framework with its Swiss counterparts, during the hearing organized by the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe on Thursday. “Based on my experience, it would lead me to believe the Swiss are knowingly turning their head the other way when it comes to some of the other oligarchs,” said Browder. The Swiss government said a month ago it had blocked 7.5 billion Swiss francs ($8 billion) in Russian assets in the country to date, as it issues sanctions that mirror those imposed by the European Union on those seen as close to Vladimir Putin. That figure represented a jump of 30% from their previous tally two weeks earlier and Swiss officials say the number will continue to rise as more assets hidden behind shell companies or in the names of associated are painstakingly uncovered. Switzerland surprised the world in early March by departing from its tradition of neutrality and saying it would fully embrace the European Union measures against Russia. But critics including Browder contend that the country needs to go much further. Read more: Swiss Hunt for Russian Wealth Criticized Despite $6 Billion Haul Erwin Bolliger, the chief of the Swiss Secretariat for Economic Affairs which is enforcing the sanctions, has tried to explain the gap by pointing out that are plenty of legitimately-held Russian investments in Switzerland. “There is merit in Bill’s suggestion to review the law enforcement relations between the U.S. and Switzerland,” said Mark Pieth, a law professor at the University of Basel and corruption expert, said at the hearing. Up until now, Switzerland’s approach to clamping down on dirty Russian money in the country has shown a “lack of courage,” Pieth said.
Helsinki Commission Briefing to Examine Swiss Enabling of Russian OligarchsFriday, April 29, 2022
WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following online briefing: RUSSIA’S SWISS ENABLERS Thursday, May 5, 2022 10:00 a.m. Register: https://ushr.webex.com/ushr/j.php?RGID=r72f85e0c40a09b609b328a9481f54063 Long known as a destination for war criminals and kleptocrats to stash their plunder, Switzerland is a leading enabler of Russian dictator Vladimir Putin and his cronies. After looting Russia, Putin and his oligarchs use Swiss secrecy laws to hide and protect the proceeds of their crimes. Close relations between Swiss and Russian authorities have had a corrupting influence on law enforcement personnel in Switzerland and have led to the resignation of numerous officials, including the head prosecutor of Switzerland. A recent Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project investigation found that Credit Suisse catered to dozens of criminals, dictators, intelligence officials, sanctioned parties, and political actors, and identified problematic accounts holding more than $8 billion in assets. According to the Financial Times, Credit Suisse also asked investors to destroy documents linked to yacht loans made to oligarchs and tycoons. This briefing will examine the relationship between Switzerland and Russia in light of Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Panelists will discuss how a compromised Switzerland affects U.S. national security and whether the United States should rethink its strategic bilateral relationship with Switzerland. The following panelists are scheduled to participate: Bill Browder, Head, Global Magnitsky Justice Campaign Miranda Patrucic, Deputy Editor in Chief, Regional and Central Asia, Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project Mark Pieth, President of the Board, Basel Institute on Governance
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Biden administration urged to ban UK lawyers who ‘enabled’ oligarchsTuesday, April 19, 2022
A member of Congress has urged the Biden administration to place travel bans on senior British lawyers that acted for wealthy Russian clients against investigative journalists. Steve Cohen, a Democratic representative from Tennessee, has written to Antony Blinken, the US secretary of state, urging him to sanction the lawyers for having “enabled malign activities of Russian oligarchs”. His letter comes as the Biden administration looks to increase its support for Ukraine in its war against Russia and tighten sanctions against those who have supported the Russian regime. Cohen wrote: “Oligarchs who hire lawyers to engage in abusive cases against journalists to silence them cannot exert malign influence in our system . . . the United States must establish deterrents for foreign enablers serving individuals who are undermining democracy.” The state department did not respond to a request for comment. Cohen singled out several lawyers he believed should be subject to bans on visas for travel to the US: Nigel Tait of Carter-Ruck; John Kelly of Harbottle & Lewis; barrister Hugh Tomlinson; Geraldine Proudler of CMS; Keith Schilling of Schillings; and Shlomo Rechtschaffen of SR law. Each of the lawyers is well known in London legal circles, with firms like Carter-Ruck and Schillings having established strong reputations in defamation law and reputation management. Tait, Kelly, Tomlinson and Proudler all worked on recent cases against the former Financial Times journalist Catherine Belton or her publisher HarperCollins, or both. Belton and HarperCollins were sued last year by several Russian oligarchs including Roman Abramovich over her book Putin’s People, which details the rise to power of Russia’s president Vladimir Putin. The lawsuits were later settled or withdrawn. Cohen cited Schillings’ work for Malaysian businessman and fugitive Jho Low. British ministers have expressed concern over the way in which UK courts are used by wealthy foreigners to launch libel cases. Dominic Raab, the justice secretary, last month set out proposals to limit any so-called Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation. Also in March Bob Seely, the MP for the Isle of Wight, used parliamentary privilege to claim “amoral” City lawyers were teaming up with “Putin’s henchmen” to offer “legalised intimidation”. A spokesperson for Tomlinson said: “Regulatory rules for lawyers are very strict and work to ensure equal entitlement to independent legal advice. Mr Tomlinson acted properly and in accordance with those rules throughout and has never acted as Mr Cohen suggests.” Tait’s firm Carter-Ruck said: “The claims made against Carter-Ruck are misconceived and are rejected entirely. In addition to other matters, we are not working for any Russian individuals, companies or entities seeking to challenge, overturn, frustrate or minimise sanctions.” It added: “We are not acting for, and will not be acting for, any individual, company or entity associated with the Putin regime in any matter or context, whether sanctions-related or otherwise, and will continue to conduct all ‘know your client’ checks in accordance with all applicable laws and regulations, as we have always done.” Cohen cited Rechtschaffen for his representation of Israeli-British businessman Walter Soriano, who he alleged was an “enabler” of certain oligarchs including Abramovich. Rechtschaffen said: “Walter Soriano is not an enabler of any oligarch . . . The English courts have said that the claim against Mr Stedman is not abusive.” Harbottle & Lewis said the firm had “acted at all time in accordance with its professional and legal obligations, and takes these matters very seriously”. Schillings said the firm did not act for any sanctioned entities and could not comment on client matters. It added that Cohen’s allegations were “wholly misplaced” and “misinformed”. It said the firm had upheld “the highest traditions of the legal profession”. Proudler’s firm CMS said it rejected Cohen’s allegations, adding that Proudler and the firm had been “compliant with all professional regulations”. “As we have said since the invasion of Ukraine, CMS is no longer accepting new instructions from Russian based entities or from any individuals with connections to the Russian government.”
Helsinki Commission Urges U.S. Administration to Consider Sanctioning Remaining Individuals Involved in Persecution of Sergei MagnitskyMonday, April 18, 2022
WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), and Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) today released a letter sent April 15 to President Biden urging the U.S. administration to consider sanctioning the remaining individuals involved in the persecution of Sergei Magnitsky, the fraud he uncovered, and the coverup of his death in 2009. The letter read in part: “The passage and enforcement of the Magnitsky Act was among the rare times in the last decade that the United States rightly put universal values first in its relationship with Russia. Sergei Magnitsky courageously stood up to the Putin regime’s corruption and represents what Russia might be one day. He has served as an inspiration for Russian activists and civil society who dream of a Russia that respects human rights and complies with its own freely undertaken international commitments… “At this time of great upheaval, it could not be more important that the United States demonstrate its commitment to universal values. Sanctioning these individuals responsible for dismantling the rule of law in Russia and killing one of Russia’s bravest whistleblowers would have this effect.” Included with the letter was a list that includes the names and identifying information of 255 individuals who have not yet been sanctioned for their apparent role in Sergei Magnitsky’s death and the $230 million tax fraud he exposed. The list was compiled by Hermitage Capital Management LLC, the firm where Sergei Magnitsky worked at the time of his arrest and murder. The full letter and list are available online.
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Russia Critics Press Congress for Curbing Moscow's Role in International GroupsWednesday, April 06, 2022
Critics of Moscow pressed lawmakers to sever remaining international connections with Moscow and punish what they called enablers of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s government—including Russian tycoons. “We recognize that the oligarchs are the appendages of Mr. Putin’s mafia state,” said Sen. Ben Cardin (D., Md.), the co-chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, known as the Helsinki Commission, which held a hearing Wednesday on Russia's financial ties abroad. “I can’t wait to see police tape around mansions in Miami," said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D., R.I.). Witnesses before the commission, a U.S. agency that has frequently scrutinized Moscow, sought to portray Russian billionaires and their network of lawyers and agents in the West as little different from Russian government employees and its lawyers abroad. Bill Browder, a prominent critic of the Kremlin’s human-rights record, called on the U.S. to withdraw from the mutual legal-assistance treaty that allows U.S. and Russian law enforcement to cooperate on investigations and secure witness testimony. Western countries should ban lawyers paid by the Russian government in one country from traveling to their countries, he said. The Kremlin used the Interpol international law-enforcement network in an effort to arrest Mr. Browder after his lawyer died in a Russian prison in 2009. Mr. Browder, who founded investment fund Hermitage Capital, said the U.S. and partner countries should seek to remove Moscow from Interpol or “basically threaten the funding of Interpol if Russia is not expelled.” Mr. Browder was the largest private investor in Russia until his expulsion from that country in 2005. Moscow should also lose its membership and face blacklisting by the Financial Action Task Force, a Paris-based intergovernmental body that audits the ability of nations to detect and disrupt illicit finance, said Daria Kaleniuk, co-founder of the Anti-Corruption Action Center in Ukraine. Mr. Browder and Ms. Kaleniuk were among five witnesses at the hearing.
Countering Oligarchs, Enablers, and LawfareWednesday, April 06, 2022
As influential proxies of Russian dictator Vladmir Putin, Russian oligarchs work to weaken Western democracies from within. They pay Western enablers—especially lawyers and lobbyists—millions to use their standing in democratic societies to generate policies favorable to the authoritarian regime in Russia and to silence its critics. On April 6, 2022, the Helsinki Commission heard from five witnesses who testified on the corruption of Russian oligarchs, as well as the various means through which such oligarchs censure journalists from reporting on their nefarious activities. Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) opened the hearing by recognizing oligarchs as appendages of Putin’s government who have engaged in extensive laundering and looting of the Russian state. He stressed the importance of sanctioning oligarchs, who utilize the existing financial and judicial frameworks of Western democracies to protect themselves from legal harm, as well as their accountants and lawyers, who utilize lawfare as means of continuing their kleptocratic ways and silencing those who report on their crimes. “We have to fortify our system against lawfare,” he stated. “And we hope that we can win this fight.” Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) asserted that oligarchs, while stealing and oppressing the Russian public, also are funding the Russian invasion of Ukraine. “In exchange for the lavish lifestyles that they live, these oligarchs pledge their loyalty to the mid-level KGB agent… currently overseeing Europe’s biggest land war since 1945,” he remarked. Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) described Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a battle between the virtues of the free world and the vices of a corrupt state. “Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine because Ukraine is a democracy… because it shows accountability over corruption,” he stated. “This is the most black and white conflict in recent memory.” Daria Kaleniuk, executive director of the Ukrainian Anti-Corruption Action Centre, testified that Putin’s invasion of Ukraine was due to fear of Ukraine’s fight against corruption. On February 22, when Putin declared war on Ukraine, he referred to numerous anti-corruption reforms for which the Ukrainian Anti-Corruption Action Centre had advocated. “It was clear to me in that moment that Ukraine’s successful story in fighting corruption is actually the ultimate threat to Vladmir Putin and to his kleptocratic regime,” she remarked. She argued that integral to Putin’s success throughout the years is his legion of legal and financial professionals. “There are two battlefields,” she stated. “One in Ukraine…. And another one in the West, where America is obligated to fight by targeting Russian oligarchs and their enablers.” Bill Browder, head of the Global Magnitsky Justice Campaign, described his experience following the passing of the Magnitsky Act, which allows the United States to freeze the assets of kleptocrats and human-rights violators. He highlighted the team of Western professionals who helped Putin target him for his work to passing the legislation. To ensure these Western enablers are held accountable for their actions, Browder recommended that Congress speak out and deny government employment to such organizations in the future. “We should make a list of these type of firms that do this enabling, this list should be put together by the U.S. Congress, and there should be a recommendation to the U.S. Government not to do business with these firms going forward,” he said. “They can pick sides. They can decide they want to work for the bad guys. And if they work for the bad guys, then they shouldn’t get any money from the U.S. government. Scott Stedman, founder of Forensic News, described the increased use of lawfare by oligarchs as a weapon to intimidate reporters into silence. He spoke of his experience reporting on Walter Soriano, a businessman with reported ties to multiple Russian oligarchs. Soriano filed a lawsuit against Forensic News and its contributors, attempting to silence Stedman through financial intimidation and lawfare. “Mr. Soriano’s U.S. litigation counsel Andrew Brettler wrote to me threatening yet more legal action if I did not pay a U.K. court for more money than I’ve ever had in any bank account,” he said. “This is what lawfare looks like. It is designed to suppress, stall, scare critical coverage of the Russian elite and their enablers.” Anna Veduta, vice president of the Navalny Anti-Corruption Foundation International, outlined the need to sanction corrupt Russian politicians, oligarchs, enablers, and their family members. The assets these oligarchs and enablers have acquired are held by relatives, she argued, who have yet to be sanctioned. “People responsible for these lies, people who are poisoning Russian people with these lies, still can enjoy spring break in Miami and take their kids to Disneyland,” she said. “So I am going to quote Alexei Navalny once again, ‘Warmongers must be treated as war criminals.’” Shannon Green, executive director of the USAID Anti-Corruption Task Force and senior advisor to the Administrator highlighted the reliance of autocrats like Putin on oligarchs and enablers. She reviewed USAID initiatives to support reform coalitions and confront lawfare domestically, as well as efforts to develop new programs to confront kleptocracy abroad. Addressing her fellow panelists, she stated, “Anna, Bill, Daria, Scott, we draw inspiration and courage from your example. And the U.S. government’s message to you, and to all of your fellow change agents, is: Be not afraid. We stand with you.” Related Information Witness Biographies Statement for the Record: Arabella Pike, Publishing Director, HarperCollins Publishers
Helsinki Commission Hearing to Examine Ways to Counter Oligarchs, Enablers, and LawfareWednesday, March 30, 2022
WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: COUNTERING OLIGARCHS, ENABLERS, AND LAWFARE Wednesday, April 6, 2022 2:30 p.m. Dirksen Senate Office Building Room 562 Watch live: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission As influential proxies of Russian dictator Vladimir Putin, Russian oligarchs work to weaken Western democracies from within. They pay Western enablers—especially lawyers and lobbyists—millions to use their standing in democratic societies to generate policies favorable to the authoritarian regime in Russia and to silence its critics. This hearing will examine ways to counter tactics oligarchs use to launder their money and reputations and stifle dissent. Witnesses will discuss their experiences investigating oligarchs and enablers, as well as the risks of doing so, which include abusive lawsuits filed by Western lawyers on behalf of Putin’s proxies. The following witnesses are scheduled to testify: Shannon Green, Executive Director, USAID’s Anti-Corruption Task Force; Senior Advisor to the Administrator Bill Browder, Head, Global Magnitsky Justice Campaign Daria Kaleniuk, Executive Director, Anti-Corruption Action Centre Scott Stedman, Founder, Forensic News Anna Veduta, Vice President, Anti-Corruption Foundation International
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With oligarchs in the crosshairs, alleged Western 'enablers' attract fresh scrutinyThursday, March 24, 2022
As governments scramble to seize high-profile assets owned by Russian oligarchs, a quiet effort is gaining momentum in the West to target their alleged “enablers” – the lawyers, lobbyists and money-handlers who critics say help them hide, invest and protect their vast wealth in U.S. and European institutions. “The yachts and jets and villas get the most attention, but a lot of the oligarchs’ money is in private equity and hedge funds – places we can’t see,” said Maira Martini, a researcher with the corruption watchdog Transparency International. “That’s the money that really matters to them.” For decades, wealthy business tycoons with close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin have enlisted the services of reputable bankers and lawyers in the West to navigate loopholes that obscure their identity. While it's not necessarily illegal to use obscure entities and agents to protect finances, critics say the laws need to be strengthened to create more transparency. rganized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, a global investigative reporting platform that focuses on corruption, organized crimes and illicit financing, claims to have uncovered over 150 assets worth $17.5 billion held by 11 Russian elites and their alleged enablers, while a Forbes report identified more than 82 properties across the world -- a collective of $4.3 billion -- held by 16 sanctioned Russian oligarchs. Assets that have surfaced are likely only a fraction of these oligarchs' actual wealth. The true extent is difficult to track because they often use a convoluted network of shell companies, obscure entities and stand-ins to keep their finances hidden, experts said. But now, with war raging in Ukraine, lawmakers and corruption watchdogs are calling on governments to close those loopholes and crack down on the middlemen who know how to exploit them. “Putin’s oligarchs cannot operate without their Western enablers, who give them access to our financial and political systems,” said Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn. “These unscrupulous lawyers, accountants, trust and company service providers and others need to do basic due diligence on their clients to ensure that they are not accepting blood money. This isn’t rocket science – it is common sense policy to protect democracy.” In Washington, Cohen and others have introduced the ENABLERS Act, which would require real estate brokers, hedge fund managers and other entities to “ask basic due diligence questions whenever somebody comes to them with a suitcase full of cash,” said Rep. Tom Malinowski, D-N.J., the lead sponsor of the bill. The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, a global network of journalists and newsrooms that have tracked the wealthy's tax havens and financial secrecy, has identified at least a dozen networks of facilitators, offshore agents and banks across the world that have allegedly helped Russia's elites move and hide their money based on its analyses of public records and leaked financial documents the group has obtained over the past decade. This includes a range of actors, from global offshore law firms that create shell companies and other obscure entities to help wealthy Russians keep their finances clouded, to one-man shops in offshore tax havens that help set up "nominee" shareholders and paid stand-ins to conceal the real owners of entities. ICIJ also points to the roles of major law firms in helping shape the modern tax avoidance system as well as the roles of big financial institutions and banks in helping wealthy Russians move their money. Last year, The Washington Post, as part of its collaboration with ICIJ's Pandora Papers project, reported on how South Dakota, with its limited oversight, vague regulations and trust secrecy, has become a tax haven for secretive foreign money. Malinowski stressed that the United States "has become one of the easiest places in the world for corrupt kleptocrats around the world to hide money." “What we've basically allowed is a system where people can steal their money in countries without the rule of law and then protect their money in countries like ours where they can count on property rights and courts and privacy rules to safeguard his loot for life," Malinowski said. "We should not be complicit in the theft that supports dictatorships like Putin." Experts warned that sanctions and asset seizures, while effective in the short term, may be toothless over time if secrecy loopholes remain in place. On Wednesday, Transparency International published an open letter calling on Western leaders to take steps to stem rules that foster opacity. “To disguise their wealth and keep them out of the reach of law enforcement authorities, kleptocrats will turn to lawyers, real estate agents, banks, crypto-service providers and banks in your countries,” the letter reads. “You must redouble your supervision efforts over the gatekeepers of the financial sector.”
Chairman Cardin Emphasizes the Importance of the Global Magnitsky ActWednesday, March 23, 2022
Madam President, reserving the right to object to the request from the Senator from Idaho, it is my understanding that the Senator’s modification would not include provisions that were included in the Housepassed legislation that modifies the global Magnitsky sanction regime. I just would like to speak for a moment, if I might. There is no question that we stand with the people of Ukraine against the unprovoked attack by Mr. Putin. We are inspired every day by the courage of the Ukrainian people and by their inspirational leader, President Zelenskyy. The United States has shown leadership, and I congratulate the Biden administration. We have led the free world in providing defensive lethal weapons to Ukraine to defend itself. We have provided humanitarian assistance, joining the global community, including dealing with 3 million Ukrainians that are now refugees in other countries and 10 million that have been displaced as a result of Mr. Putin’s unprovoked attack. And we have led on sanctions. We have led in getting the global unity to impose sanctions against not just the Russian sectors, but also against individuals. And when Mr. Zelenskyy spoke before the Members of Congress, he specifically mentioned the importance of these sanctions; and he asked us to expand those covered by the sanctions to include the enablers, those that are enabling Mr. Putin—the oligarchs—to be able to fund his aggression against Ukraine. So what did the House send over to us? In their bill, they sent over a global Magnitsky modification. It is identical to legislation that was filed by Senator PORTMAN and myself that included the revocation of PNTR for Russia, along with the global Magnitsky. First and foremost, it removes the sunset that is in the legislation that would sunset this year. Mr. Zelenskyy asked for us to be resolved in being willing to stand up to Mr. Putin, that it would take some time. A clear message is that we remove the sunset on the global Magnitsky statute. And we know how difficult it is to get legislation passed in this body. It also expands the global Magnitsky to include the enablers—exactly what Mr. Zelenskyy asked us to do—those that enabled—the oligarchs that allowed him to be able to finance this. The language that is included in here is very similar to the language that was included in President Trump’s Executive order. This is critical legislation. Now, let me just tell you how appropriate it is that it is included in a PNTR bill—because the first Magnitsky sanction bill—and Senator WYDEN was very important in getting this done—was included in the original PNTR bill for Russia, and we were able to get it done at that time. We then made it a global Magnitsky, and my partner on that was the late Senator McCain. It has always been bipartisan. My partner now is Senator WICKER. The two of us have joined forces to make sure we get it done now. It is critically important in order to impose banking restrictions on those that are targeted under the global Magnitsky, as well as visa restrictions on being able to travel. How important is it? Ask Mr. Usmanov, who is one of the principal oligarchs to Mr. Putin, who solves Mr. Putin’s business problems. Guess how he solves those problems? Well, his yacht has now been confiscated in Germany. That is how important these sanctions are and how we have to move them forward. So, if I understand my colleague’s request, it would deny the opportunity for us to act on the global Magnitsky, which Mr. Zelenskyy has specifically asked us to do. We would lose that opportunity. We would be sending this bill back to the House that is not in session, which means there will be a further delay in repealing PNTR for Russia, which is something we need to do now, today. We can get it to the President for signature today under the majority leader’s request. And as the majority leader has indicated, I support the energy ban—I support the Russian energy ban. President Biden has already taken steps to do that. And I agree with my colleague from Idaho. I would like to incorporate that in statute, but there is no urgency to do that as there is on repealing PNTR and the global Magnitsky. That is the urgency. That is what we need to get done today. That is what we can get to the President this afternoon under the majority leader’s request, and that will be denied if my friend from Idaho’s request were granted. So, for all those reasons, I object.
Containing RussiaWednesday, March 23, 2022
Russian dictator Vladimir Putin’s war on the Ukrainian people is an urgent threat to European security and global peace. Should his destructive gambit succeed in Ukraine, Russia will have dramatically expanded its de-facto border with NATO—including through a soft annexation of Belarus—as well as its ability to destabilize the democracies of Central and Western Europe. Russian military success would threaten to draw a new iron curtain across Europe, dividing those protected by NATO’s security guarantees from those left exposed to Russian predation. This division could lead to significant remilitarization, a reappearance of Cold War tensions, and a reversion to historic cycles of European conflict. Beyond Europe, revisionist powers would be emboldened, and the United States and its Allies would be less able to deter them. On March 23, 2022, the Helsinki Commission heard testimony from a panel of witnesses who recommended ways to deter Russian dictator Vladimir Putin’s from further escalating his unprovoked attack on Ukraine. Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) opened the hearing by denouncing Mr. Putin as a war criminal, calling for accountability for the heinous war crimes currently being committed in Ukraine. He lauded the heroism of the Ukrainian people and recognized Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky as a champion of democracy. “They’re an inspiration to all of us,” he stated. “President Zelensky [is] there fighting for the sovereignty of Ukraine, but he’s also fighting for the sovereignty of the free world.” Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) welcomed the assistance the United States already has provided, while simultaneously calling for greater action. “I call on the President today, the Secretary of State, and the White House to unleash the full package of sanctions that are available to them,” he said, “and to enhance the weaponry that we have already made available to our friends in Ukraine.” Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) and Sen. Richard Blumenthal (CT) pledged to support Ukraine and called for the facilitation of additional weaponry to the Ukrainian army and implementation of stronger economic sanctions of Russian oligarchs and their enablers. Before the witnesses testified, Ukrainian Ambassador to the United States Oksana Markarova addressed the commission, denouncing the Russian invasion of Ukraine as a violation of international law and a greater threat to the democratic world. “So what is happening in Ukraine is not only about Ukraine,” she asserted. “The very foundation of the world rule-based order, as we all knew and respected it after World War II, has been under attack today.” General Phillip Breedlove, former commander of U.S. European Command and NATO’s former Supreme Allied Commander Europe, testified that the Western response to Russia’s invasion has been almost entirely limited to economic measures, with no formidable action taken thus far in the diplomatic, informational, or military sphere. He supported the implementation of humanitarian corridors and humanitarian airlifts, both protected by NATO-enforced humanitarian no-fly zones. “We have allowed Mr. Putin to accomplish both the goals of deterring us and gaining initiative,” he stated. “I’m advocating that we and our Western partners reevaluate our strategic approach: Mr. Putin should be deterred, vice we in the West[HS1] . This requires moving away from a passive deterrent posture to affecting a more active deterrence.” Dr. Michael Kimmage, fellow at the German Marshall Fund and Department Chair at Catholic University of America, warned of historical precedents regarding containment of the Soviet Union, and how it applies contemporarily to Russia’s war in Ukraine. “Policy success should be measured not against maximalist dreams in which Putin, and with him Russian military power, exit the scene. Russian power is here to stay. Policy success should be measured against the much more achievable goal of containing this very power,” he said. Dr. Miriam Lanskoy, senior director for Russia and Eurasia at the National Endowment of Democracy, warned of the dangers of potentially isolating the Russian public from the global internet and media. She advocated for engaging with Russian citizens, while simultaneously opposing the Russian government. “Distinguish between Putin’s regime and its various enablers and the Russian people, preserve support and amplify the voices of Russian democrats now fleeing the country and those who remain inside,” she recommended. Related Information Witness Biographies
Doing MoreFriday, March 18, 2022
Russian dictator Vladimir Putin’s criminal war has enraged citizens of goodwill and galvanized support for Ukraine across the world. The United States has been a key supporter of Ukraine, providing weaponry, humanitarian relief, and other forms of urgent assistance, in addition to leveling crippling sanctions on Russia. However, Russian forces continue to bombard Ukrainian cities, targeting civilians and critical infrastructure. Russia’s brutal war is causing an unprecedented humanitarian catastrophe in Ukraine, and observers worry that Putin may next use chemical or other weapons of mass destruction. On March 16, President Zelenskyy appealed to the U.S. Congress to render additional aid to Ukraine, including the possibility of enforcing a no-fly zone. The briefing, held on March 18, 2022, explored the various military strategies available to the West in its defense of Ukraine. Panelists examined Ukraine’s militaristic capabilities, as well as the various risks associated with implementing military recommendations, such as humanitarian air corridors or NATO-enforced no-fly zones. Panelists at the briefing included General Wesley Clark, founder of Renew America Together and senior Fellow at the UCLA Burkle Center for International Relations; Dr. Stacie Pettyyjohn, senior fellow and director of the Defense Program at the Center for a New American Security; and Dr. Matthew Kroenig, director of the Scowcroft Strategy Initiative at the Atlantic Council. Helsinki Commission Senior Policy Advisor Michael Hikari Cecire moderated the briefing. Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) opened the briefing by reaffirming his support for the facilitation of transferring Polish fighter jets to Ukraine, as well as his confidence in the strength and capability of the Ukrainian military. “The Ukrainian army has proven to be [pretty good] at knowing what they can do with their equipment,” he said. “It’s a conflict between rule of law and rule of gun.” Mr. Cecire explained that despite Russia’s obvious military advantages, the Ukrainian military has thus far successfully stymied Russian aggression. Unfortunately, as Russian forces grow frustrated with their lack of military progress, they have become increasingly indiscriminate in their attacks, targeting innocent Ukrainian civilians, and bombarding critical infrastructure, such as shelters and hospitals. General Clark advocated for a humanitarian airlift, implemented with U.N. approval, and a no-fly zone, as requested by Ukraine. He asserted that Russian dictator Vladimir Putin will eventually strike NATO territory with missiles, and that Putin’s threats of nuclear escalation should not deter Western states from defending a rules-based international order. “There’s a fallacy here, that somehow NATO inaction will translate into Putin’s refusal to escalate. This is a logical fallacy,” he said. “Putin will escalate as necessary to obtain his objectives. So I’m trying to find a third course of action between Ukrainian defense and Russian escalation, which is to provide the firebreak of a humanitarian rescue mission assigned into various locations that puts a firebreak into the fighting that could lead to a ceasefire, that could lead eventually to, coupled with the sanctions, a Russian pullback and withdrawal.” Dr. Pettyjohn discussed the risks of implementing humanitarian no-fly zones or humanitarian corridors, deeming them potentially escalatory and ineffective. A better alternative, she argued, would be for the international community to arm the Ukrainian people with mobile short-, medium-, and long-range air defenses, and to continue to provide precision standoff weapons. “The international community should help Ukraine, but not by following the post-Cold War playbook of implementing a no-fly zone,” she stated. “Against Russia, a no-fly zone would be even more difficult to implement and may not succeed… and it raises the potential for limited, or even more extensive than that, nuclear use, which is not something that I ever want to see in my lifetime.” Dr. Kroenig addressed the risk of nuclear escalation, arguing that although Russia’s threat of utilizing nuclear weapons in Ukraine should not be dismissed, the United States and NATO can enhance military support to Ukraine without escalating the risk on nuclear war. He advocated for the creation of humanitarian corridors, while cautioning against the establishment of a no-fly zone. “When it comes to no-fly zones or humanitarian corridors, I think I might split the difference between Dr. Pettyjohn and General Clark. I do think a no-fly zone would run a real risk of escalation,” he said. “But I think something like a humanitarian corridor could work, supported by ground convoys.” Related Information Panelist Biographies
Options to Contain Russia to Be Explored at Helsinki Commission HearingFriday, March 18, 2022
WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: CONTAINING RUSSIA Opposing Russian Imperialism in Ukraine and Beyond Wednesday, March 23, 2022 2:30 p.m. Dirksen Senate Office Building Room 562 Watch live: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission Russian dictator Vladimir Putin’s war on the Ukrainian people is an urgent threat to European security and global peace. Should his destructive gambit succeed in Ukraine, Russia will have dramatically expanded its de-facto border with NATO—including through a soft annexation of Belarus—as well as its ability to destabilize the democracies of Central and Western Europe. Russian military success would threaten to draw a new iron curtain across Europe, dividing those protected by NATO’s security guarantees from those left exposed to Russian predation. This division could lead to significant remilitarization, a reappearance of Cold War tensions, and a reversion to historic cycles of European conflict. Beyond Europe, revisionist powers would be emboldened, and the United States and its Allies would be less able to deter them. At this hearing, military experts and strategic thinkers will explore options for curtailing Moscow’s ability to wage war on Ukraine and neighboring states, especially those outside the protective umbrella of NATO. The hearing will begin with brief remarks by Ukrainian Ambassador to the U.S. Oksana Markarova. The following witnesses also are scheduled to testify: General (Ret.) Philip Breedlove, NATO’s Former Supreme Allied Commander Europe; Distinguished Professor of the Practice and CETS Senior Fellow, Georgia Tech Dr. Michael Kimmage, Former Policy Planning Staff, U.S, Department of State; Professor of History, The Catholic University of America; Fellow, German Marshall Fund of the United States Dr. Miriam Lanskoy, Senior Director for Russia and Eurasia, National Endowment for Democracy
Experts to Explore Options to Further Assist Ukraine at Helsinki Commission BriefingThursday, March 17, 2022
WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following online briefing: DOING MORE Assessing Ukraine’s Defensive Needs Friday, March 18, 2022 10:30 a.m. Watch live: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission Russian dictator Vladimir Putin’s criminal war has enraged citizens of goodwill and galvanized support for Ukraine across the world. The United States has been a key supporter of Ukraine, providing weaponry, humanitarian relief, and other forms of urgent assistance, in addition to leveling crippling sanctions on Russia. However, Russian forces continue to bombard Ukrainian cities, targeting civilians and critical infrastructure. Russia’s brutal war is causing an unprecedented humanitarian catastrophe in Ukraine, and observers worry that Putin may next use chemical or other weapons of mass destruction. On March 16, President Zelenskyy appealed to the U.S. Congress to render additional aid to Ukraine, including the possibility of enforcing a no-fly zone. This briefing will convene military and strategic experts to discuss ways to further assist the people of Ukraine as they resist Russia’s invasion. The discussion will examine air defense strategies, the feasibility and implications of no-fly zones, and other forms of materiel support. Expert statements and a brief, moderated Q&A will be available live to the public. This will be followed by an informal, off-the-record discussion for congressional staff and U.S. Government personnel. The following panelists are scheduled to participate: General (Ret.) Wesley Clark, Senior Fellow, UCLA Burkle Center; Founder, Renew America Together Dr. Stacie Pettyjohn, Senior Fellow, Center for a New American Security Dr. Matthew Koenig, Professor of Government, Georgetown University; Deputy Director, Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security Director, Scowcroft Strategy Initiative at the Atlantic Council
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Helsinki Commission Urges Biden to Designate Ukraine, Georgia as Major Non-NATO AlliesSaturday, March 12, 2022
The Helsinki Commission, an independent U.S. government agency tasked with promoting human rights and security in Europe, has called on the Biden administration to upgrade the United States’ defense relationship with Ukraine. The commission seeks to help facilitate military and economic assistance to Kyiv as Russian forces move to encircle the Ukrainian capital. In a letter to U.S. President Joe Biden obtained by Foreign Policy, the commission urged the administration to designate Ukraine and Georgia, which was invaded by Russia in 2008, as major non-NATO allies (MNNA) and to reinvigorate U.S. support for the NATO accession of both countries. “Although the United States has consistently supported Ukraine’s and Georgia’s NATO membership, Russia’s occupations and ongoing invasion expose the tragedy of long-stalled Euro-Atlantic enlargement,” wrote the commission, which is led by Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin and Democratic Rep. Steve Cohen. “Absent strong and proactive U.S. backing for Ukrainian and Georgian NATO membership, [Russian President Vladimir] Putin will continue to take ample advantage in his aspirations to upend security and cooperation in Europe and his neocolonial agenda,” the letter said. Both Ukraine and Georgia were promised membership to the defense alliance during the NATO summit in Bucharest, Romania, in 2008. But despite extensive reform efforts, neither country has been offered a timetable for accession. The United States has provided billions of dollars of military assistance to Ukraine since it was first invaded by Russia in 2014, with more than $1.2 billion approved over the past year. “This designation is a fair reflection of our current bilateral defense relationships and does not commit the United States to military action,” the commission letter said, which also recommended that the administration consider extending the status to other non-NATO members along Europe’s eastern flank: Finland, Moldova, and Sweden. Much of U.S. military aid for Ukraine has been approved through a range of ad hoc government funding mechanisms. Granting the country MNNA status would open a variety of established channels to facilitate arms transfers, financial assistance, and information sharing, smoothing the way for further cooperation. It would also send a powerful signal of support for both Kyiv and Tbilisi. Unlike NATO membership, MNNA status does not entail any mutual security and defense obligations. On Thursday, the White House announced it would designate Colombia and Qatar as major non-NATO allies, bringing the total number of countries to receive the title up to 19. The title has usually been reserved for countries with no ambitions or prospects of joining NATO, which prompted the Ukrainian ambassador to the United States, Oksana Markarova, to express wariness about the designation last year. “MNNA is a status for countries that do not plan/can not force political or geographical reasons to join NATO. This is definitely not about us,” she wrote in a Facebook post. NATO accession is decided between the 30 members of the alliance, and an MNNA designation by the United States would not necessarily impede Ukraine’s membership prospects. The Helsinki Commission, formally known as the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, was founded in 1976 as an independent government agency to monitor compliance with the Helsinki Accords, a major Cold War-era diplomatic agreement that sought to reduce tensions between the Soviet Union and the West as well as establish human rights and security norms. The commission is made up of 18 members of U.S. Congress drawn from both parties and representatives from the U.S. departments of State, Defense, and Commerce.
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Helsinki Commission calls on Biden administration to push for Russia's expulsion from InterpolFriday, March 11, 2022
An independent US government agency is calling on the Biden administration to push for Russia to be permanently expelled from Interpol — a step further than the suspension the administration has already sought — citing the invasion of Ukraine and previous abuses by Russia, according to a letter obtained by CNN. Earlier this week, Attorney General Merrick Garland joined justice ministers from several allied countries to demand that Interpol immediately suspend Russia from accessing its systems, according to Justice Department spokesperson Anthony Coley. Interpol, the International Criminal Police Organization, is a global agency which facilitates police across its 195 member countries to collaborate on criminal investigations. Interpol issues what are known as Red Notices to request the location and arrest of an individual pending their extradition. Friday’s letter from the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe commended the steps the US has taken so far, but added that the administration should call for the permanent suspension of Russia. “We urge you to use the U.S. position in Interpol (and in particular Interpol's Executive Committee and its Advisory Group on Financial Matters) to make it clear that any failure to act against Russia's abuse of lnterpol will have grave consequences for the U.S. contribution to Interpol's budget and Interpol's legal immunities in the United States,” the letter, directed to Garland and Secretary of State Antony Blinken, reads. The commission — also known as the US Helsinki Commission — was created by Congress in 1976 with a focus on human rights, military security, and economic cooperation. It is led by Sen. Ben Cardin and Rep. Steve Cohen. If Russia is suspended from Interpol, it would bar the country from continuing to participate and therefore put in requests for Red Notices, but it would not remove Red Notices that are already in the system, said Ted Bromund, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation and an expert in Interpol.
Ahead of OSCE PA Winter Meeting, Co-Chairman Cohen Reiterates Support for Ukrainian SovereigntyThursday, February 17, 2022
WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) today issued the following statement: “Over the upcoming Congressional recess, I am proud to be leading a bipartisan, bicameral delegation to the Winter Meeting of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly. In today’s climate of global uncertainty, engagement between foreign officials and members of Congress offers reassurance to U.S. allies about the commitment of the United States to peace, security, and prosperity in Europe and beyond. “Our delegation also will take the opportunity to visit other NATO Allies to consult with government officials in light of the unprecedented number of Russian forces deployed in and around Ukraine. While we originally planned to stop in Kyiv, the relocation of embassy staff necessitated the unfortunate cancellation of that portion of our itinerary. However, I would like to take this opportunity to reassure the Government of Ukraine of the steadfast support of Congress for Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity in the face of Russian aggression. Rest assured we will bring up support for your nation’s security at the OSCE PA meetings.”
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.”
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.
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”.
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 Schenkkan, research director at Freedom House. “That’s a pretty obvious case of Interpol abuse.”
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.
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.”