But this is also where the problem comes in. It can effectively be a “crime” in member states like Russia, Iran, or Venezuela, to engage in anti-government activism or even run-of-the-mill journalism—activities that, in other member countries including most Western democracies, are protected by law. And despite efforts to guard against abuses, otherwise laudable international law-enforcement coordination can have the perverse effect of undermining democratic rule of law, by giving authoritarian countries the opportunity to influence how democracies enforce their own rules.
Interpol’s constitution tries to guard against this by forbidding “any intervention or activities of a political, military, religious or racial character.” Here, too, Browder’s account is a little off: Through a spokesperson, Interpol flatly denies ever having issued a Red Notice, the formal “wanted” alert to member police forces reviewed and approved directly by Interpol, for Browder. Interpol has repeatedly rejected Russian requests to issue one for Browder, deeming them clearly politically motivated. (Browder is a key force behind the Magnitsky Act, named for his lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who died in prison after uncovering a massive tax fraud linked to Russian government officials in which much of Browder’s own money disappeared. Among other things, the act sanctions wealthy associates of Russian President Vladimir Putin, and is by many accounts uniquely enraging to the Russian government.)
There is another way, however. While a Red Notice requires approval from Interpol itself, a so-called “diffusion” notice is just an alert member countries circulate among themselves. Interpol’s press office wrote to me: “In October 2017 a diffusion was circulated in relation to Mr Browder, however this was found to be non-compliant following a review by the General Secretariat [Interpol’s leadership body, based in Lyon, France]. A diffusion is a request for cooperation circulated directly among member countries.” And this is where Russia can game the system.
Interpol says it requested the notice be removed from national databases, but it has no way to enforce compliance. Browder told The Atlantic that Russia has tried to issue six notices for him, all of them ultimately rejected as abusive. But sometimes it’s just a numbers game. “The Russians try stuff a hundred times, and sometimes it works,” Browder told Andrew Higgins of The New York Times two years ago. “They can fail 99 times, but the 100th time it could work. For them, that makes it all worthwhile.”
In fact, Higgins and others have detailed many cases of Russia’s using Interpol this way. A 2013 report by the advocacy group Fair Trials International, for instance, detailed the case of their client Petr Silaev, a Russian environmental activist who fled Russia and was arrested in Spain on a Russian warrant and threatened with extradition. (He had been accused of “hooliganism” in Russia after what Fair Trials described as an ordinary protest in Moscow in 2010.) A Spanish court ultimately rejected Russia’s extradition request, but not until after Silaev had spent eight days in prison and six months fighting a legal battle in Spain.