Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) and Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) today introduced the Transnational Repression Accountability and Prevention (TRAP) Act in the House of Representatives. Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Ranking Member Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) plan to introduce the TRAP Act in the Senate on Monday.
On September 12, 2019, the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), also known as the Helsinki Commission, convened a hearing on the Tools of Transnational Repression: How Autocrats Punish Dissent Overseas, focusing on the role of International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL).
The Commission issued an explanation for the hearing, state that, as modern technology permits political dissidents and human rights defenders to operate from almost anywhere on the planet, repressive regimes have increasingly tried to intimidate them. .
To silence dissent from abroad, autocrats often turn to INTERPOL to file bogus criminal claims seeking the arrest and extradition of their political targets. This abuse of INTERPOL Red Notices and Diffusions enables autocratic governments to harass and intimidate their opponents thousands of miles away, even within free and democratic societies.
The U.S. Helsinki Commission convened an expert panel to highlight how present-day autocrats use INTERPOL and other means such as surveillance, abduction, and assassination to punish dissent overseas. The witnesses suggested how the United States and other democratic nations can defend against these threats to the rule of law domestically and internationally.
Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Ms) chaired the hearing. He is the chair of the Commission and Vice-President of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly. He said INTERPOL can be manipulated by autocratic governments. He said Red Notices and diffusions are constantly abused. INTERPOL regularly receives requests for human rights defenders and journalists on trumped up charges, such as the Kremlin’s efforts to go after Bill Browder. Russia has issued at least eight diffusions about Browder over a decade. INTERPOL has not punished Russia. In fact, last fall Russia proposed a candidate for Secretary General.
Before the hearing, the Commission received statements about persons targeted by Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkey, and other governments.
Sen. Wicker will introduce legislation on limiting the use in U.S. immigration and law enforcement of INTERPOL notices and requiring the State Department to report on trends and transnational repression in its annual Human Rights report.
According to Sen. Wicker, INTERPOL is in need of greater transparency. The matter has been brought to the attention of the CSCE Parliamentary Assembly at its last meeting. The hearing will bring policy recommendations.
Senator Ben Cardin (D-Md.), a member of the Commission, commended Sen. Wicker’s role and said he looks forward to working with Mr. Wicker on his legislation. Sen. Cardin noted that the Magnitsky statute has been expanded. He lamented that the Magnitsky Act has not been sufficiently used against Saudi Arabia for the murder of the late Saudi journalist Jamal Khashogghi.
Rep. Joe Wilson (R-SC) and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) also explained they supported the work of the hearing.
The following witnesses testified:
Alexander Cooley, Director, Columbia University’s Harriman Institute for the Study of Russia, Eurasia, and Eastern Europe; Claire Tow Professor of Political Science, Barnard College, testified about harassment of political exiles and the denial to them of due process. The rise of technology enables autocratic governments to intimidate political exiles more than ever. Autocrats are networking to try to repurpose international organizations to meet their goals. INTERPOL diffusion notices are mushrooming. Azerbaijan, Venezuela, India, and Tajikistan are among the governments that abuse the diffusions. The diffusion notices make it difficult for targets to travel and use bank accounts and it costs them significant legal fees to extricate themselves from the problems arising out of the diffusion notices. The proposed Transnational Repression Accountability Procedures (TRAP) Act will help combat some of these dangers. Cooley said the TRAP Act would send a powerful signal about the importance of maintaining clear international standards against the politicization of our most important international organizations.
Nate Schenkkan, Director for Special Research, Freedom House, discussed the global campaign by Turkey after the 2016 attempted coup. It uploaded tens of thousands of diffusion notices, kidnapped 104 of its nationals from other countries (at least one was the wrong person although that person is still in jail), and cancelled thousands of passports. The U.S. should support exiled political exiles and journalists, including diaspora in the U.S. Schenkkan also endorsed
Freedom House will publish a new study, documenting the transnational oppression and violence against political exiles.
Bruno Min, Senior Legal and Policy Advisor, Fair Trials (FT), testified that INTERPOL is not subject to oversight and hence the U.S. government’s role is very important. A major issue is how INTERPOL reviews Red Notices. We do not know how many Red Notices and diffusions are rejected and do not know what it would take to have INTERPOL review the requests more carefully. We see many abuses against refugees with high public profiles. INTERPOL only has a staff of about 30-40 persons to review 10,000 Red Notices and 50,000 diffusions each year. Diffusions are not subject to the same scrutiny. Hence, there is the risk that unchecked data will enter into national databases.
There is concern about procedures of the Commission for the Control of INTERPOL files (CCF). INTERPOL has improved it and made it more independent. FT has concerns about interpretation of INTERPOL’s rules with respect to international human rights. INTERPOL has taken steps to protect persons who have been accorded refugee status. However, INTERPOL needs to do more.
INTERPOL needs encouragement to implement the recent reforms and adopt more reforms.
A crucial issue is lack of funding and understaffing of INTERPOL, which makes them depend on member countries to do its work at the risk of compromising its independence.
Sandra A. Grossman, Partner, Grossman Young & Hammond, Immigration Law, LLC, testified how autocratic governments are using the U.S. immigration system to abuse exiles. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) uses Red Notice to detain people. ICE treaties many Red Notices as conclusive evidence of criminality. ICE and immigration judges use Red Notices to mistreat people. ICE and immigration judges often become tools of corrupt governments, often detaining asylum applications. Jurisprudence and reports by CCF must be published so that more transparency exists about CCF.
Question and Answer
To Sen. Wicker’s inquiry, Grossman said the U.S. contributed $19.4 million and Japan, China, and Europe followed. The U.S. government is by far the greatest contributor.
At the end of the hearing, Sen. Wicker expressed hope that he and the U.S. Congress can do something about some of the abuses both in the U.S. law enforcement system and INTERPOL itself.
Following reports that U.S. immigration authorities have cited such politically-motivated INTERPOL Red Notices and diffusions to detain some individuals and consider removing them from the United States, the TRAP Act formally codifies strict limitations on how INTERPOL requests can be used by U.S. authorities.
The TRAP Act further declares that it is the policy of the United States to pursue specific reforms within INTERPOL and use its diplomatic clout internationally to protect the rights of victims and denounce abusers. The bill requires the Departments of Justice, Homeland Security, and State, in consultation with other relevant agencies, to provide Congress with an assessment of autocratic abuse of INTERPOL, what the United States is doing to counteract it, and how to adapt United States policy to this evolving autocratic practice. The State Department would also be required to publicly report on the abuse of INTERPOL in its annual Country Reports on Human Rights to create a transparent, public record of these violations of the rule of law.
Original co-sponsors of the legislation include Helsinki Commission members Sen. Marco Rubio (FL), Sen. Cory Gardner (CO), Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (RI), Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (PA-01), Rep. Richard Hudson (NC-08), Rep. Gwen Moore (WI-04), and Rep. Marc Veasey (TX-33). Rep. John Curtis (UT-03), Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (TX-18), and Rep. Tom Malinowski (NJ-07) are also original co-sponsors.