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  • Ben Keith and Olivia Chessell

Turkey’s manipulation of Interpol: “Erdogan’s arms are long. He hunts down anyone who opposes him”

Updated: Apr 25, 2023

Enes Kanter Freedom, the NBA player, was detained in Romania in 2017 when Turkey reported his passport missing on the Interpol database. After a media campaign to secure his release, Kanter Freedom gave a clear warning to the international community in an op ed piece for the Washington Post:

“Erdogan’s arms are long. He hunts down anyone who opposes him”[1]

Turkey is one of the founding members of Interpol. The Turkish Government is well aware of the organisation’s inner workings and how to manipulate them. For the past few years Turkey has used Interpol to track political opponents and dissenting voices. They have not been using Interpol Red notices but have instead used Interpol’s Stolen and Lost Travel Documents (SLTD) system. Turkey knows the SLTD system was not intended for that purpose. In fact, Article 3 of Interpol’s Constitution makes clear that:

It is strictly forbidden for the Organization to undertake any intervention or activities of a political, military, religious or racial character.

In 2016, Interpol established a task-force for reviewing Red Notices before they are circulated to the National Central Bureaus of each member state. Before the review mechanism was introduced, member states could enter Notices directly into the Interpol database without prior review. Although the inner-workings of the review-mechanism is shrouded in mystery, its general purpose is to screen Notice requests that are non-compliant with Interpol’s Constitution and rules.

In his address to the 89th Interpol General Assembly in 2021, the Turkish Interior Minister, Süleyman Soylu, said:

“While in the 20 years between 1996 to 2016, 100 Red Notice requests that we filed were rejected, in the past five years since 2016, 982 Red Notice requests that we filed were denied.”

Turkey had a message to deliver to Interpol and what better way to get that message across than to host the General Assembly themselves. On home soil Soylu’s address to member states continued:

"[…] especially after the FETO incident, unfortunately Interpol does not accept our red notice requests. They rejected all our applications. It is not difficult to guess that this is an international attitude.”

The international community has broadly rejected Turkey’s designation of “FETÖ” or the “Gülen movement” as a terrorist organisation. In the US, as in many other Interpol member states, the Gülen movement is not designated a terrorist organization.

In a video address to the 89th Interpol General Assembly, President Erdoğan said that his government expected the same level of cooperation from Interpol in terrorism-related cases that they have enjoyed in criminal cases:

“We expect strong solidarity especially in the case of FETÖ fugitives and the leaders of the separatist organization [...] It is important for Interpol to support the fight against terrorism unconditionally, without adjusting its approach based on the views of the member states”.

In 2019 the Nordic Research Monitoring Network published leaked documents from Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MIT) which showed the country had been abusing Interpol’s diffusion mechanism to trace political opponents[2]. The Nordic Monitor explains that MIT has no jurisdiction in these matters and the leaked documents illustrate how Interpol's diffusion and lost passport mechanisms are manipulated:

“In one document, stamped secret and urgent, Rafet Ufuk Önder, who heads the Interpol and Europol departments within Turkey’s National Police Directorate, informed the Istanbul Public Prosecutor’s Office on August 1, 2016 that a Turkish businessperson who was critical of the Erdoğan government was identified by intelligence agency MIT as having taken a flight on July 20, 2016 from Istanbul to Bishkek on Pegasus Airlines, a low-cost Turkish carrier. Önder urged the prosecutor to make use of Interpol mechanisms against this businessman with a view to securing his extradition or deportation. This was quite unusual since normally the prosecutor should be ordering such a request, not the police.

“The standard procedure for employing Interpol mechanisms in Turkey requires the approval and order by a judge and/or prosecutor, who later transmits the order to the Justice Ministry for review and compliance. If everything is in order, the Interpol National Central Bureau, attached to the Interior Ministry, files the necessary paperwork and functions as sort of a secretary for Interpol work. In this case, it was the other way around as the intel came from MIT, which prompted the police to recommend that the prosecutor initiate the Interpol mechanisms.

“In the second case, a document dated August 3, 2016 shows police chief Önder filed a request to use the Interpol mechanisms against another businessperson. The document states that the police cancelled the businessman’s passport on April 12, 2016 on the pretext that it was stolen and/or lost and registered on the Interpol database as such. There was no application made by the businessperson to report his passport was lost or stolen, yet the Turkish police falsely filed such a request on his behalf and reported it through the Interpol database. The businessman’s passport was queried by Germany’s Interpol section and reported to the Interpol database, prompting Turkish authorities to ask for the seizure of the passport and the extradition of the businessman […]”.

Diffusions are vulnerable to exploitation because their country-to-country transmission is subject to a lower standard of review than other notices on the database such as Red Notices.

Another leaked document dated June 2018, reported by the Nordic Monitor in 2021, revealed that Interpol halted access to its database by the Turkish police’s Interpol/Europol department in response to the Erdoğan government flooding the system with politically motivated notices and diffusions[3]:

“In response the Turkish government sought ways to bypass the restrictions and restore the access. The Turkish government document that reveals proposed actions to overcome the block imposed by the Interpol administration bears the signature of Murat Erdem, head of the Justice Ministry’s General Directorate for International Law and Foreign Relations.”

It would appear that one proposed action was to use Interpol’s Stolen and Lost Travel Documents system and the article claims that between 2015 and 2021 the Turkish government cancelled passports of 650,000 people allegedly affiliated with the Gülen group.

This year, Members of the European Parliament voted through a report outlining its position on a new co-operation agreement between the EU and Interpol which is currently under negotiation. Protection of human rights was high on their agenda and MEPs called for strong transparency and data protection provisions and reforms to Interpol’s mechanisms to fight politically motivated notices and diffusions. As part of their calls for co-operation, MEP's want Interpol to grant EU bodies access to its Stolen and Lost Travel Documents (SLTD) system.

A recent report on Turkish Extradition cases published by London Advocacy Centre, found that while Turkey persistently abuses the Interpol Red Notice system by issuing extradition requests for political offences as part of a systemic crushing of civil society, the Turkish regime routinely escapes international condemnation due to the country’s strategic importance to Europe and America. The report highlights that while UK Courts are discharging individuals from politically motivated extradition requests, the judiciary shy away from commenting on the systemic decimation of the rule of law and human rights in Turkey since the failed coup against Erdogan in 2016.

We will have to wait and see whether abuse of Interpol's SLTD system is on the agenda for Interpol's 90th General Assembly to be held in India next month.



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