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The issuance of an Interpol wanted notice for the Australian founder of Wikileaks within days after his website began releasing hundreds of thousands of classified United States government cables is blatantly political.

Interpol's charter prohibits it from taking up cases that are predominantly political in character, but this has not prevented it from issuing the red notice against Julian Assange, on the basis of a highly dubious warrant supplied by Swedish police.

Lawyers representing Assange have described the manner in which the red notice was issued as unusual, but in fact Interpol has long pursued persons wanted for political reasons, some of them at the behest of police forces with records of torture and extrajudicial killing.

Among them, Interpol in 1999 went after Azekhan Kazhegeldin, when he was campaigning against the incumbent government of Kazakhstan. In 2001 the former prime minister was convicted in absentia for a variety of crimes.

Kazhegeldin's lawyer succeeded in getting the notice revoked, having shown that it was politically motivated. But the following year, the Interpol general assembly voted to reinstate it.

Such cases raise a number of questions relevant to the case against Assange.

First, what criteria does Interpol use to distinguish between political and non-political cases? The Interpol charter lacks guidelines. However, its rules on processing information stipulate that material received from national police forces is presumed to be accurate and relevant.

In other words, Interpol takes for granted that what its members send is reliable, and actionable under its mandate. It apparently has no equivalent of a judicial authority to scrutinize evidence and ask questions before issuing a notice, and seems to act on this presumption alone.

Second, if a notice is wrongly issued, how can someone get it revoked? There is no external or independent authority to receive complaints. If a national bureau or judiciary will not cancel an arrest warrant, the wanted person can do no more than present evidence to Interpol to show that the warrant is politically motivated.

In doing so, the person comes up against Interpol's presumption that the police issuing the arrest warrant have acted in good faith and in accordance with the agency's rules.

For the appeal to be considered, information that the person gives to Interpol must in turn be passed to the national police force which issued the warrant. The whole procedure is biased towards the police, since they are given ample opportunity to construct contrary evidence and rebut the accused person's case, with the presumption of accuracy and relevancy on their side.

The secretive process can take years, during which time the accused must live with the threat of arrest anywhere, anytime. And even if the person can prove that they have been politically targeted, Interpol's general assembly can vote to overrule the secretariat and reinstate the notice, as happened in Kazhegeldin's case.

Third, more broadly, can Interpol be made accountable? Among international organisations, the global policing agency is one of the most enclosed and opaque. Other international bodies that ought to be asking questions of it, such as the United Nations Human Rights Council, have been silent.

This may in part be because Interpol has in recent years helped in hunting for war criminals to be brought before international courts. Perhaps senior U.N. bureaucrats and others have calculated that it is not worth jeopardizing those operations for the sake of a few troublemakers like Assange. If so, the calculation is false.

As long as the international police themselves go un-policed, anyone who oversteps the line in even one state can be made a fugitive everywhere. As long as Interpol can issue wanted notices without external oversight, any person who threatens a political establishment can be made a latent criminal.

Interpol's targeting of Julian Assange, and through him WikiLeaks, is a good opportunity to ask hard questions: not of the wanted man or his organisation, but of the policing regime that is hunting him; a regime which purports to be apolitical but in reality is anything but.


A slightly edited version of this article first appeared in the Canberra Times, 8 December 2010, under the title, "Why isn't Interpol called to account?" The views shared in the article do not necessarily reflect those of the AHRC, and the AHRC takes no responsibility for them.

About the Author: Nick Cheesman is a member of the Asian Legal Resource Centre currently doing research at the Australian National University, Canberra.

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About AHRC: The Asian Human Rights Commission is a regional non-governmental organisation monitoring and lobbying human rights issues in Asia. The Hong Kong-based group was founded in 1984.

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