Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s decision before this week’s NATO Summit to forward Sweden’s Alliance accession to Turkey’s Parliament for ratification offered a last-minute reprieve – for now – for the international community (for now, because he still could throw a wrench into the works via his party’s control of the majority in Parliament). But concerns about Erdoğan’s human rights record have deepened since his re-election in May, including that he might wield his reinforced position to intensify the transnational persecution of his opponents and critics. 

Erdoğan has successfully pressured Sweden and Finland to extradite his critics in return for NATO membership. A new presidential term only emboldens him to continue along the path of trying to silence critics, no matter where in the world they have landed after fleeing persecution in Turkey. Under Erdoğan, the government has increasingly misused extradition processes, and by extension, manipulated Interpol’s international police-coordination mechanisms. While the organization has taken some steps to prevent Turkey’s abuse of Interpol’s “red notice” system, Turkish authorities continue to use a different Interpol mechanism to round up critics from abroad by misusing Interpol’s Stolen and Lost Travel Document (SLTD) system, which is subject to less internal scrutiny and checks.

In a recent open letter addressed to Interpol Secretary General Jürgen Stock, we and 23 other human rights lawyers and defenders called on the organization to take a more robust approach to protect human rights by addressing the misuse of the SLTD database by Turkish authorities. According to documents leaked from Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization and published in February 2019 by the Nordic Research Monitoring Network, an investigative outlet run by two former Turkish journalists in exile, it is clear that Turkey is abusing Interpol’s SLTD system to bypass a set of restrictions imposed in 2018 on Turkey’s use of other Interpol systems such as Red Notices

The Turkish authorities misuse the SLTD system by recording the passports of dissidents as lost, stolen, revoked, or invalid, in an attempt to have those people deported to Turkey when they travel. Since the attempted coup in 2016, the Turkish government has unlawfully cancelled tens of thousands of passports despite its constitutional court ruling that passport revocations and travel bans can only be imposed with a court order, and not by police or government officials. There is little doubt that those detained for unlawfully cancelled passports would face reprisals at the hands of the current regime.

The open letter makes two demands. The first is that Interpol “suspends Turkey from using Interpol databases until the General Assembly can make a final decision” to suspend or restrict Turkey’s access more permanently. Secondly, that Interpol “suspends Turkey from the use of the SLTD database until further checks can be put in place.”

Turkey is violating its own domestic law when abusing the SLTD system. The Turkish Constitutional Court has ruled on three separate occasions that passport revocations and travel bans can only be imposed with a court order. By ignoring this, the Turkish Ministry of Interior is completely disregarding the Constitutional Court, illustrating another way that the checks and balances that Turkey has in place to keep the government in line with its Constitution have been thrown out under Erdoğan. 

It seems that Interpol’s own checks and balances also are not working. Article 3 of Interpol’s own Constitution reads, “It is strictly forbidden for the Organization to undertake any intervention or activities of a political, military, religious or racial character.” While individuals can request access to data held by Interpol that relates to them and can request its deletion, once a decision has been made by Interpol’s Commission for the Control of Interpol Files, there is no appeal process, and in most cases, a response from Interpol in the first place comes too late. For example, an individual would only become aware of the wrongful cancellation of their passport upon being questioned, and likely detained, by border control officers while travelling. 

In his June 23 response to the open letter, the Secretary General largely denies any faults in Interpol’s review mechanisms and ignores the suggestion that Interpol is responsible for any human rights abuses occurring under the radar via its databases. Instead, Interpol HQ reiterates its review mechanisms for abusive Red Notices and Diffusions and provides a link to information about how an individual can access data relating to them and request its deletion. Stock stated, “As with all data recorded in INTERPOL’s databases, information in the SLTD database must meet the conditions defined in INTERPOL’s Constitution and rules.”

However, as set out in a subsequent July 7 reply to the Secretary General, there are reports that Interpol is allowing Turkey to block an individual’s access to their data without explanation. The Stockholm Center for Freedom has reported the continuing misuse of Interpol’s SLTD database and that Turkish citizens are experiencing difficulties accessing information relating to them held by Interpol:

“The Commission for the Control of INTERPOL’s Files (CCF), in its responses to the individuals who request access to data about their passports, cited Article 35 of its statute, which allows the restriction of information to protect public or national security, prevent crime, maintain confidentiality of investigations or protect the rights and freedoms of individuals. However, legal experts argue that enabling Turkey to justify a restriction of data to individuals violates their rights.”

Abuse of the STLD system is an even more effective tool of transnational repression than the abuse of the red notice system. Turkey uses Interpol to evade the human rights protections built into extradition systems and repeatedly breaches Interpol’s rules by disguising its persecution of dissidents as administrative passport cancellation. For the individual targeted, they would be stopped by a country’s border control, having been flagged as using a stolen passport. They would likely be detained while police checks, interviews, and searches are conducted, and ultimately the process of deportation may be initiated. 

This is precisely what happened to one of the signatories of the open letter, the NBA basketball player Enes Kanter Freedom, who had repeatedly and publicly criticized Erdoğan and is among the followers of Turkish cleric Fethullah Gülen, who is in exile in the United States. Erdoğan holds Gülen responsible for a failed 2016 coup attempt against him, although Gülen was in the United States at the time, and the United States has rejected Turkey’s requests to extradite him. Turkey revoked Freedom’s passport in 2017 and in 2019 issued an extradition request for his arrest on ostensible terrorism charges. 

Interpol’s Secretary General recently wrote that Interpol is serious about safeguarding the integrity of the red notice system. This is great to hear, especially considering how much the system has been abused in the past. Interpol must therefore also do more to curb the abuse of another of its systems for political purposes.

IMAGE: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan delivers a video message on the first day of the 89th Interpol General Assembly in Istanbul on November 23, 2021. (Photo by OZAN KOSE/AFP via Getty Images)