BRUSSELS — Hakeem al-Araibi thought he had escaped the reach of the Bahraini government when he fled to Australia years ago as a political refugee. But immediately after landing in Thailand for a belated honeymoon last year, Mr. al-Araibi was arrested and scheduled to be sent back to his native country.
Bahrain, which has been accused of torture and other abuses, had used what is known as an Interpol red notice to reach across the world and grab him, despite rules meant to protect refugees.
It was an embarrassing moment for Interpol. Years of cases like this had provoked accusations that the world’s largest international police organization had become a tool of repressive governments. Interpol promised to improve. Mr. al-Araibi’s arrest was a stark reminder that despite its reforms, Interpol was still vulnerable to manipulation by strongmen, despots and human rights violators.
For a time after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, world leaders hoped that the sleepy agency on the banks of the Rhône in France would become a unifying force for the rule of law. Interpol’s goals of safety and security were supposed to transcend national boundaries and bring together democracies and autocracies alike.
But records and interviews across five continents show that, in pursuing that vision, top Interpol officials ignored repeated, urgent warnings from inside the organization that it was vulnerable to political meddling. Time and again, Interpol prioritized international expansion over safeguards.
Unwaveringly confident in its fellowship of nations, Interpol was slow to recognize an era in which autocrats and strongmen wield increasing power over international institutions.
Today, Interpol is scrambling to bolster oversight across 194 countries and review tens of thousands of red notices that have accumulated over the years. Nobody knows how many are tainted by political influence.
That leaves governments around the world, including the United States’, trying to figure out whether they are arresting a fugitive or employing their police for the whims of a despot.
“We’re glad there’s a new process, but in many cases it’s too little too late,” said John F. Flanagan, a lawyer whose client, Alexey Kharis, was denied asylum and ordered jailed in California based on a Russian red notice. Mr. Kharis, who is appealing the asylum ruling, was freed on bond in December after a judge cited evidence that the red notice might be politically motivated.
“You can’t un-ring the bell,” Mr. Flanagan said. “You can’t undo the fact that our client spent 15 months in detention.”
The Highest Priority
Nobody bothered to call Interpol after planes hit the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001. And why would anyone have? Interpol was a 9-to-5 shop where everything was on paper, and everyone moved deliberately. Its budget, even today, is only about the size of the Cincinnati Police Department’s.
Though Hollywood has cast it as a global version of the F.B.I. or Scotland Yard, real-life Interpol has no authority to investigate crimes or make arrests. Based in the picturesque French city of Lyon, Interpol is instead a clearinghouse for police information, a digital bulletin board for police officers to share what they know.
Soon after the Sept. 11 attacks, the secretary general, Ronald K. Noble, the first American in the job, saw an important role for the agency. An ambitious former Treasury Department official, Mr. Noble rolled out a digital initiative called I-24/7 that allowed countries to use Interpol databases around the clock.
Red notices were a crucial component. They are a kind of warrant in which police officers in one country ask their foreign counterparts to make an arrest. When the system works, it helps catch murderers, rapists and sexual predators who cross national borders.
Issuing the notices became Interpol’s highest priority.
“I am particularly proud to report that the number of new red notices jumped by nearly 40 percent in 2004, to more than 1,900,” Mr. Noble wrote that year.
But even in those early years, officials saw signs of trouble. Interpol’s internal audit commission reported a small but increasing number of complaints from people who said they were being targeted for purely political purposes.
As a traditional champion of human rights and the largest financial backer of Interpol, the United States was in a position to demand changes. But the war on terrorism was the priority, not Interpol. In 2005, Mr. Noble asked Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales to assign a Justice Department lawyer to Lyon to help with the increasing workload. Mr. Gonzales declined.
In 2006, Interpol issued over 2,800 red notices — more than twice as many as the year before the Sept. 11 attacks — even amid internal warnings that unidentified governments were targeting refugees.
To Mr. Noble and other top officials, the problems were initially considered growing pains. In 2007, when Iran lobbied to block warrants against its citizens in connection with the 1994 bombing of a Jewish center in Argentina, Interpol held firm.
“We voted to issue the red notices,” said Thomas V. Fuentes, an American who served on Interpol’s executive committee at the time.
He said the decision demonstrated that a modern Interpol could still reject political influence.
What happened next was a turning point in Interpol’s history. Mr. Noble launched a program called I-link, which allowed governments to disseminate red notices almost instantaneously.
Former officials say it was a visionary decision, but they now acknowledge that it also left Interpol vulnerable to abuse.
“We saw the beginning of this,” said Claudio Grossman, a Chilean lawyer who served on Interpol’s audit commission at the time. Mr. Grossman and his colleagues repeatedly warned Mr. Noble to slow down, records show.
But the number of red notices doubled again. Many were unacceptably vague, but lawyers struggled to spot troublesome warrants in the crush of new filings.
Mr. Grossman and his colleagues on the audit commission said Interpol was issuing too many notices too quickly with too little oversight — and urged the organization to improve quality control.
Yet it was sluggish to respond. Some say Interpol’s culture — police officers making decisions in the interest of police officers — inhibited reforms. Others did not see the problems as significant.
“At that time, we felt we had the processes in place to have the right balance,” said Khoo Boon Hui, a police veteran from Singapore who served as Interpol’s president from 2008 to 2012. “I think now they’ve found that not to be adequate.”
Among the first cases to shine a light on the problem was that of Benny Wenda, an Indonesian refugee living in England. Mr. Wenda, who led an independence movement in West Papua Province, realized in 2011 that Indonesia had obtained a red notice for his arrest.
“That was the first indication to us that these things were really being politicized,” said Jago Russell, chief executive of the London-based advocacy group Fair Trials. “But it was difficult to get governments and Interpol interested in this. ”
Journalists and human rights groups soon exposed more examples of apparent abuse: an Egyptian asylum seeker detained in Australia; an award-winning Venezuelan journalist; and, most notably, William F. Browder, a London-based investor whose arrest Russia has repeatedly tried to secure through Interpol. (Interpol says it has never approved a red notice against Mr. Browder.)
Interpol withdrew some notices but denied systemic problems.
“They were prepared to act individually,” Mr. Grossman said, “but not look at the whole thing.”
Around this time, Russia began issuing red notices for defectors who had cooperated with the American authorities, former security officials recalled. It was a clever move. If Washington tried to strike certain red notices, it would only confirm the importance of those defectors.
Federal agents became reluctant to share information with Interpol.
“There was always a fear that information would flow to the wrong people,” said Gil Kerlikowske, the former Customs and Border Protection commissioner.
Finally, years after the urgent alarms and amid a flurry of negative press coverage, Interpol began reviewing its red notice system in 2014. A new secretary general, Jürgen Stock of Germany, made reform an immediate priority.
It took another two years, but Interpol approved an overhaul that tightened records requirements, added a data protection officer and strengthened the internal review commission. Interpol also created a group to pre-review red notices, restoring oversight that had diminished after Sept. 11.
“We recognize that red notices are a powerful tool, which is why we are continuously reviewing, assessing and improving our systems and procedures where necessary,” Interpol said in a statement.
And in 2016, the Justice Department dispatched a veteran lawyer to serve as Interpol’s counsel, which officials said was the highest-ranking American appointment in recent memory.
Now Interpol is hurrying to review 50,000 active red notices that have amassed over the years, and purge those deemed inadequate. Many of the recent episodes covered in the news media, Interpol said, involved old warrants that had not been deleted.
Though Russia has received the most attention, officials and lawyers say President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey has frequently tried to misuse red notices after surviving a coup attempt in 2016.
Lawyers say Turkish officials have uploaded thousands of passport numbers into Interpol’s stolen-passport database to try to catch dissidents. Interpol officials have not confirmed that, but the passport database represents a unique challenge. Because it is simply a list of numbers, abuses are not immediately obvious.
American and European officials saw last year’s Interpol election as a potential turning point, coming just weeks after another embarrassing episode in which its president was secretly arrested by his home country, China. A Russian security official was seen as the leading candidate to replace him.
Though the presidency is a largely symbolic post, Western officials argued that a Russian victory would further undermine Interpol’s credibility. In a pointed speech at Interpol’s annual meeting last year in Dubai, the deputy attorney general, Rod J. Rosenstein, said the election was a test of Interpol’s principles.
“Observers may ask whether our votes reflect the values that we profess,” Mr. Rosenstein said. “We must stand for the rule of law.”
He and other Justice Department officials pushed that point in private meetings with foreign leaders in Dubai. Back in Washington, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called on all nations “that respect the rule of law” to back Kim Jong-yang of South Korea for president. Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, pressed Latin American and Middle East allies.
The subtext was clear, American and European officials said: The United States, whose president is skeptical of international organizations, might reconsider its future in Interpol. European allies made the same argument.
In the end, Mr. Kim was elected. The outcome was a diplomatic victory for the Trump administration and a moment of unanimity with Europe at a time when relations have been strained.
“At first, it was feeling like this was a lost fight,” said Jovita Neliupsiene, the Lithuanian ambassador to the European Union. “But allies are allies. And we shouldn’t underestimate that.”
Interpol officials were frustrated that news coverage of the election overshadowed their improvements. Then came the arrest of Mr. al-Araibi, 25, a former Bahraini soccer star. Interpol withdrew the warrant, but he was held for months before being freed.
Interpol does not discuss individual cases but said: “A significant challenge which continues to face the organization is the reluctance of countries to confirm if they have granted refugee status.”
That appears to have played a role in Mr. al-Araibi’s arrest. Australian police officials said they were unaware that their own country had granted Mr. al-Araibi asylum.
Mr. Russell, of Fair Trials, applauded Interpol’s changes but said such cases showed that the agency and its member governments needed to do more.
“They took their eye off the ball after 9/11, when it was all about ‘Share as much information as possible. Collateral damage just doesn’t matter,’” Mr. Russell said. “You can’t take your eye off this institution now.”