It was supposed to be a memorable family vacation: A summer boat cruise down the Danube and a chance for retired Canadian mining executive Len Homeniuk, travelling with his wife, to show his 15-year-old son some of the wonders of Eastern Europe.
Instead, Mr. Homeniuk, 68, spent a week in a hot, bedbug-infested Bulgarian jail, followed by more than a month of house arrest in the capital, Sofia, where he remains in a state of legal limbo.
Mr. Homeniuk says he is innocent of any crime. The blame for his situation, he says, lies with a bureaucracy headquartered 1,500 kilometres away in an imposing glass fortress in Lyon, France: the International Criminal Police Organization, or Interpol.
He was arrested as a result of a so-called "red notice," alerts that Interpol can issue at the request of any of its 190 member states, asking police agencies worldwide to pick up a fugitive.
Mr. Homeniuk's case comes as a rising chorus of critics, including London-based Fair Trials International, protest that Interpol lets repressive or corrupt governments – Russia, Venezuela and Iran among them – abuse the red-notice system. They say some countries issue bogus charges and request red notices in order to reach far beyond their borders and harass innocent dissidents, human-rights activists, journalists and even business people whose dealings with governments or well-connected local partners have gone sour.
Interpol insists it is listening to its critics and making reforms. But every year – thanks, Interpol says, to its new easier-to-use computer system – thousands more red notices are issued: While just 1,277 were issued in 2002, last year Interpol put out 10,718.
Among those was the one that ensnared Mr. Homeniuk, who until 2008 was CEO of Toronto-based Centerra Gold Inc. His story, he believes, should be a cautionary tale for the many Canadians in his industry who do business in countries with spotty human-rights records. His former company is currently locked in tense talks with the government of Kyrgyzstan, where it operates a large gold mine.
And it was Kyrgyzstan – a post-Soviet republic where human-rights groups say torture and corruption are common – that issued the red notice for Mr. Homeniuk, accusing him of corruption. He denies the allegations, calling them baseless and dismissing them as a pressure tactic.
Despite knowing that a red notice had been issued, he decided to take his summer cruise down the Danube anyway, believing that no European country would consider extraditing him to Kyrgyzstan, with which Bulgaria does not have an extradition treaty.
"I took that risk, admittedly," he said in a phone interview from Sofia. "I wasn't going to be held captive by the Kyrgyz for some alleged criminal activity that's completely fictitious."
Interpol's constitution says it is "strictly forbidden for the organization to undertake any intervention or activities of a political, military, religious or racial character." But ensuring member states, many of whom lack democratic governments or effective court oversight of their police forces, actually abide by this rule is another matter altogether.
Interpol spokeswoman Rachael Billington said she could not discuss specific cases. But she said every red notice is subject to an initial review, using "open sources" such as Web searches by Interpol staff in Lyon. If any red flags emerge, such as the wanted suspect is a politician or a member of a persecuted minority, the red notice is referred to Interpol's legal section for a deeper review.
But Interpol, with an annual budget of about €80-million ($120-million Canadian) – a fraction of any big-city police force – simply cannot independently investigate the merits of each request before distributing red notices. Interpol says it must largely rely on the information that its national bureaus in member countries provide.
According to a study by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, of the more than 7,600 red notices published as of December, 2010, about 2,200 were from states deemed by the organization Freedom House to have "severe restrictions on political rights and civil liberties." About half were from countries labelled "corrupt" on Transparency International's corruption index.
Ms. Billington stresses that more than 99 per cent of the requests for red notices are aimed at tracking down legitimate, and sometimes dangerous, criminals: "You've got to be careful, because a rapist, murderer, child molester, you know, every country has got criminals fleeing around the world … and what you don't want to be doing is creating safe havens for people. So you have to make sure the balance is right."
Interpol has turned down, and been convinced to rescind, red notices. And Ms. Billington points out that member countries are not obliged to act on any red notice. (A foreign arrest warrant, for example, is not valid in Canada, and the United States also does not automatically act on red notices.)
She says Interpol is listening to groups such as Fair Trials, which it invited to recent meetings on the reforms, and is continuing to review the way Interpol handles red notices. And she points out that those who feel they have been wronged by a red notice can either have their government intervene with Interpol, or they can appeal to an independent body called the Commission for the Control of Interpol's Files.
But critics say even this body is opaque. Challenges can take months. It does not automatically allow those facing red notices to have a full hearing to plead their case, nor does it normally release the reasons for any decision it makes to either rescind or uphold a red notice. Plus, its decisions cannot be appealed to any court.
Perhaps the world's best-known critic of the red notice system, U.S.-born, London-based hedge-fund-manager-turned-human-rights crusader Bill Browder, says Interpol needs to be held accountable to an independent international court that could review its decisions. Mr. Browder, who chronicles his John le Carré-like experience with Vladimir Putin's Russia in his new book, Red Notice, was booted out of Russia in 2005 after criticizing corruption at Gazprom and elsewhere.
His lawyer, who had uncovered evidence of a corruption scheme, was jailed and beaten to death. Mr. Browder launched a campaign to expose his killers. Russia retaliated, he said, by trying him in absentia for tax evasion in 2013. He then found himself facing an Interpol red notice from Russia.
He fought back, and it was rescinded. But Russia has since been trying to convince Interpol to overturn its decision. And Mr. Browder, due to visit Toronto later this month for a speaking event organized by the International Commission of Jurists, says Interpol is actively considering another Russian red notice request, despite rejecting previous requests.
"Most people have no idea that there effectively is this Star Chamber out there," Mr. Browder said in a phone interview. "People who come from civilized countries think they live a free life. But if they have any interaction with corrupt and rogue regimes anywhere around the world, they can end up in a situation where they can get arrested in a third country and handed back to face totally illegitimate criminal charges."
Besides Mr. Homeniuk, other Canadians have also been entrapped by what they say are abusive red notices.
New Brunswick potato farmer Henk Tepper spent just more than a year in a Lebanese jail after he was arrested while on a trade mission in Beirut. Interpol had issued a red notice at the request of Algerian authorities, who accused him of trying to ship the country spoiled potatoes, an allegation he denies. He is now suing Ottawa and the RCMP for, he claims, doing too little to help him.
"To be honest with you, I didn't even have a clue what Interpol was, besides watching James Bond movies and reading books," Mr. Tepper said in a phone interview, "… they can make up their own rules."
Michelle Betz, a U.S.-Canadian dual citizen who trains journalists in developing countries, says she learned that Egypt's military government had requested a red notice for her in 2011. She was accused of operating a non-governmental organization without a licence and accepting foreign funding without permission. Ms. Betz, a former CBC journalist, said she was still living in Washington, at the time, and had not even started her project training journalists in Cairo on behalf of the International Centre for Journalism.
She was on vacation in the U.S. Virgin Islands when she heard about the possible red notice. If she had been elsewhere, she says, her fate could have resembled Mr. Homeniuk's or Mr. Tepper's. She said Egypt had issued what Interpol calls a "diffusion," which, unlike a full red notice, is distributed directly to Interpol members without any screening from staff in Lyon. (Interpol says once diffusions are issued, it then also reviews them for violations.)
"It's these diffusions that are more dangerous and more nefarious," Ms. Betz said. "It's scary stuff. … There's no way to find out if a diffusion has been put out on you."
Vancouver lawyer David Martin has acted for several people caught up in the red-notice net, including Mexican mining union leader Napoleon Gomez Urrutia, who fled Mexico for British Columbia in 2006 after Mexican prosecutors pursued him with trumped-up corruption charges. Mr. Martin and his legal team had the Mexican charges dismissed last summer and also convinced Interpol to cancel the red notice and acknowledge his client faced a "political prosecution."
He said Interpol needs to bring in better reviews of red notices before they go out, and put sanctions on member states that misuse them: "Interpol has resisted any effort to be subjected to judicial review. … If they are going to try and maintain that, they are going to have to reform."
Speaking by phone from his rented apartment in Sofia, Mr. Homeniuk says his London lawyers had been told the Commission for the Control of Interpol's Files was due to consider his case this week. But he did not know when he would hear of any decision. Despite posting bail, he is stuck in Bulgaria at least until Oct. 7, when his supposed to face a hearing on whether he should be extradited to Kyrgyzstan. He says once his current predicament is over, he and his wife, lawyer Marina Stephens, plan to work with Fair Trials or other NGOs to try and reform Interpol.
"I would certainly hate to see someone else in my situation," Mr. Homeniuk said. "It's ludicrous, when you think about it."
A brief history
Interpol is no stranger to international controversy, and questions over how member states use or abuse red notices date back almost to its origins. Founded in 1923 by the head of Vienna's police, what was then called the International Criminal Police Commission had the participation of police agencies from 20 mostly European countries.
According to research published by the Heritage Foundation, a conservative U.S. think tank, the organization fell under the influence of the Nazis even before the 1938 Anschluss, when Germany annexed Austria. After that, the organization's chief was tossed in jail and its files were moved to Berlin, where they were used to track down Jews and homosexuals. Most member states soon stopped participating.
After the Second World War, the organization was reborn as Interpol and based in France. In 1946, its colour-coded notice system went into operation, including its first red notices. Its membership included some Eastern Bloc members that had been part in its predecessor before the war.
But, according the U.S. Heritage Foundation, the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation chose to ignore all communications from Communist-dominated countries. And red notices were already controversial. In 1950, the Communist government of Czechoslovakia had Interpol issue red notices for 10 dissidents who had hijacked a plane to flee to West Germany, where they were given political asylum. The FBI dropped out in protest, and Czechoslovakia and other Eastern Bloc members responded in kind.
Rebirth and the present
Interpol would eventually bring the United States back into the fold by adopting a constitution in 1956 that was supposed to ban intervening in cases of a "political, military, religious or racial character." Originally based in Paris, it moved its headquarters to Lyon in 1989. It now has 190 members, including almost every country on Earth except North Korea.
Each member country has what is called a National Central Bureau (NCB), usually operated by a national police force, which is meant to connect with Interpol's headquarters and fellow Interpol members around the world. The RCMP operates Canada's Interpol NCB. Canada first joined Interpol in 1949, when the agency was recognized by the newly formed United Nations.
Seeing in colour
Interpol issues eight different kinds of notices, each with its own colour:
Red notice: To seek the location and arrest of wanted persons with a view to extradition or similar lawful action.
Blue notice: To collect additional information about a person's identity, location or activities in relation to a crime.
Green notice: To provide warnings and intelligence about persons who have committed criminal offences and are likely to repeat these crimes in other countries.
Interpol-United Nations Security Council Special Notice: Issued for groups and individuals who are the targets of UN Security Council Sanctions Committees.
Yellow notice: To help locate missing persons, often minors, or to help identify persons who are unable to identify themselves.
Black notice: To seek information on unidentified bodies.
Orange notice: To warn of an event, a person, an object or a process representing a serious and imminent threat to public safety.
Purple notice: To seek or provide information on modi operandi, objects, devices and concealment methods used by criminals.