Three years ago Petr Silaev boarded a train in Russia headed for the EU. Weeks earlier, he had been involved in demonstrations against a motorway through the Khimki forests outside Moscow. His friends had been rounded up by Russian police and, after giving an interview to a leading national paper in defence of the demonstrations, Petr was told he would be next. The journalist that wrote the article did not escape Russia and was brutally assaulted.
Having arrived safely in the EU, Petr was given asylum as a political refugee. Russia, though, did not give up. Instead, it used Interpol (the world's largest international policing organisation) to circulate a "wanted" alert against Petr to police forces across Europe. Petr stands charged with "hooliganism" by prosecutors in Russia, a vague offence prohibiting public disorder "which expresses patent contempt for society". Russia's use of the offence became the subject of international criticism after it was used to convict members of the punk band Pussy Riot for staging a public performance of an anti-Putin song in a Church in Moscow in February 2012.
The charges against Petr relate to his involvement in demonstrations in July 2010 when hundreds of young people travelled to Khimki in the Moscow suburbs to show their support for the ecological movement and denounce the local authorities' corrupt handling of the project and the harassment and violence used against campaigners. Petr led chants like "It's our forest" and "Let's stop deforestation" with a megaphone. In fact, the whole event was filmed and can be seen on the internet. Though certainly noisy, no one was hurt and the only damage the Russian authorities have pointed to is € 9 000 worth of damage to a government building (it is not alleged that Petr was responsible for this in any way).
Opposition to the development was, no doubt, inconvenient for the authorities, which hoped for €1.5billion of funding for the project from the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development (eventually turned down in early 2011 with the Bank citing its insistence on "strict conditions"). After the demonstration, there followed a widespread, indiscriminate crackdown on known anti-fascist activists in the Moscow region.
Russia has been criticised for its response to the Khimki activists. One high profile example includes the case of Mikhail Beketov, editor of the local newspaper, who received warnings from local officials after he began exposing corruption. He was subsequently beaten so severely that he eventually had to have a leg and several fingers amputated. He recently died as a result of the consequent health complications and the Russian authorities have failed to properly investigate his death.
Given this background, it is shocking that Russia was able to use Interpol to threaten Petr with arrest and detention. This was not an idle threat. In August 2012, Petr was arrested in Spain due to the Interpol alert and detained in a high-security prison. He spent months, unable to leave Spain, fighting extradition to Russia. Petr discusses the impact of that arrest in this video. In February this year, Spain eventually refused Petr's extradition, recognising that Petr was being prosecuted for his political opinions. Petr, though, continues to live under the shadow of a politically-motivated Interpol alert. He faces the threat of arrest and, potentially, extradition whenever he travels.
Petr's case is not unique and Russia is not the only country that has misused Interpol in this way. Fair Trials International has worked with people being pursued by a huge range of countries including Iran, Venezuela, Algeria, Indonesia, Pakistan and Belarus. Their stories are all different. They include opposition politicians, human rights campaigners, journalists and businessmen. Some have had their reputations destroyed by being publicly-named as "terrorists" or "criminals" on Interpol's website; some have spent months in prison as a result of an Interpol alert; others have been prevented from travelling, doing their jobs or even opening bank accounts.
The common theme is that the countries they fled have used Interpol to continue their persecution. These abusive Interpol alerts are not only devastating for the people they target; they also threaten the effectiveness of Interpol itself. In an increasingly globalised world, in which international organised crime is a grim reality, Interpol needs to provide a source of accurate and reliable information to help police forces across the globe. It cannot claim to do this if countries continue to be able to use its systems in cases like Petr's.
This week Fair Trials has called on Interpol to stop its networks being used to pursue Petr Silaev. But this alone is not enough. Petr has already suffered arrest and detention and his case is only the tip of the iceberg. Interpol needs to look again at its systems so that it can weed out abuses before the damage is done.