Attorney Anat Granit. Tomer Appelbaum

'Interpol Has Become a Monster'

How the 'first Russian oligarch in Israel' got caught in Paraguay, and what the Palestinian membership in Interpol means: The woman who headed the organization's Israeli branch explains



Talking to: Attorney Anat Granit, 64, retired chief superintendent in Israel Police, former head of Interpol in Israel, past chief of special missions department and police attaché in southwest Europe; lives in Tel Aviv. When: Thursday, 11 A.M. Where: A Tel Aviv café

What does it actually mean to be “head of Interpol in Israel?” What did your day typically look like?

The Israel Police, like all police forces that are members of Interpol, works with the organization by way of a special unit in the police force’s intelligence division. Let’s say Interpol issues a red notice – if a person who is suspected of committing a crime has left Israel, a notice is issued [globally] with all his details: name, photo, fingerprints, DNA sample, if there is one, and a request to whoever encounters the person to please arrest him for extradition. 

All the countries receive the notice simultaneously and are requested to check via their border police to see if the wanted person is on their soil. If he’s located – in Israel, let’s say, for our purposes – we will update the country that’s looking for him and coordinate the handling of the case – for example, arresting him for extradition.

But the information doesn’t only go in one direction. There’s also information that you convey.

We too look for people and contact all countries. We will not share our internal intelligence information unless we receive information that relates to Interpol activity, such as information about terrorism, or money laundering, and of course about the exploitation of children and pedophilia on the internet. We are in daily touch about issues like these and send out material all the time.

Can you tell us a little about the organization itself, because most of our knowledge of it comes from Netflix. First of all, Interpol doesn’t have operational powers, such as the authority to arrest people.

Absolutely not. It really makes me laugh when I see that in movies. Just a few days ago I saw a movie in which a jewel is stolen, and a determined Interpol police officer pursues the suspect with a local policewoman. Naturally, there is no such thing. Interpol doesn’t have “soldiers.” The organization’s headquarters are in France, and it employs terrorist experts, profilers, psychologists and so forth, along with officers from all the police forces in the world. It’s actually an intelligence organization, which gathers and disseminates information among its 192 member-states – every country in the world, other than North Korea.

And Interpol has clear sectoral boundaries, as set forth in its charter. It deals only with investigations in which a number of countries are involved, and doesn’t intervene in anyone’s internal affairs or engage in any political, military or religious activity.

Precisely.

Laurent Cipriani / AP

But is it possible to maintain these boundaries? After all, everything is political.

The boundaries can be maintained, because Interpol doesn’t initiate intervention. It won’t, for example, ask a country why a certain investigation is bogged down – that’s none of its affair. The only areas in which it takes the initiative are child exploitation and pedophilia on the Web. Interpol is constantly scanning the internet, extracting problematic photos and clips, and trying to locate their source. For example, we received a grim clip showing a group of men abusing a woman. The experts determined that it was probably in Vietnam or Thailand, but the clip was circulated worldwide, because it’s something that could have happened within the local Vietnamese or Thai community in any country. I think the case was solved when they identified a type of bedspread that’s used in a certain hotel chain. Another time, we tried to trace a photo of a little girl sitting on a bed. When the image was examined in depth, an American wall plug was identified in it, and it was sent to police in the U.S. for handling.

But the question of what’s political, or even what terrorism is, precisely, is always fluid.

Do you remember the event involving [Mahmoud] Mabhouh [a senior figure in Hamas’ military wing, who was assassinated in Dubai in 2010]? In that case, red notices were issued for all the people who took part in the action.

And it wasn’t considered political?

No. After all, it was also only in retrospect that they [the assassins] turned out to be Israelis. From Interpol’s point of view, it was an event of international terrorism, with assailants who left Dubai and had to be located, because who knew what they were planning next? Possibly an attack in another country. That’s an event that meets the criterion of the involvement of a number of countries and a danger to the public.

If a suspect is being sought and a red notice is issued for him, will he know about it?

This is an interesting point. If you enter the Interpol website, you can look at the pool of red notices and even enter names and check whether there’s a red notice about a specific person. But that’s misleading, because the site shows about 20 percent of the people wanted by Interpol. A person can check, say to himself, “Hey, I’m not wanted,” leave the country and be caught. That’s something, for example, that I discovered only after I retired. I didn’t know in real time that it’s possible to issue a red notice about someone and keep mum about it, because there are countries that ask in advance for the red notice not to be made public. Now, it’s a reasonable assumption that an escaped murderer realizes that there’s a red notice about him, but what about people who commit minor crimes?

That serves them, because they can deny that there’s a red notice about them. What other types of notices are there?

There’s a yellow notice, which refers to missing persons. A yellow notice was issued for the missing soldier Guy Hever [an Israeli soldier, last seen in August 1997]. And there’s a black notice, referring to people who unidentified bodies. For example, if someone goes to India and is missing for a long time, his details are sent there if an unidentified body is found, so a comparison can be made. There’s also a blue notice, which is only about a person’s location. We once had an interesting case in which we received a blue notice about a murderer who’d fled from Brazil. Our check showed that he’d entered Israel. We reported to the Brazilian police that we’d found him. We asked them if they wanted us to arrest and extradite him. “No need,” they replied.

Enjoy him.

Motti Kimchi

Yes. Why do we need that headache? To try him now? If he’s in your country, that’s fine.

What happens if there’s no extradition treaty with the other country?

An agreement can be made ad hoc. A specific agreement is drafted that serves the case. In this connection I have a very interesting story. Grigori Lerner, who was actually the first oligarch in Israel, was sentenced to several years in prison. After his release, he approached retirees – immigrants from Russia – and suggested that they give him their money, and he would invest it and give them a six-fold return.

Right.

Elderly people went to the bank, took out everything. He collected all the money in cash, checked which countries don’t have an extradition treaty with Israel, and chose Paraguay. When he got to Paraguay, he went to his hotel, put his suitcases, which were packed with money, in the closet and started to drink. Eventually he passed out, and that’s how the chambermaid found him. She called hotel security. By chance, the security officer was an Israeli, and even more by chance, he had a friend in the police Central Unit in Tel Aviv. Seeing a suitcase stuffed with cash, and the Israeli passport, he called his friend and asked him if he knew someone named Zvi Ben-Ari. The friend said no and asked him to send a photo of the passport.

I’ll never forget the way the photo came slowly through the fax machine, with everyone watching in a state of shock: It was Grigori Lerner! We didn’t even know he’d left Israel. Although we didn’t have an extradition treaty, a representative of the Israel Police in South America went there immediately, explained to the Paraguayan authorities that Lerner was an escaped criminal and requested his deportation. That’s much simpler than extradition – a long process that takes months. Deportation is instantaneous. Within five days of leaving Israel, he was back here again.

On the other hand, Interpol issued quite a few red notices for people who are living comfortably in Israel, without anything being done to them. One of them even dined with his wife and with the prime minister and the defense minister a month ago in a private room in a restaurant.

Are you talking about [Mikhail] Chernoy?

Yes.

Ofer Vaknin

He was declared wanted in Spain – based on a warrant that mentions money laundering and organized crime. And for years, in fact, he didn’t leave Israel. Look, Israel doesn’t initiate arrests of people who live here, of Israelis with Israeli citizenship. It might report their presence. But if it’s a Third World country that issued the red notice, there’s no way Israel will extradite.

But that isn’t the case.

Correct.

So what’s the story?

I’m not going to tell you that sometimes there aren’t matters of politics and connections. No. Less than a year ago, an Israeli citizen was extradited to the United States. That’s certainly not the only case. Actually, the decisive criterion is where the wanted person’s center of life is. If he spent his whole life in the United States and came to Israel after committing the crime, he’s not really an Israeli citizen. His connection is not with Israel, and he will be extradited. In Chernoy’s case, the question arises of why the red notice was not acted upon.

Listen, there’s something in the structure of this organization and in its sectoral boundaries that simply invites political pressures.

Clearly. Kobi Alexander [Israeli-American former CEO of Comverse Technology who was charged with fraud by the American authorities and fled to Namibia] was living in Namibia and [was the subject of] a red notice, and he was not extradited. Interpol is not subordinate to any institution and is not accountable to anyone, so it does what it wants. In my capacity as a lawyer, I knew about the case of a French citizen against whom a red notice was issued for extradition to Georgia. He claimed it was political persecution. A French court examined the case and found that he was telling the truth, that it was in fact political persecution.

He was released, but despite this, Interpol refused to cancel the red notice, because the Georgians pressured them. I went to Interpol and said: A French court, not some judicial system in the Third World, checked the evidence and decided it was insubstantial. They refused. I threatened to go to The Hague, but they laughed in my face. Precisely because they’re not subordinate to any institution or regulator, Interpol can often make decisions that – let’s say that their source or basis is not relevant to the matter at hand.

The constant mix of conflict of interests, it actually follows from the situation, because the organization doesn’t really have teeth and has so many member-states with so many different kinds of regimes.

Indeed. Do you think that a red notice request that comes from China is going to be [properly] vetted?

One of the main allegations against Interpol is that it’s often a tool in the hands of dictatorships. That’s obvious in the case of the Russians. With the Chinese it’s less simple.

I had a client with dual Israeli-Russian citizenship. He lived in Israel, but had a few factories in Russia with a business partner. He and the partner had a falling out, on purely business grounds, and one day my client was surprised to discover that a red notice had been issued against him. His partner is actually a friend of [Vladimir] Putin. So there was no apparent basis for that red notice, nothing criminal, only the dispute between them.

I have read about a great many cases like that, about Russian citizens who were arrested abroad and discovered that all kinds of charges had been concocted against them. So Moscow uses Interpol to hunt enemies?

Without a doubt.

Without a doubt?

Yes. Look, every country pays Interpol a tax for its activity. The amount of the tax is determined according to its GNP. So it’s clear that the more money a country pays, the more power it has. I also saw that all kinds of vested interests are involved ahead of rounds of appointments in Interpol.

Dmitri Lovetsky/AP

What about Iran, which is also accused of using Interpol to engage in political persecution?

I assume it’s the same, but I have no first-hand knowledge.

And African countries with dictatorial regimes?

My feeling is that, because Interpol so fears being perceived as an unenlightened organization, it treats requests from African countries more gently. Interpol’s legal department is staffed by top lawyers, very serious people. But in the overall picture, there’s plenty of politics and politicians. There’s nothing that can be done about it.

How relevant is Interpol today? After all, there are many far-more sophisticated and safe ways to share and transmit information.

Look, it’s not just the transfer of information. The organization’s value also lies in creating solidarity in police work, which is supposed to rise above political problems or countries in conflict. Its databases, too, also require an international organization. For example, Interpol has a database of about 10 million stolen or lost documents. That can’t be the preserve of one country. By the way, Israel doesn’t cooperate with that database, and you can certainly imagine why.

I think the technology actually serves the organization and doesn’t make it superfluous. But I also think it should be subordinated, possibly to the United Nations, perhaps to another body. There needs to be some sort of international control. Like Europol, the European police department, and effectively the criminal intelligence agency of the European Union, which is subordinate to the EU. Interpol is still necessary, but it has to be admitted that it’s become a monster. If I were the head of the organization, I would greatly reduce its number of employees and try to make it less political. I don’t know if that’s feasible, if the situation is reversible. Over the years, as the system grew and the bureaucracy became bloated, the organization’s very existence became a goal in itself.

What about the Palestinian Authority having joined the organization? For years, Israel managed to deflect its application, but it happened last year.

In the past we also had a struggle concerning the region Israel would belong to. We wanted to join the European region – and not Africa, to which we were initially assigned – because Israeli criminals aren’t active in Jordan or Saudi Arabia [which are assigned to the Africa region].

What’s the significance of the PA’s membership, beyond the declarative achievement?

They can issued red notices against Israelis, request their extradition.

Have they done that?

I don’t know. It would be interesting to know if they’re partners in the passports database, if they tried to get information about that, too.

In its DNA and in its thought structure, Interpol is a Western organization. It has many member states for which those values are so irrelevant as to beggar description. That’s a problem, too.

Look, sometimes there’s a feeling in Interpol that it’s not exactly reading the world map properly. Beyond the fact that it is indeed a Western organization through and through, it’s also a hedonist organization. I remember, for example, being a member of a committee that dealt with weapons of mass destruction. I won’t forget an email I got from the chairman of the committee, saying that for the annual conference – on mass destruction, yes? – they were looking for an exotic location, and wanting to know what I could suggest.

Let’s do a sharp turn and talk a little about drug smuggling. It’s not really related, but it’s too interesting to pass up. We’ll move to the period in which you were the Israel Police attaché in Southwestern Europe.

The gateway to drugs from South America into Europe and from there to Israel is Spain. The airports in Spain are deployed to receive all the flights from South America. Every flight is examined, and unfortunately, every so often an Israeli courier is also arrested. In those cases, I would go to question him and see if he was ready to cooperate. I had an advantage in those cases, because when they would tell him that they were stopping the interrogation because an Israel Police representative was on the way, he would ready himself to meet a tough intelligence agent – and then he would be taken to a room where I would be waiting.

AFP

An affable, smiling woman.

That would topple their defenses. I believe that many times I got information that a male interrogator wouldn’t have attained. Drug couriers are a world unto themselves. Some couriers know exactly what they’re doing – they want to be accepted into a crime organization, and the smuggling is a test. If they succeed in smuggling the drugs, they’re in. If they’re caught and don’t talk, they’ve passed the test. There are young couriers, former members of commando units who went on the big trek to South America and felt it was nothing for them to cross a border carrying drugs. Until they were caught, of course. But there are also some who are naive, who don’t understand how it happened to them.

Or so they claim.

I dealt with the case of a Jerusalem kid from a good family who was backpacking in South America. Two days before the flight back, he ran into a childhood friend in a Bogota bar. Our guy told him that he was at the end of the trip and was out of money. The friend asked him if he’d like to get back to Israel with a little money, the guy immediately said yes, and the friend said, “Take a suitcase, someone will collect it at the stopover in Madrid, and you’ll get $2,500.”

Well, really.

There’s what we call “eyes shut,” in the jargon, as opposed to being a “tricked courier,” who really doesn’t have a clue. In my opinion, this guy preferred not to know, certainly he didn’t take into account that it could end with seven years in a Spanish prison. A true tricked courier, for example, was a girl whose case I dealt with. She met a guy in Israel, they dated for a time, and then he said to her, “Honey, I’m taking you to South America for a week.” She apparently didn’t ask herself who the hell goes to South America for a week. On the flight to Spain, he told her he had no more room in his bag and asked if he put one package in her suitcase. She agreed. In the airport at Madrid, he slowly moved away from her, and by the time they checked her bag she couldn’t see him anymore. A kilo of cocaine was discovered in her bag, and she was sentenced to seven years in prison.

Tragic.

Very. I had another case of a girl who was arrested together with her boyfriend, both on drug charges. I spoke to her and offered to help if she would testify against the person who sent them. She cried and said, “No, I can’t do that, I love him.” When I spoke to her friend, he said, “Her? She’s not my girlfriend at all. She’s just a ” I don’t even remember the word she used.

A friend with benefits?

Exactly. Look, in principle the representatives of the police abroad were supposed to deal with drug smuggling, but over time the mission expanded to cover more and more areas. For example, in the investigation of Avigdor Lieberman [on suspicion of offenses involving alleged receipt of payments from businessmen while he served as an MK between 1999 and 2006] I was asked to contact all kinds of places and obtain material.

What actually happened there?

I can tell you that every place I got to, there was no longer any sign of anything. As though someone had been there before me.

A cleanup of the scene.

Unbelievable. I’ll never forget how one day Shlomi Ayalon, head of the National Fraud Unit, called me and asked me to get information from the Swiss police. Now, the Swiss police are a story. I’d already made connections with other police forces, I knew how to get to places, I could approach people directly. But with the Swiss, as befits the Swiss, everything is very structured, everyone is very rigid, it’s all done according to the procedures, contacts only through headquarters, etc. And he asked me to get hold of them now, and immediately.

What were you supposed to get?

A bank document, to examine what was happening in a certain account. I pressured them madly, but they wouldn’t budge. They gave me the runaround. They claimed they had to wait for an answer from the bank. In short, by the time I got there, there was nothing more to see. Nothing. That’s what I can tell you about the Lieberman investigations. I simply didn’t succeed in being useful in any way. I tried and I tried – in vain. As though someone had been there ahead of me.

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