(Bloomberg) — Interpol seems to have a crime problem.
When Arif Naqvi, the founder of the Middle East’s biggest private-equity fund, was arrested at London’s Heathrow airport in April, he was quick to brandish his connections to the global policing body.
He told U.K. authorities that he sat on the group’s board, and he was carrying an Interpol passport, a document the organization issues to its officers travelling on business, prosecution lawyer Rachel Kapila said at a London hearing last week.
If he’d hoped his Interpol links would protect him from arrest, he was wrong. Naqvi, the founder of the Abraaj Group, faces possible extradition to the U.S. on fraud charges, which he says are “ ludicrous.” On Friday, he was granted a $20 million bail, a record high. He’d been a trustee of the Interpol Foundation for a Safer World, a separate group that funds the police body, but was suspended last year.
Naqvi’s arrest means two of the eight people who were listed a year ago as trustees of the foundation have been arrested — a quarter of the board of the organization whose stated mission is to “turn back crime.”
Auto titan Carlos Ghosn, who was arrested in November on charges he’s called “ meritless,” was a trustee of the same body. He resigned in January, his spokesman said. And Interpol’s former president Meng Hongwei was arrested in China in October, over allegations of accepting bribes and violating other state laws — in a probe that’s put a spotlight on China’s opaque legal system.
There’s a presumption of innocence ahead of any trial. But the arrests are “yet another episode that raises questions of Interpol,” said Jago Russell, chief executive officer of Fair Trials, a human-rights group. “Interpol has an important role to play in the fight against serious crime, which is made harder when people linked to the organisation are being put under investigation.”
When Ghosn and Naqvi became members of the board, both had “an impeccable reputation and a large recognition in their field of activity,” the foundation’s director-general Georges Zecchin said by email. “As soon as issues concerning Mr. Naqvi and Mr. Ghosn were publicized, the foundation has acted diligently in order to protect its reputation and to take adequately into account the presumption of innocence,” he said.
A spokeswoman for Naqvi couldn’t reach him for comment, but has previously said that he maintains his innocence and expects to be “fully cleared.”
Ghosn, who’s charged with funneling millions of dollars from Nissan Motor Co. through an intermediary for his own purposes, has asserted his innocence and said he’ll “vigorously” defend himself. Meng’s wife Grace fears he’s being punished for his reformist views, particularly in the field of the law, she said in March.
Interpol passports, like the one Naqvi was carrying, are designed to let officials travel quickly for work purposes without needing visas. “Interpol doesn’t publish information as to who it issues these documents to, but many would have been surprised to learn that they appear to also have been issued to members of the board of the Interpol Foundation,” said Thomas Garner, an extradition lawyer at Gherson in London. The foundation “is legally and administratively separate from Interpol but is an important source of revenue for the organization.”
An Interpol spokesman said the passports can be issued to the foundation’s trustees “to facilitate their travel specifically in relation to activities connected to the Interpol Foundation.” Ghosn’s spokesman said he didn’t have one.
Naqvi only used the Interpol passport once, to travel between the U.K. and France, “on the recommendation of Interpol that he should test the travel document,” he said in his filings for a court hearing on Friday. He “often travelled with all of his travel documents out of habit” because he kept them all in one bag, he said. When he was arrested he also had two Pakistan passports and one from Saint Kitts and Nevis.
The Interpol Foundation is a separate, Geneva-based entity that’s funding Interpol programs with 50 million euros ($56 million) over a five-year period, under an agreement between the foundation and the United Arab Emirates government.
Naqvi’s case draws attention to the Lyon, France-based body as it emerges from a deeply political battle for its presidency. The U.S. and other western countries last year warned that Russian candidate Aleksander Prokopchuk could abuse its protocols to harass political opponents. South Korean Kim Jong Yang was elected as its president in November.
Interpol’s work is “sadly undermined on quite a frequent basis, usually by states that abuse its systems, but recently there have been personnel issues too,” said Alex Tinsley, a lawyer who specializes in extradition and cases involving Interpol. Secretary general Juergen Stock “has been quite committed to improving transparency,” so the arrests will likely be a “particular concern.”
Naqvi may not have done Interpol any favors by championing his links to the organization during his arrest. Anything that “casts a shadow” over a body that funds Interpol “is going to be a matter of concern for the Interpol leadership,” Tinsley said.
With assistance from Ania Nussbaum.To contact the reporter on this story: Kaye Wiggins in London at [email protected]