News Column

Britons jailed and losing jobs for bad cheques as Interpol orders arrests

May 23, 2014

Owen Bowcott,

Britons are losing jobs and being prevented from travelling abroad because Interpol is enforcing sharia-compliant debt notices issued by Gulf states, a legal rights group has claimed.

The international police cooperation agency is circulating red notices its highest level of criminal alert based on arrest warrants for unfunded cheques, a complaint that would normally be a civil issue in the UK but is a criminal offence under sharia-influenced national laws in the Gulf.

Interpol is now reviewing its procedures but insists red notices are based on states' national penal codes. Offences must be punishable by six months or more in jail following conviction to meet the threshold of being the subject of a red notice.

At least two Britons have recently found themselves the subject of red notices after working in Qatar, according to Fair Trials International which monitors Interpol's practices. It accuses the police agency, based in Lyons, France, of allowing itself to be manipulated into becoming an "international debt collector".

A British woman, who declined to be identified, lost her job working as cabin crew for an airline after her US visa was withdrawn when it was found she had a red notice against her name. She had previously lived in a Middle Eastern country and taken out a loan to buy a car; when she left the country a blank cheque she had been required to leave as security was cashed at short notice and bounced.

"I took out a loan and bought a car," she said. "I came back to the UK and wasn't able to make the repayments. Then the [US] department of homeland security contacted my employer and told them they had a staff member on a red notice.

"I was told it was a question of an unfunded cheque. I didn't know what an Interpol red notice was. I couldn't believe it. It was awful. It went on for five months then I was formally dismissed. I kept thinking the police would come and take me."

Another Briton, who also prefers not to be named, was imprisoned for several days years after leaving a job in Qatar. He, too, had been required to leave a blank cheque when he took out a loan on a car and had to leave the country at short notice because his wife and family could not get a visa to join him.

"I was in Jordan last year and was arrested," he explained. "I didn't know what it was about. I was put in a cell for two days. Luckily there was no extradition agreement between Jordan and Qatar so they said I could not be removed. Eventually I was released.

"The bank had fined me without me knowing about it. I had had to leave Qatar to go back and see my son, who was unwell. I had thought I had paid off my debts. Now I'm worried about travelling anywhere. It's a big headache to see your name [on the Interpol site]."

The function of a red notice is, according to Interpol, to "seek the location of a wanted person and his/her detention, arrest or restriction of movement for the purpose of extradition, surrender or similar lawful action". Many countries, but not the UK, treat them as provisional arrest warrants and automatically detain suspects.

Jago Russell, chief executive of Fair Trials International, has written to the secretary general of Interpol, Ronald Noble, claiming that there is a "pattern of misuse" of red notices based on non-payment of civil debts.

"A number of countries in the Middle East use criminal charges in relation to bounced cheques and the non-payment of civil debts despite the absence of any evidence confirming fraud or other criminal activity," the letter states.

"Due to sharia-compliant finance rules, it is common practice for banks and other lenders to require borrowers to write a cheque as security for a loan. If repayments on the loan are not met, the cheque is then cashed, often without warning to the borrower." A criminal offence of "uttering an unfunded cheque" is then usually pursued.

The letter points out that out of 30 publicly available red notices issued by Qatar in April, 20 related to unfunded cheques. In most states, failure to meet repayments is not criminalised. Fair Trials has called on Interpol to suspend the issuing of red notices based only on civil debt.

An Interpol spokesperson said: "A dedicated working group has also been established to review [Interpol's] rules and their implementation The question of under what circumstances red notices should be issued for unfunded cheques will be examined by the working group.

"Red notices published by the Interpol general secretariat for the charges of uttering an unfunded cheque are based on provisions of the national penal codes, not sharia-compliant law as wrongly implied.

"It is correct that some member countries will not act on red notices for crimes linked to unfunded cheques, yet, in other countries these cases are taken very seriously."

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Source: Guardian Web

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