In early September, a special court in the Indian city of Bengaluru bowed to the whim of the Indian Enforcement Directorate (ED) and declared Devas Multimedia co-founder, Ramachandran Visawanathan, a “Fugitive Economic Offender.”
The “issuance of notice” handed down by the special court was in response to an earlier request filed by the ED under the Fugitive Economic Offenders Act – 2018. The status allows the ED to further harass Mr. Viswanathan by seeking the seizure of his assets in India and abroad that are identified as “proceeds of a crime”.
The Indian government has concocted a baseless case against Mr. Viswanathan and other former Devas employees based on wholly manufactured claims of money laundering brought under India’s draconian “Prevention of Money Laundering Act” – a common tactic employed by the Indian government to charge, detain, and prosecute their enemies.
It is being done purely to target and punish Mr. Viswanathan for asserting his rights against the government in global courts.
The actions taken by the ED and the special court also underscore just how severe of an authoritarian spiral the Modi-led regime in India has taken. A frightening decline in the rule of law and the weaponization of state bodies like the courts and law enforcement have only served to harm India’s global reputation and demonstrate to the world how the government treats its citizens and its foreign investors.
Ultimately, the decision from the special court to designate Mr. Viswanathan a Fugitive Economic Offender only serves the strengthen the case outlined in Frontiers of Freedom’s Global Magnitsky Act petition submitted last month. Despite having the thuggish behavior and lawless actions of top government officials exposed to U.S. government officials, the Indian government has continued its pursuit of Mr. Viswanathan.
As the attacks persist, and the behavior worsens, the case for severe economic and visa sanctions against India’s top officials will grow stronger. As the government pursues Mr. Viswanathan with other lawless tactics, the list of offenders will grow, and Frontiers of Freedom, alongside Mr. Viswanathan’s counsel, stand ready to challenge the government’s claims.
See below for a quote from President and CEO of Frontiers of Freedom, George Landrith:
“The decision from the special court in Bengaluru was no doubt handed down at the behest of India’s grossly corrupt Enforcement Directorate, as directed by Prime Minister Modi and his comrades. As the rule of law in India declines, the case against the government and its top officials grows stronger. The fraudulent action by this arm of the Modi government is designed to terrorize an American citizen and cripple his ability to exercise his legal rights in U.S. and international courts. This will not go unchecked. Not by Frontiers of Freedom. Not by his counsel. And not by the U.S. government.”
Today, Frontiers of Freedom delivered a letter to the Chairmen and Ranking Members of the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary, U.S. House Committee on the Judiciary, and the U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs raising concern about the abuse of Mutual Legal Assistance Treaties and Interpol Red Notices by foreign governments
These government seek to punish and target American citizens, specifically businesspersons, who are involved in international disputes with the state by weaponizing these legal processes and institutions.
We asked Senators Grassley, Durbin, Risch, and Menendez as well as Representatives Nadler, Jordan, Meeks, and McCaul for their support in “strengthening the oversight of and tools for the U.S. government to ensure they are not being used to unjustly target American citizens.”
Read the full text of the letter below and here.
August 24, 2022
VIA ELECTRONIC TRANSMISSION
The Honorable Richard Durbin
U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary
The Honorable Charles Grassley
U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary
The Honorable Jerrold Nadler
U.S. House Committee on the Judiciary
The Honorable Jim Jordan
U.S. House Committee on the Judiciary
The Honorable Robert Menendez
U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations
The Honorable James Risch
U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations
The Honorable Gregory Meeks
U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs
The Honorable Michael McCaul
U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs
Distinguished Senators and Representatives:
Today, I write to raise concerns about the abuse of Mutual Legal Assistance Treaties (MLATs) and Interpol by foreign governments, and I ask for your support in strengthening the oversight of and tools for the U.S. government to ensure they are not being used to unjustly target American citizens.
Abuse of these legal processes and institutions is classified by many as “transnational repression”, an action that is prohibited under U.S. law. In a recent report, Freedom House discovered there has been an alarming uptick in instances of this abuse worldwide and identified 85 new cases of “public, direct, physical incidents of transnational repression” last year alone.
The abuse of MLATs and Interpol as part of foreign governments’ campaigns of transnational repression has become all too prevalent and has often times included the targeting and harassment of businesspersons who are involved in international disputes.
These governments manufacture allegations or claims, such as tax evasion and money laundering, which they use as justification to deploy their local law enforcement and judicial authorities to investigate, pursue, and punish their opponents.
The results of these investigations lead to the filing of MLAT and Red Notice requests that are based on the governments’ wholly manufactured claims and are intended solely to advance their own domestic agendas. This targeting, especially as it pertains to American businesspersons, is unlawful in the U.S. and violates Interpol’s own rules and procedures that strictly prohibit the request of Red Notices in cases that involve private contractual disputes or political motives.
Autocratic regimes like Russia, China, India and Turkey have engaged in these lawless transnational repression campaigns targeting Americans. They have threatened the integrity of international legal processes and procedures.
In a recent letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland, Senator Grassley highlighted India’s “significant misuse” of the Red Notice process. Moreover, the Senator’s letter raised concerns with abuse of the MLAT process, and urged the Department of Justice to ensure their MLAT requests to the U.S. “met the minimum standards of evidence required under U.S. law.”
An alarming and ongoing example of India’s actions involves Indian-American entrepreneur Ramachandran Viswanathan, co-founder of Devas Multimedia, who has become the victim of a transnational repression campaign being perpetrated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Indian government. Mr. Viswanathan is being targeted for attempting to exercise his rights to enforce billions in arbitral awards against the state. My organization, Frontiers of Freedom, recently filed a Global Magnitsky Act petition on his behalf in hopes of exposing the behavior of the Indian government, and the behavior of other autocratic regimes, so that the U.S. government can help ensure that these abuses do not occur in the United States.
Today, I am asking for Congress’ support in strengthening oversight of the MLAT and Interpol Red Notice processes and to urge you to ensure that U.S. authorities have the necessary tools to protect American citizens from being unjustly targeted by autocratic regimes. Your support would help make certain the U.S. government is not hoodwinked into obliging the unlawful requests of these regimes, and that cases of transnational repression do not go unnoticed.
Thank you for your attention and please feel free to contact me if you wish to discuss these issues further. I look forward to working with you and your staff.
President, Frontiers of Freedom
 Scroll.In, How the Modi government has weaponised the ED to go after India’s Opposition, July 5, 2022
Frontiers of Freedom strongly condemns acts of transnational repression by autocratic regimes who target citizens, investors and business owners in free societies, particularly through the abuse of the Interpol Red Notice process and Mutual Legal Assistance Treaties (MLAT).
The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) defines transnational repression as the targeting of individuals residing in the United States for harassment and intimidation by foreign governments. This violates U.S. law, and frequently targets business owners who exercise their legal rights under international conventions in defiance of foreign governments who refuse to respect the rule of law.
A 2022 report from Freedom House, a leading human rights organization, highlighted increasingly aggressive cases of transnational repression by autocratic regimes looking to silence their opponents. The report details a stark increase in worldwide cases of transnational repression in 2021, with 85 new cases of “public, direct, physical incidents of transnational repression” reported last year alone. The 42-page indictment warns of an alarming uptick of “brazen” actions by these regimes that seek to exploit international bodies like Interpol to advance their political agenda. The report names a number of countries that “demonstrated a dangerous disregard for international law, democratic norms, and state sovereignty”.
Organizations like Interpol are often abused by authoritarian governments who issue “Red Notices against dissidents and exiles” as part of their intimidation and harassment tactics to pursue opponents beyond their own borders.
These Red Notice requests often are baseless and unlawful. Foreign regimes have repeatedly used Interpol to target investors and businesspersons engaged in contractual disputes against the state, and who have lawfully exercised their right to challenge foreign governments who seek to retaliate against them for their efforts.
Through their abuse of Interpol, autocratic regimes also violate the MLATs they have entered into with the United States. One notable offender, India, was exposed in a July 2022 letter from U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA). Senator Grassley expressed serious concern about the abuse of MLATs and the Interpol Red Notice process being perpetrated by the Modi regime and emphasized the critical role that the Department of Justice plays in protecting American citizens and businesspersons from unlawful attempts by autocratic regimes to “undermine the rule of law“ and “retaliate against adverse litigants in international disputes.”
In a global economy, business owners and foreign investors are entitled to the rights and freedoms granted to them under international law. It is the duty of democratic nations to protect them as well as the international institutions autocratic regimes seek to exploit.
Interpol’s own rules and procedures prohibit the request of Red Notices in cases that involve political motivation or private contractual disputes. However, Interpol is flooded with requests on a regular basis, allowing abusive, illegitimate requests to slip through the cracks.
Countries like Russia, Turkey, and India have for too long gone unchecked in their abuse of MLATs and organizations like Interpol. Frontiers of Freedom is dedicated to exposing these regimes and their attempts to violate the rights and freedoms granted to all persons around the world through their abusive campaigns and unlawful actions.
The rise in transnational repression and abuse of Interpol present a dangerous challenge to the world’s foremost protectors of democratic freedoms and human rights. The time has come to ensure substantial oversight of the Interpol Red Notice process, prevent abuse of MLATs and encourage further cooperation to combat the dangerous rise in transnational repression we are experiencing.
Quote from George Landrith, President and CEO of Frontiers of Freedom:
“Every individual from a free society who is victimized by an autocratic regime is part of the broader global human rights struggle, including business owners who exercise their rights under the law.
The rule of law isn’t some legal mumbo-jumbo or technicality. It is the foundation of the concept that we are all equal before the law and that we are all entitled to the law’s protection; and that the law must prevent an authoritarian government from using its considerable power and authority to bully law-abiding people into submission.
Free societies must protect the rights and freedoms of all individuals who are targeted by tyrants.”
Magnitsky Act Authorizes U.S. Government to Sanction Foreign Officials Deemed Human Rights Offenders
Indian Government Grossly Violating Rights of American Citizen Ramachandran Viswanathan
WASHINGTON (August 8, 2022) – Today, Frontiers of Freedom, announces the submission of a petition under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act urging the U.S. government to implement economic and visa sanctions against 11 Modi government officials for serious violations of human rights of U.S. citizen Ramachandran Viswanathan.
In 2016, the Global Magnitsky Act of 2016 along with Executive Order 13818 authorized the U.S. government to sanction foreign government officials worldwide who are deemed serious human rights offenders and to freeze their assets and restrict them from entering the United States, if they are found to have committed serious human rights abuses.
This action brought forth by Frontiers of Freedom on behalf of Ramachandran Viswanathan and in cooperation with his counsel, Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, is in response to the Modi regime’s campaign of transnational repression against Mr. Viswanathan. The Modi government has sought to hoodwink the U.S. government into using the Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty in Criminal Matters between the U.S. and India to gain intelligence, monitor, question and arrest Mr. Viswanathan. Alarmingly, the Indian government has put forth fake claims of fraud and criminal actions to Interpol in a deliberate effort to secure a Red Notice for the arrest and extradition of Mr. Viswanathan. This is all to stop the efforts of Mr. Viswanathan’s company he co-founded, Devas, from enforcing a billion dollar arbitration judgment against the Indian government.
George Landrith, President of Frontiers of Freedom, made the following statement:
“The actions of the autocratic Indian regime led by Prime Minister Modi are an assault on the rule of law and the rights and freedoms granted to every American. We urge the U.S. government to look past India’s façade and punish, with sanctions, those who seek to violate the rights of Mr. Viswanathan. By doing so, the U.S. will send a strong signal to India and the rest of the world that the United States will not hesitate to stand up for the rule of law, and the rights and freedoms granted to every American.”
Matthew D. McGill, lead counsel to Devas shareholders and partner at Gibson Dunn & Crutcher, made the following statement upon submission:
“The submission of this petition on behalf of Mr. Viswanathan sends a strong message to India: U.S. businesspersons and investors are protected under U.S. and international law, and any attempts to intimidate, harass, or retaliate against them by abusing international organizations and treaties will be met with swift, definitive action. The autocratic perpetrators within the Modi regime will be held accountable for their lawless, thuggish behavior.”
About Ramachandran Viswanathan
Ramachandran Viswanathan is currently CEO of Omnispace, a company focused on delivering the world’s first satellite and 5G-based ‘one global network.’ He is also the co-founder of Devas Multimedia.
Previously, as CEO of Devas Multimedia, Mr. Viswanathan pioneered the development of India’s satellite-terrestrial broadband internet and media services platform. Prior to that, he led the strategic partnerships as CSO and EVP of Business Development at Cidera. As WorldSpace’s SVP of Corporate Development, he helped formulated the successful U.S. joint venture, XM Satellite Radio. At McKinsey & Company, Mr. Viswanathan worked with U.S. and European telecommunications and technology clients and assisted in establishing its India consulting practice. He has also held positions at Goldman Sachs & Company in investment banking, focusing on mergers and acquisitions.
Mr. Viswanathan holds a master’s degree from the MIT Sloan School of Management, a master’s degree in engineering from Stanford University, and a bachelor’s degree in engineering and economics from the University of Maryland.
Concerns over Abuse from Grassley
U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) recently wrote a letter to U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland raising concerns that India (and other foreign governments) are abusing Mutual Legal Assistance Treaties (MLAT) and the Interpol Red Notice Process.
Grassley emphasized the critical role that DOJ plays in ensuring American citizens who are business entrepreneurs are protected from unlawful attempts by foreign governments to “undermine the rule of law“ and “retaliate against adverse litigants in international disputes.”
In his letter to AG Garland, Senator Grassley highlighted how “India has improperly requested that Interpol issue a Red Notice against Ramachandran Viswanathan, a U.S. citizen.”
About the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act
The Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act along with Executive Order 13818 authorize the U.S. government to sanction foreign government officials worldwide who are deemed serious human rights offenders. NGOs, foreign governments and select Members of Congress are allowed to submit Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act petitions to the President and senior cabinet officials for consideration.
A petition is submitted to the Departments of State and Justice, who review and make a determination about whether to pursue sanctions against the government and individual persons identified as human rights abusers in the petition.
About Frontiers of Freedom
Frontiers of Freedom is an educational NGO whose mission is to promote the principles of individual freedom, peace through strength, limited government, free enterprise, free markets, and traditional American values as found in the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.
About Gibson Dunn & Crutcher
Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP is an international law firm that advises clients on significant transactions and disputes around the world. Gibson Dunn has 20 offices and employs more than 1,600 lawyers around the world.
Sen. Chuck Grassley, of Iowa, is pressing the U.S. Department of Justice to tighten its defense of American citizens who are prosecuted by foreign countries for political reasons after federal authorities said last year that many cases originating overseas do not meet their “stringent” legal standards.
In a letter last week to Attorney General Merrick Garland, Grassley said India abuses its mutual legal assistance treaty with the United States — a topic that has drawn scrutiny with New Delhi accused of trying to extradite an entrepreneur whose company won a $1.3 billion arbitral award against the Indian government.
Citing that case, which involves Devas Multimedia co-founder Ramachandran Viswanathan, the Iowa Republican argued that any Red Notice request with Interpol, which seeks a cross-border arrest, would be an “abuse of process” if the underlying charges are unjust. That is especially concerning these days, Grassley said, because a Justice Department watchdog reported last July that MLAT requests from foreign countries, such as efforts to search private communications, frequently fall short of U.S. legal standards.
“It is crucial that the Justice Department protect Americans from foreign governments seeking to abuse the MLAT and Red Notice process to undermine the rule of law and retaliate against adverse litigants in international disputes,” he told Garland.
Grassley, who serves as ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, referenced a June report from the research group Freedom House that found 14 countries — including Russia — use Interpol notices to detain and extradite people whom they view as dissenting voices.
That list also includes India, which the Washington, D.C.-based organization said was the only “free” nation to engage in so-called transnational repression, when it detained citizens living abroad in 2015. Freedom House has since downgraded India to a “partly free” ranking.
Earlier this year, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government asked Interpol to issue a Red Notice for Viswanathan, who lives in Maryland, according to his legal counsel.
That alert, which the 195-member agency says is not equivalent to an arrest warrant, requests that law enforcement detain the fugitive in question for extradition or other legal action.
But the charges against Viswanathan, alleging corporate impropriety in his work for the defunct satellite manufacturer Devas Multimedia, are “sham” claims meant to discourage a $1.3 billion breach-of-contract suit against the Indian government, his attorney said Monday.
Matthew D. McGill of Gibson Dunn & Crutcher LLP, who represents the Devas shareholders pursuing that arbitral award, said arbitrators’ findings clearly disprove India’s allegations, including that Devas lied about its technological capabilities. Instead, McGill cast the charges against Viswanathan as “an effort to whitewash the historical record” in the decadelong dispute, which is pending before the Ninth Circuit.
“It’s a weaponization of their justice system in very much the same manner that Russia had weaponized its own criminal justice system against the shareholders of Yukos [Oil Co.] and such,” he told Law360. “It’s a playbook that, unfortunately, authoritarian regimes sometimes turn to when they are frustrated with the outcomes of commercial disputes.”
The Devas shareholders have turned to U.S. courts to enforce a 2015 ruling by the International Chamber of Commerce that found India owed the company $562 million after terminating a 2005 contract under which Devas was slated to build two satellites offering digital services.
A federal court in Washington state confirmed the billion-dollar award, which includes interest, nearly two years ago, prompting India’s space agency to appeal to the Ninth Circuit. Those proceedings were still pending as of Monday.
Blasting the Indian government for trying to make Viswanathan “choose between his liberty and enforcement of the arbitral awards,” McGill accused New Delhi of shirking its pledge to respect arbitral decisions.
Indian authorities have said they asked Interpol in late February to issue a Red Notice against the Devas co-founder, according to McGill. He did not know as of Monday whether that alert had been published but said U.S. authorities initially ignored the Red Notice request.
Viswanathan has not been detained to date, according to McGill, who added, “We will do everything in our power to make sure that remains the case.”
Interpol did not include Viswanathan on a published list of Red Notice alerts as of Monday, but the France-based agency told Law360 last month that many notices are not made public.
Interpol declined to confirm that it received a Red Notice request for Viswanathan, saying the information it gets from member states belongs to that nation. Indian officials did not respond Monday to a request for more details on Viswanathan’s case.
In his recent letter, Grassley asked the attorney general to describe any systems the DOJ uses to track and report instances of abuse by other countries under MLAT and Red Notice procedures. He also asked whether the department reviews MLAT agreements periodically to ensure that they’re still in American interests if a foreign government has “abused the process.”
The Justice Department did not respond Monday to a request for that information.
Misuse of Red Notices has drawn attention from other senators, too, including from a bipartisan group that amended the latest defense budget to commission a federal report on the practice. That report is meant to include a list of countries that have repeatedly used the Red Notice process for political purposes and an account of their tactics, including the crimes the nations typically allege.
“By co-opting and undermining the rule of law to harass and intimidate dissidents and political opponents, corrupt regimes threaten our national security,” said Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., who co-sponsored the measure, late last year. “Our provision will make it U.S. policy to fight exploitation of INTERPOL, including by naming and shaming member states that abuse its mechanisms.”
India is a vital partner to the U.S., both globally and in the Indo-Pacific region. It’s why President Joe Biden has visited India twice since assuming office. It is clear where American interests lie, but it is equally clear that the journey to a stronger relationship is circuitous and at times challenging. Only by addressing the bumps in the road can the ride ever become smoother. Otherwise, this will not become the reliable alliance that Biden rightly seeks.
What irritants are front and center? Top of the list are internationally recognized questions around India’s decision to increase purchases of Russian oil, its recent human rights record — especially towards minority groups — and its poor investment climate, which has consistently short-changed U.S. individuals and firms.
For context, it is worth juxtaposing the relationship the U.S. shares with the other Quad partners, Australia and Japan. Those relationships are rooted in the rule of law and built on a shared commitment to constructing enduring pillars of freedom. This is why the U.S. connection with these nations is long-lasting and effective; the relationship with India will never be described in such terms for as long as the rule of law remains in question.
As the U.S. draws closer to India on regional security through the Quad and economically through the newly co-signed Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF), this noticeable decline in India’s rule of law and commitment to protecting human freedoms will become ever-more problematic.
Even as the U.S., and nearly the entire globe, reinforces condemnation of Russia’s actions in Ukraine and delivers strong rebukes in the form of sanctions and embargoes on Russian exports, India refuses to break with the Kremlin. New Delhi has increased purchases of Russian oil to more than a million barrels a day and in so doing, supports the continued abuse of human rights and assault on democracy in Eastern Europe.
Domestically, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s worsening track record on human rights, especially regarding the persecution of religious minorities and political opponents, is reaching a critical point. Recently, after democratic protesters filled the streets of India demanding the Modi regime do more to stop the persecution of Muslim minorities, the government took familiar action and began to retaliate, attacking protesters and even bulldozing the houses of organizers and their family members.
Government-sanctioned persecution of religious minorities is an all too familiar tactic in India. Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with real concern about increasing cases of religious repression, stating, “In India, the world’s largest democracy and home to a great diversity of faiths, we have seen rising attacks on people and places of worship.”
Political opponents and business persons are often subject to similar abuses.
The Modi government uses non-judicial, politically appointed bodies like the National Company Law Tribunal (NCLT) to attack American businesses, leading to the notorious case of Devas and the shuttering of a deal between India-based Future Retail and Amazon. These bodies operate below normal standards of due process, take up manufactured allegations against companies from the U.S. and elsewhere, and unlawfully nullify contracts or illegally liquidate the businesses entirely. Put simply, India is a hostile environment for Americans to do business.
The Modi government’s weaponization of India’s judiciary and law enforcement agencies has long been another oppressive tactic used to assert their power and punish those who refuse to kowtow to the government. Its government-controlled enforcement and intelligence agencies have personally targeted business owners and personnel from companies like Devas, even going as far as requesting the arrest and extradition of its co-founder, Indian-American businessman Ramachandran Viswanathan. The process for this request — issuing an Interpol Red Notice — is a form of intimidation practiced by others, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, as a method of extending the government’s bullying beyond the country’s borders.
The Biden administration should set a minimum standard for India to enjoy the kind of relations they’d like, particularly on the economic front. Otherwise, it simply will not work – not for investors, not for businesses, and not for our democratic values.
If we have learned nothing else from trade politics over the last 10 years, it is that looking the other way to further a foreign policy goal when nations abuse trade relationships simply doesn’t work. Ultimately, the best way to preserve open trade relationships is by insisting on their fairness. The U.S. must engage India to show a true commitment to rule of law and fair treatment of foreign firms as a prerequisite to any agreement that deepens our relationship with India.
Without this commitment, the deeper economic and diplomatic relations on the drawing board are better kept in pencil before being turned into permanent ink. We strengthen U.S. interests and values by insisting on mutual action. That’s how you build the relationship with India that both countries deserve.
Daniel Sepulveda is an SVP at Platinum Advisors and served as Ambassador and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in the Economic Bureau from 2013-2017
India requested to add Indian-American entrepreneur Ramachandran Viswanathan to an international most-wanted list, one possible example among many documented cases of governments abusing the global policing body Interpol.
India charged the Bethesda, Maryland, resident with embezzling the government through his former position as CEO of a local company with a sizable state contract in 2016, the Deccan Herald reported. In February, India requested the International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol), an international body that liaisons for law enforcement organizations, issue a Red Notice for Viswanathan, according to a transcript of court documents shared with The Daily Caller News Foundation.
A Red Notice allows countries to recruit assistance from international law enforcement bodies in locating and carrying out provisional arrest orders against fugitives, according to the Interpol website.
However, Viswanathan claims he is innocent of the charges.
Instead, India is allegedly subjecting Viswanathan to an “intimidation campaign” to pressure him into backing out from enforcing a settlement with India, according to Matthew McGill, Viswanathan’s counsel, who spoke with TheDCNF.
In 2011, India annulled a contract between a state-run company, Antrix, and Viswanathan’s global telecommunications firm, Devas, ostensibly on the basis of needing to divert resources for national security purposes, the Indian Express reported. Devas sued, and three separate international tribunals ruled that the contract had been unlawfully terminated, awarding Devas compensation upwards of $1.3 billion, court documents show.
India refused to pay.
Devas initiated an enforcement campaign under the New York Convention, a 1958 UN treaty that permits enforcement of arbitral awards, seizing India’s state-owned assets in Canada and elsewhere, according to McGill. Then in May 2021 the highest court in India dissolved Devas on the basis that its founders created the company under “fraudulent circumstances,” the Indian Express reported.
India never questioned the veracity of Devas’ incorporation until Viswanathan began enforcing the awards, according to McGill.
India froze bank accounts belonging to former Devas employees, arrested some and initiated multiple criminal proceedings against Viswanathan, McGill told TheDCNF.
“I am the target of an organized campaign by the government of India that is clearly intended to pressure me into dropping all efforts to enforce judgment awards,” Viswanathan told TheDCNF in a statement. “As an Indian American who is proud of my heritage, I am truly disheartened by this lawless behavior.”
If the notice went out, Interpol member states would be required to detain Viswanathan and possibly extradite him to India for prosecution and imprisonment, according to McGill. Viswanathan could also lose his ability to safely do business worldwide and see his bank accounts shut down.
Interpol responded to the Indian government in May with additional questions about the red notice request, the transcript shows. Viswanathan and his lawyer say they have no knowledge of how India responded, or whether Interpol decided to grant the request.
“If one did issue, it would effectively mean that there is an international warrant for his arrest that India has manufactured based on wholly fabricated allegations,” said McGill.
Viswanathan does not appear in the Indian Enforcement Directorate’s database of wanted persons for whom Red Notices have been issued.
“It is the type of thuggish behavior that we’re used to seeing from Russia, but not from the world’s largest democracy,” said McGill.
Fourteen countries misused the Red Notice system to detain and return victims of state persecution between 2014 and 2021, according to a Freedom House report. While Russia, China and Turkey are recognized as the most prolific abusers, with China being the most successful, “India commits more abuse than people are aware of,” Ted Bromund, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, told TheDCNF.
Bromund estimated that 5% of Interpol Red Notice requests fall into the abuse category. For example, Bill Browder, an American business tycoon who invested heavily in Russia before he fell afoul of Putin for attempting to expose Russian corruption, had Red Notice attempts made against him on eight separate occasions.
Browder chronicled his story in a book, Red Notice, and currently advocates against corruption.
Interpol maintains an inexhaustive list of crimes for which governments may not request issuance of a Red Notice, including actions involving contractual agreements. But if Interpol fails to adequately vet requests, governments can abuse the system to go after political dissidents, including uncooperative businessmen like Viswanathan, Bromund said.
Interpol has no inherent investigative or law enforcement, acting instead as a go-between for governments to cooperate on targeting and apprehending criminals, Bromund explained. Because of this, “it cannot seriously vet” most of the requests it receives, he said.
Congress has taken steps to address Interpol abuse. Section 6503 of the 2022 defense budget introduced measures to increase Interpol transparency and mandates that the United States cannot extradite an individual solely on the basis of a Red Notice.
Bromund suspects that Interpol has “grave concerns” about India’s request given the delay in approving India’s request. Even if Interpol denies the request, Viswanathan could suffer reputational consequences, which is why governments seeking to take advantage of the Red Notice system prefer to make notices public.
“Sometimes it’s not requested or obtained, but the waters are poisoned nonetheless,” said Bromund. “It’s not primarily about getting an individual back, but much more of a question of making the individual’s life hard.”
India will host the 91st Interpol General Assembly in 2022.
Interpol declined to comment on this story, saying it “does not … comment on specific cases or individuals except in special circumstances and with the approval of the member country concerned.”
Antrix, the Indian Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Finance did not respond to TheDCNF’s requests for comment.
The United States has long served as a place of refuge for those fleeing repressive governments. But as authoritarianism creeps across the world and social media grants dissidents a border-crossing megaphone, exiled activists are facing increasingly aggressive blowback from the countries they fled.
In a new report released Thursday, pro-democracy think tank and watchdog Freedom House said it had recorded 85 new incidents of “public, direct, physical incidents of transnational repression” in 2021, bringing the total recorded between the start of 2014 and the end of last year to 735.
Even those living in the world’s preeminent superpower aren’t spared. Iran, China, Egypt, Russia, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia and others have targeted those in the United States, Freedom House found, and were “increasingly and more aggressively disregarding US laws to threaten, harass, surveil, stalk, and even plot to physically harm people across the country.”
The act of transnational repression goes back at least decades: During the Cold War, the Soviet Union frequently crossed borders to assassinate so-called “enemies of the state.” But the way some governments act now has become “brazen, even outlandish,” Freedom House’s Yana Gorokhovskaia told me in a phone call.
Autocratic governments were cooperating to promote the alarming idea, Gorokhovskaia said, that “people do not have the right to criticize those in power, no matter where they are in the world — not only at home but once they leave home as well.”
Transnational repression came to Brooklyn last summer. Masih Alinejad, an Iranian American journalist and activist, was the apparent target of a plot that could have seen her abducted from a waterfront neighborhood in New York City and taken out of the country, possibly by speedboat, for an uncertain fate.
“This is not some far-fetched movie plot. We allege a group, backed by the Iranian government, conspired to kidnap a U.S.-based journalist here on our soil and forcibly return her to Iran,” FBI Assistant Director William F. Sweeney Jr. said in a statement announcing the plot last July.
Much of the harassment that targets dissidents on U.S. soil is less dramatic but no less powerful. Gorokhovskaia noted that the incidents counted for the reportthis year didn’t include the subtler forms of pressure, from online abuse and hacking claims to blackmail via threats to relatives and friends still living back in their home country.
In 2020, a New York City police officer originally from Tibet was charged with acting as an illegal agent of the Chinese government and using his position to collect information about the Tibetan diaspora. The officer, Baimadajie Angwang, had been granted asylum in the United States at the age of 17 after claiming he would be tortured if he returned to China.
Freedom House interviewed a dozen people from other places now living in the United States about how the threat of transnational repression had influenced them. “When you don’t feel safe in your house in the U.S., that’s a disaster,” Sardar Pashaei, a former wrestler and activist from Iran, told the report’s authors. “That’s a shame. … Where else on this planet should we go to feel safe?”
Gorokhovskaia said: “When you talk about authoritarianism, I think often we tend to talk about it as a problem over there. This is a problem right here, and it’s happening to people who live in this country, many of whom are citizens or permanent residents. It really limits their exercise of rights that I think most of us think are ordinary and fundamental.”
The U.S. government has taken some steps to push back against the problem. The Justice Department has begun indicting individuals in connection with transnational repression while the FBI has been tracking the crimes and published a website that gives victims advice and raises awareness.
But there is more that could be done. Freedom House points to the difficult path to lawful immigration status that exists for many immigrant communities, even those that have legitimate claims for asylum. The United States is also a diplomatic ally of some of the countries targeting dissidents abroad, such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
Riyadh’s attacks on foreign critics were brought to international attention by the 2018 murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a contributor to The Washington Post and a U.S. permanent resident, in Istanbul. But the United States has sought to repair relations with Saudi Arabia in the years since; it never moved to personally sanction Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
For Saudi dissidents in the United States, this pragmaticism sent a message. “MBS was not forgiven, but he was not sanctioned. He was not included,” one unnamed Saudi in the United States told Freedom House. “Right after that, things quickly changed for us. … It seemed like there was a reaction from the Saudi government that, okay, there’s no consequences. We can do whatever we want.”
By its nature, transnational repression is hard for any one country to fix. International bodies like Interpol are part of the problem, with countries like Turkey, Russia and China using the crime-fighting body to issue Red Notices against dissidents and exiles, Freedom House writes, that allow them to reach people abroad.
There has been some progress. Congress passed the Transnational Repression Accountability and Prevention (TRAP) Act in late 2021, calling on the United States to use its influence as Interpol’s largest funder to better influence the body. In March, the governments of Australia, Britain, Canada, New Zealand and the United States called on Interpol to suspend Russian authorities’ access to systems after the invasion of Ukraine.
Freedom House calls for more to be done, with like-minded governments working together to come to an international standard of transnational repression and working with technology companies and bodies like the United Nations to limit its impact.
It won’t be easy, but the problem is unlikely to go away soon. As Freedom House and other bodies have noted, authoritarianism has been spreading in recent years and democracy declining. But the flip side of growing transnational repression is that social media and online communications pose new threats to autocratic governments.
“There have always been people in exile and people who have remained engaged in the politics of their homeland from exile. But it’s undeniable that people’s voices are amplified by being online, by social media platforms,” Gorokhovskaia said. “There is this feedback loop. They can stay in touch with what’s happening at home, and they can be advocates on behalf of causes and movements at home from abroad.”