World News

Interpol Rejects Russian as President, Electing South Korean Instead

Posted November 21, 2018 7:09 p.m. EST
Updated November 22, 2018 1:43 p.m. EST

Interpol elected a South Korean police veteran as its next president Wednesday in the face of pressure from Western diplomats who said choosing a Russian candidate who had been considered the front-runner could jeopardize the independence of the world’s largest international policing organization.

The South Korean, Kim Jong-yang, was elected by secret ballot at Interpol’s annual conference in Dubai, where its top official downplayed the controversy surrounding the vote and offered assurances that the agency would remain independent.

“No matter what the nationality of the president is, it is not affecting Interpol’s neutrality and the independence of our organization,” Secretary-General Jürgen Stock told reporters after the vote.

U.S. and European officials lobbied behind the scenes early this week to prevent a senior Russian security official, Alexander V. Prokopchuk, from winning the organization’s presidency. The Russian government has tried for years to use Interpol and its international warrants, known as red notices, to track down and arrest political enemies and dissidents living abroad.

Human rights groups said that electing Prokopchuk would be seen as rewarding the Kremlin for those efforts. They warned that it would undermine confidence in Interpol and make it susceptible to political interference.

That turned Wednesday’s vote into an unusually closely watched diplomatic event. The Kremlin accused its adversaries of meddling in the elections of an independent international body, while opponents countered that Russia was trying to hijack Interpol.

Stock said Wednesday that Interpol had been working to tighten oversight of the warrant process and said those reforms would continue. “We accept the fact that systems can be improved, and recognize that a very small number of noncompliant red notices can seriously affect the lives of innocent citizens.”

The election came at a difficult time for Interpol, which has faced controversy over its handling of the disappearance in September of its president at the time, Meng Hongwei of China. The Chinese government later produced a resignation letter in his name and acknowledged that it had secretly arrested him on unspecified corruption charges.

Interpol’s tepid response to that highly unusual action sparked criticism that it was too quick to yield to influence from an authoritarian government. Stock did not directly address those criticisms but said, “Interpol has to work in a space neutral to geopolitics, but not of course neutral to human rights.”

Kim has served as interim president of Interpol since Meng’s disappearance. Prokopchuk has served as a vice president and is well regarded by his colleagues.

But Prokopchuk has also worked for more than a decade in a Russian department that has flooded Interpol with requests for international warrants, known as red notices, seeking the arrest of political dissidents and others. Interpol has rejected requests that it viewed as baldly political, but the Russian government has at times found workarounds by seeking a different type of warrant, known as a diffusion. Diffusions are circulated through Interpol but do not get reviewed there.

Investor Bill Browder, one of the highest-profile Kremlin critics, is the most public target of this effort. The Russian government has repeatedly sought his arrest. Early this year, he live-tweeted his detention in Spain on a warrant issued out of Moscow.

On Tuesday, Browder held a news conference in London and warned that President Vladimir Putin of Russia was trying to use Interpol to intimidate his opponents.

“This is a perfect way for Putin to basically breathe the fear of God into all of his enemies,” he said. “So they know they can’t even escape Russia if one of his guys is at the head of Interpol.”

The presidency is in many ways a ceremonial position at Interpol, where executive power is held by the secretary-general. Former Interpol officials said that if he had become president, Prokopchuk would have had little ability to influence the issuance of red notices. They said that Interpol delegates are encouraged to vote on the merits of individual candidates, not on their home countries.

Interpol, despite its portrayal in spy movies, has no power to investigate crimes or make arrests. Instead, it functions as a sort of United Nations for police organizations and a clearinghouse for the circulation of law enforcement tips and data.

Still, the prospect of Russian interference loomed over the election. U.S. officials did not speak publicly about the vote, but in a speech to Interpol leaders, Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, warned against countries that harbored cybercriminals and tried to manipulate the international extradition process — two frequent criticisms of Russia.

Shortly after the vote, Latvia’s foreign minister, Edgars Rinkevics, congratulated Kim on his victory. He said he was confident that Interpol “will continue to uphold rule of law as one of its fundamental values.”