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Interpol Chooses New Chief Amid Controversy

Kim Jong Yang, the senior vice president of Interpol executive committee, speaks during a press conference in Changwon in January.

Interpol has choosen a new chief amid furor over the possibility that a top Russian Interior Ministry official could have become the new head of the international police agency.

Kim Jong-yang, who is currently the interim chief, was elected by police chiefs gathered at a four-day meeting in the Persian Gulf city of Dubai on November 21.

Kremlin critics and lawmakers in the United States, Britain, and elsewhere had warned that electing Major General Aleksandr Prokopchuk to be Interpol chief was dangerous, given allegations that Moscow has used the agency's procedures to pursue political enemies.

Experts, however, cautioned that his influence on the organization's everyday operations was likely to be minimal.

Headquartered in Lyon, France, the agency acts as a clearinghouse for national police services that want to hunt down suspects outside their borders. The agency does not have the ability to arrest people.

Critics of the agency have warned that it is increasingly being used by some countries to pursue politically motivated prosecutions by using so-called "red notices." Those are alerts by Interpol to member states that identify suspects wanted for arrest by another country.

Ahead of the vote, the United States said it "strongly" endorsed South Korea's Kim. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called on "all nations and organizations that are part of Interpol and that respect the rule of law to choose a leader with integrity."

Garrett Marquis, a spokesman for the White House National Security Council, tweeted that the Russian government "abuses INTERPOL's processes to harass its political opponents."

Earlier, British Foreign Office minister Harriet Baldwin told lawmakers that London would also support South Korea's bid.

"We always seek to endorse candidates who have a history of observing standards of international behavior," she said

Ukraine’s interior minister has vowed to push for suspending his country's membership if Prokopchuk is elected. Lithuania also vowed to withdraw from the agency.

Fears Of Abuse

Earlier, the question of Russia potentially assuming oversight of the agency drew condemnation from a bipartisan group of U.S. senators, including Republicans Marco Rubio and Roger Wicker, and Democrats Jeanne Shaheen and Chris Coons.

That drew a sharp response from Russian President Vladimir Putin's spokesman, who said their letter was a "visible example" of "interference in the electoral process" at Interpol.

In June, a cross-party group of British lawmakers wrote a letter to Home Secretary Sajid Javid urging him to demand the suspension of Moscow's access to the Interpol databases.

The letter warned that Russia's participation in Interpol systems has allowed it to repeatedly request the arrest of Bill Browder, a U.S.-born Briton who was once the biggest foreign investor in Russia and has now become a campaigner against Russian human rights abuses.

Browder, who was barred from entering Russia in 2005, has been detained several times in various countries -- most recently in Spain in May -- while Interpol sought to verify arrest warrants issued by Russia.

At a news conference on November 20, Browder appeared alongside Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who was once Russia's richest man until he ran afoul of the Kremlin in the early 2000s.

Khodorkovsky was imprisoned for more than a decade on charges his supporters said were trumped up, and his oil company, Yukos, was dismantled, its largest assets sold off to state oil giant Rosneft.

"I seriously fear that if Mr. Prokopchuk is elected president of Interpol, then at the command of the Kremlin he will be ready to perform absolutely any actions, because he doesn’t have to worry about his reputation," Khodorkovsky said.

Bill Browder (left) and Mikhail Khodorkovsky hold a press conference in London on November 20.
Bill Browder (left) and Mikhail Khodorkovsky hold a press conference in London on November 20.

Russian anticorruption activist Aleksei Navalny, who has faced a series of detentions and criminal charges, said his associates "have suffered abuse" from Interpol officials who were complying with Russian warrants to persecute Kremlin opponents.

Kosovo Denied

The vote is needed to replace Meng Hongwei, who was China's vice minister of public security and who went missing while on a trip to China in September.

Beijing later said that he was detained as part of a sweeping purge against allegedly corrupt or disloyal officials under President Xi Jinping's authoritarian administration.

Meanwhile, Interpol's general assembly voted on November 20 not to approve membership for Kosovo, the result of what the U.S. Embassy in Pristina said was "a campaign, led by Serbia, to pressure countries to oppose Kosovo's bid."

Accepting Kosovo as a full member would have allowed Pristina to distribute red notices for Serbian officials that Kosovo deems to be war criminals.

Two years ago, Interpol introduced new measures aimed at strengthening the legal framework around the red-notice system after facing criticism that governments have abused the system to go after political enemies and dissidents.

As part of the changes, an international team of lawyers and experts first check a notice's compliance with Interpol rules and regulations before it is issued.

Amid the controversy, experts pointed out that the position of Interpol's chief is more or less an honorary one, and lacks real authority to influence the agency's day-to-day operations.

"Interpol is a very structured organization, and built into it are a lot of checks and balances that limit the ability of any one individual, however important or influential, to make unilateral decisions on behalf of the organization," Jacques Semmelman, a former assistant U.S. attorney and an expert on international extraditions, told RFE/RL.

With reporting by Carl Schreck, AP, AFP, and the Financial Times