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Pressure Builds On Interpol Ahead Of Vote To Choose New Chief

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Major General Aleksandr Prokopchuk, the head of Interpol’s National Central Bureau in Moscow, is reportedly the leading candidate to take over the presidency of Interpol.

Pressure is building on Interpol ahead of a vote to choose a new chief for the international police agency, with Russian opposition activists, U.S. senators, and officials from other countries warning against the possibility that a top Russian Interior Ministry official might become the agency's new head.

British media have reported that 56-year-old Major General Aleksandr Prokopchuk will most likely be elected despite allegations that Moscow has used Interpol’s procedures to pursue political enemies.

Police chiefs gathered at a four-day meeting in the Persian Gulf city of Dubai are expected to vote on a new chief on November 21.

Interpol's current interim president, South Korea's Kim Jong-yang, is also seeking the post.

The agency, headquartered in Lyon, France, 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 the South Korean candidate, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo calling on "all nations and organizations that are part of Interpol and that respect the rule of law to choose a leader with integrity."

"We believe Mr. Kim will be just that," Pompeo told reporters on November 20.

Meanwhile, 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, saying, "We always seek to endorse candidates who have a history of observing standards of international behavior."

'Absurd' Presidency

Ukraine's interior minister has vowed to push for suspending his country’s membership if Prokopchuk is elected.

"Russia's possible presidency at Interpol is absurd and contradicts the spirit and goals of that organization," Arsen Avakov said in a statement on November 19.

Avakov's comments come amid high tensions between Moscow and Kyiv over Russia's 2014 annexation of Ukraine's Crimea region and its backing for separatists in a war in eastern Ukraine.

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.

"Interpol electing...Prokopchuk as its new President is akin to putting a fox in charge of a henhouse," the group said in a letter. "Russia routinely abuses Interpol for the purpose of settling scores and harassing political opponents, dissidents and journalists."

Russian President Vladimir Putin's spokesman lashed out at the U.S. senators, saying their letter was a "visible example" of "interference in the electoral process" at Interpol.

The statement by Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov appeared to be aimed at turning the tables on U.S. officials and lawmakers who accuse Russia of meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

In June, a cross-party group of British lawmakers wrote a letter to Home Secretary Sajid Javid to urge 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 of this year -- while Interpol sought to verify arrest warrants issued by Russia.

"I cannot imagine a more inappropriate person than a person who has been the architect of the abuse doled out to me by Russia at Interpol," Browder said on November 20 at a joint news conference in London with self-exiled Russian businessman Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the founder of Open Russia Foundation and a Kremlin foe.

"There is probably no more inappropriate person than this person, and there is no more inappropriate country to have any type of leadership position at Interpol than Russia."

Khodorkovsky, who was once Russia's richest man until he ran afoul of the Kremlin in the early 2000s, was imprisoned for more than a decade on charges his supporters said were trumped up. 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.​

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

"I don't think that a president from Russia will help to reduce such violations," he said in a posting to Twitter.

Vladimir Kara-Murza, a Russian opposition activist, said in an opinion article in The Washington Post that Russia was likely to misuse the "red notice" system if Prokopchuk were to take over the agency.

"The main purpose of the organization is information-sharing and mutual assistance among national police forces. One can imagine what the Kremlin could do with access to sensitive databases around the world," he wrote.

Kosovo Rejected

The November 21 vote is 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.

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 would first check a notice's compliance with Interpol rules and regulations before it is issued.

With reporting by AP, AFP, and Financial Times
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