Russia loses to South Korea’s Kim Jong-yang in bid to lead global police body Interpol

LONDON – The global law-enforcement body Interpol elected South Korea’s Kim Jong-yang its new president Wednesday. Kim’s election averts a crisis in the international police group as it thwarts efforts by Russia to lead Interpol.

Kim was chosen by a vote among Interpol’s 194 member countries – every country in the world with the exception of North Korea – during a general assembly in Dubai. Kim, 57, will serve a two-year term.

Russian national Alexander Prokopchuck, a senior general who for the past 12 years has been the head of Moscow’s national Interpol bureau – part of Russia’s Ministry of Internal Affairs – was widely tipped to win the post. Prokopchuck is close to the Kremlin and has been accused of routinely abusing Interpol’s Red Notice system – global arrest warrants –  to target critics of Russian President Vladimir Putin. 

The prospect of a Russian sitting atop the international police organization raised red flags in Washington and among critics of the Kremlin who believed Putin would have further tried to aggressively influence Interpol to go after his political opponents. 

“I can’t imagine a more inappropriate person” for Interpol, Bill Browder, an American financier and prominent Putin foe, told reporters in London on Tuesday, speaking of Prokopchuck. “And I can’t imagine a more inappropriate country.”

Browder is responsible for pushing successful congressional passage of the Magnitsky Act, which imposes sanctions against government officials who commit human-rights abuses. The Magnitsky Act was used recently to sanction 17 Saudi nationals accused of murdering the journalist Jamal Khashoggi. It has also been used for sanctions against Russia for its actions supporting separatists in Ukraine. 

“It was his (Putin’s) government that organized a terrorist attack in the U.K. using chemical weapons in Salisbury. It was his government that shot down (commercial airliner) MH17 (over Ukraine), killing 298 innocent individuals. It was his government that cheated and hacked in elections in the United States and Europe,” Browder said.

“To put his representative in charge of the most important international crime-fighting organization (would be) like putting the mafia in charge.”

Mikhail Khodorkovsky, an exiled Russian and Putin opponent who was once that country’s richest man until his imprisonment for fraud in 2005, said that Russia would have used Interpol “not in the interests of international justice but in the interests of the people who work in the Kremlin.” Khodorkovsky was released from prison in 2013 after he was pardoned by Putin and now lives in Switzerland. 

Browder and Khodorkovsky have fought successive Moscow-issued Red Notice alerts.

Ahead of the Interpol vote, U.S. Senators Roger Wicker, R-Miss, Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., Chris Coons, D-Del. and Marco Rubio, R-Fla. issued a statement in which they described Russia’s candidacy as “akin to putting a fox in charge of the henhouse.” 

“Russia routinely abuses Interpol for the purpose of settling scores and harassing political opponents, dissidents and journalists,” the senators said. 

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo “strongly” endorsed the South Korean candidate.

Russia claimed Interpol was being politicized. “We see a campaign aimed at discrediting (our) candidate,” Russia’s Ministry of Internal Affairs said in a statement.

Kim’s elevation to the presidency comes in the wake of the disappearance of Meng Hongwei, a Chinese national who ran Lyon, France-based Interpol before vanishing in China in mysterious circumstances two months ago. Interpol said Hongwei resigned but his wife fears he is dead after being detained as part of a corruption crackdown.

Kim was previously an Interpol vice president for Asia. Until his election he was serving as acting Interpol president because of Meng’s disappearance. 

“Our world is now facing unprecedented changes which present huge challenges to public security and safety,” Kim said Wednesday after his election. “To overcome them, we need a clear vision: we need to build a bridge to the future.”

Interpol’s chief function is to share intelligence between member countries and coordinate searches for missing and wanted persons. It does not have its own police officers. They are comprised of border guards and officers from each member country. 

Ben Emmerson, a British human rights lawyer, said there was “systematic evidence of the abusive use of the Interpol process in order to pursue those who are perceived to represent a political threat” – by Russia, but also other authoritarian countries.

He said Interpol suffers from a “complete absence of safeguards.”

But Russia is the “chief offender in this regard,” he added, noting that over the last decade, Moscow has issued more Red Notices alerts than any other country. “Other countries have abused the system. With Russia it is on a systemic scale.” 

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