Keep Putin ‘tentacles’ off Interpol, Kremlin foes warn
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Alexander Prokopchuk, a former major-general at Russia's Interior Ministry, has been tipped to take over Interpol, raising fears his appointment could further embolden the Kremlin to use the international policing agency to target critics abroad.
Delegates from Interpol’s 194-member countries will vote at an assembly general in Dubai on Wednesday to succeed its former president, Meng Hongwei, who disappeared in China last month. Chinese authorities have since said that Meng was detained on corruption charges, and Interpol has announced that it received his resignation with immediate effect.
With the vote swiftly approaching, two names have emerged as leading candidates to replace Meng: Kim Jong Yang of South Korea, Interpol’s acting president, and Prokupchuk, who currently holds the position of vice-president and is head of the agency’s bureau in Russia.
British government officials widely expect Prokupchuk to win the presidency, according to a report in The Times newspaper published last week. If appointed, it would signal a major victory for Russia, which has been criticised in the past for abusing Interpol’s “red notice” system.
“[The Kremlin] is rooting for the Russian candidate and we would like the Russian candidate to win this election,” Dmitry Peskov, a spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin, said on Monday.
Red notice abuse
Russia has been accused of seeking red notices – essentially an international arrest warrant – as a means of targeting Putin’s critics abroad. There is widespread fear that if Prokupchuk is elected, Interpol would fall under the Kremlin’s control, undermining the organisation’s integrity.
In a recent letter to Interpol demanding greater transparency in the process of selecting a new president, the Britain-based global criminal justice watchdog Fair Trial singled out the misuse of red notices.
“It would not be appropriate for a country with a record of violations of Interpol’s rules (for example by frequently seeking to use its systems to disseminate politically-motivated alerts) to be given a leadership role in a key oversight institution,” wrote Jago Russell, chief executive of Fair Trial.
Among those who have been targeted by Russian red notices is the US-born British financier Bill Browder, who ran a major investment firm in Moscow until he was barred from the country in the early 2000s.
Browder, the head of investment fund Hermitage Capital Management, has led a campaign to expose corruption and punish Russian officials believed to be involved in the death of his lawyer Sergei Magnitsky. The 37-year-old lawyer was beaten to death in a Moscow jail in 2009 after he accused Russian officials of a $230 million tax fraud.
In 2012, Browder persuaded the US Congress to adopt the so-called Magnitsky Act, which imposes travel and financial sanctions on several senior Russian officials, including prosecutors. Over the years, several other countries have adopted similar laws.
Browder’s actions outraged the Kremlin, which has sought a red notice for his arrest on multiple occasions. Although Interpol has systematically denied Russia’s request as politically motivated, Browder was briefly arrested during a visit to Spain in May.
Russian authorities renewed efforts to bring down Browder on Monday, announcing new criminal charges against him, including forming a criminal organisation with the intent of embezzling funds in Russia, as well as poisoning Magnitsky.
Browder, who has already been tried in absentia in Russia on two separate occasions for tax evasion and funneling money overseas, immediately questioned the timing of the new charges.
“On the eve of Interpol deciding whether a Russian official should be president of Interpol, the Russian prosecutor’s office holds a huge press conference about me and how they will chase me down anywhere in the world. I really struck a nerve with the Magnitsky Act” he tweeted on Monday.
Here’s the room where Putin will attempt his most audacious operation yet: to take over Interpol so he can expand his criminal tentacles to every corner of the globe https://t.co/kelWzNo70NBill Browder (@Billbrowder) November 18, 2018
In an earlier tweet, Browder posted a photograph of the Interpol general assembly, adding: “Here’s the room where Putin will attempt his most audacious operation yet: to take over Interpol so he can expand his criminal tentacles to every corner of the globe.” The British financier also published an op-ed in the Washington Post newspaper the same day entitled, “The world can’t let Russia run Interpol. My experiences show why.”
Browder is not the only Putin critic to warn against Prokupchuk’s bid to take over Interpol. Opposition leader Alexei Navalny also expressed concern over his candidacy, claiming that a number of his colleagues “have suffered abuse” at the hands of Interpol officials acting on Russian arrest warrants.
“I don’t think that a president from Russia will help to reduce such violations,” Navalny said on Twitter.
Former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, another prominent dissident, said Prokopchuk’s appointment “would not only damage the reputation of all Interpol member states, but would carry a grave threat to those who may be considered potential victims of political persecution."
Meanwhile, four US senators have jointly urged President Donald Trump to oppose Prokopchuk's candidacy and accused Russia of abusing Interpol to settle scores and silence critics.
The Kremlin said on Tuesday such opposition amounted to election meddling.
"This is probably a certain kind of interference in the electoral process of an international organisation," Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, told reporters.
Russia's Ministry of the Interior also issued a statement defending Prokopchuk.
"We see a campaign aimed at discrediting the Russian candidate," it said, complaining about what it called the unacceptable politicisation of Interpol.