- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 21, 2018

A furious, last-minute lobbying campaign by the Trump administration and Western nations paid off Wednesday as the international criminal watchdog Interpol rejected a Russian front-runner said to be close to President Vladimir Putin as the group’s next leader.

The 194 states of the world’s largest international policing organization, meeting Wednesday at their annual congress in Dubai, selected veteran South Korean police official Kim Jong-yang. Mr. Kim, who had been serving as the group’s interim chief since September, won out over Russian candidate Alexander Prokopchuk.

The politically charged vote came amid fears that authoritarian leaders like Mr. Putin would attempting to use Interpol as a way to intimidate and silence political critics around the world.

While Russian officials quietly fumed, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who had lobbied publicly for Mr. Kim, praised Wednesday’s vote.

“The United States congratulates Kim Jong-yang on his election as [Interpol‘s] new president,” Mr. Pompeo said in a statement. “He is the right man to lead one of the world’s most critical law enforcement bodies in its mission to preserve the rule of law and make the world a safer place.”

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, New Hampshire Democrat and a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said that a win for Mr. Prokopchuk, a Russian general who worked for many years in Russia’s interior ministry, “would have allowed Vladimir Putin to weaponize Interpol against his critics and political opponents even more, and would have made a mockery of this international law enforcement body.”

Mr. Kim, according to reports, won by a vote of 101 to 61 to serve as president for the remainder of the current mandate, until 2020. Interpol confirmed the South Korean’s victory, without revealing the breakdown of the results from the secret ballot.

“Our world is now facing unprecedented changes which present huge challenges to public security and safety,” the former South Korean chief of police said in a statement. “To overcome them, we need a clear vision. We need to build a bridge to the future.”

Major controversy over Interpol’s independence broke out after Mr. Prokopchuk emerged as the front-runner for the post.

Russian human rights groups and officials from other countries spent the past week arguing that the former major-general from Russia’s Interior Ministry — who previously served as Interpol’s Moscow bureau chief — could potentially use the position to target political opponents of the Kremlin.

From Dubai, Interpol’s leadership downplayed the drama. Day-to-day management of the organization will remain in the hands of Secretary-General Juergen Stock.

“No matter what the nationality of the president is, it is not affecting Interpol’s neutrality and the independence of our organization,” Mr. Stock said after the vote.

But Interpol watchers said the organization barely avoided a public relations disaster in heading off the Russian’s candidacy.

Interpol has for too long traded on its James Bond image, the global good guys fighting crime,” Jago Russell, chief of Fair Trials International, which has lobbied for reforms of Interpol processes, told The Associated Press. “That reputation needs to be underpinned with meaningful rules to prevent abuse. … I hope that this vote further focuses the mind on the need to do that.”

Russian reaction

Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov took the high road, telling reporters in Moscow on Wednesday that the Kremlin “regrets” the result but that Moscow “has no reason to dispute the results.”

He added the Russian government was sad to see that the election was held in what he described as “an environment of unprecedented pressure.”

The reaction was sharper on state-backed Russian media.

National state TV channel Rossiya 1 charged that a malicious “Russophobic lobby” had waged an “information war” against Mr. Prokopchuk.

The storied, 95-year-old international law enforcement agency has been mired in controversy since September when its last president, Meng Hongwei, vanished while on a visit home to China. Chinese officials have since confirmed that Mr. Meng has been detained and is under investigation for allegedly accepting bribes.

Activists have argued that Interpol needs significant reform. Just before the leadership vote, fears escalated in Western capitals that it could become a tool for Russia and other repressive governments to persecute dissidents.

On Tuesday in London, two leading Kremlin critics — Bill Browder, head of an investment fund that had once operated in Moscow, and oligarch-turned-dissident Mikhail Khodorkovsky — accused Mr. Putin of using Interpol to hunt down critics like them.

“To put [Mr. Putin‘s] representative in charge of the most important international crime-fighting organization is like putting the mafia in charge,” Mr. Browder told reporters.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in congratulated Mr. Kim on becoming the first South Korean to head the organization. The former South Korean police officer once served as head of police in Gyeonggi, the country’s most populous province, according to the BBC.

Although a largely ceremonial role, as Interpol president Mr. Kim will play a significant role in the organization’s primary activity, the circulation of global law enforcement tips and data.

Countries that have felt the brunt of Russian pressure were among the fiercest critics of Mr. Prokopchuk’s candidacy. Both Lithuania and Ukraine threatened to quit the organization if the Russian was elected.

Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics sent congratulations and voiced confidence that Interpol “will continue to uphold rule of law as one of its fundamental values.”

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