A senior Russian security official was poised to assume the presidency of the world’s largest international police organization, setting off alarms that Russian President Vladimir Putin stood to gain a dangerous tool to hunt down his critics.
Interpol's general assembly meeting in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, was expected to select the frontrunner in the race, Alexander Prokopchuk, a 57-year-old Russian police major-general, despite accusations that Russia regularly manipulated Interpol's arrest warrants to retaliate against enemies. Two years ago, Prokopchuk became the first Russian elected to Interpol's executive committee, where he has been serving as one of three vice presidents, with primary responsibility for Europe.
Kiribati and Vanuatu were accepted as members by the general assembly, boosting Interpol — formally the International Criminal Police Organization, or ICPO — to a membership of 194 nations. But the meeting was overshadowed by a transatlantic campaign to prevent Prokopchuk from taking over Interpol. Ukraine threatened to withdraw its membership if he was given the reins.
"The possible presidency of Russia in Interpol is absurd and contrary to the spirit and goals of the organization," said Ukraine's Internal Affairs Minister Arsen Avakov. "If the arguments of Ukraine and a number of other countries are not heard, then Ukraine will consider suspending of its membership in the ICPO."
Four U.S. senators — Democrats Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire and Chris Coons of Delaware and Republicans Roger Wicker of Mississippi and Marco Rubio of Florida — jointly urged U.S. President Donald Trump's administration and Interpol’s general assembly to block the Russian's candidacy.
“Interpol electing Major General Alexander Prokopchuk as its new president is akin to putting a fox in charge of a henhouse,” the senators said in a statement.
“Russia routinely abuses Interpol for the purpose of settling scores and harassing political opponents, dissidents and journalists," they said. "Alexander Prokopchuk has been personally involved in this intimidation strategy which ultimately seeks to weaken democratic institutions and embolden Putin’s authoritarian regime."
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov denounced the senators' statement. "This is probably a certain kind of interference in the electoral process of an international organization," he told reporters on a conference call, The Moscow Times reported.
A day before the election, Peskov told reporters "of course we back the bid of the Russian candidate, and we undoubtedly want him to win the election," Russia's Tass state news agency reported.
The senators joined a succession of critics who have denounced Russia's longstanding practice of using Interpol to arrest and return its political enemies who fled abroad. Russia is but one of several authoritarian governments that critics said have been behind pressure on Interpol to approve international warrants, called red notices, that request police detention of missing or wanted people.
Human rights organizations such as Fair Trials International and Committee to Protect Journalists have protested the misuse of red notices as a tool of repressive governments to harass opposition politicians, journalists and activists. The red notices have even been used to seize and arrest refugees and political asylum seekers, despite the international rules protecting them.
Fair Trials CEO Jago Russell, whose organization describes such practices as flagrant human rights abuses, said that "it would not be appropriate for a country with a record of violations of Interpol’s rules" to gain a leadership role.
In a keynote address at Interpol's general assembly, U.S. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein touched on the controversy when he said the United States will continue to support only "legitimate investigations and prosecutions" that are conducted by America's Interpol partners.
"At the same time, we will expose schemes to manipulate the extradition process,"he said in his prepared remarks. "We will identify nations that routinely block the fair administration of justice and fail to act in good faith, with a sincere commitment to holding criminals accountable."
Chinese detention to Russian intervention
Almost two months ago, Interpol's president suddenly vanished. Meng Hongwei, a Chinese vice minister of public security who was elected president of Interpol from 2016 to 2020, was reported missing by his wife soon after he left their home in Lyon, France, where Interpol is based.
Days later, the disciplinary organ of China’s ruling Communist Party announced he was being detained and was under investigation on unspecified corruption charges. Soon afterward Interpol’s secretariat said it received Meng’s resignation “with immediate effect." The arrest in China amounted to a possible domestic political purge.
That left Kim Jong Yang of South Korea, a senior vice president overseeing Prokopchuk and the two other VPs, in charge. Kim had been serving as the acting president until the general assembly could meet to elect a new president to serve out the remaining two years of Meng’s term until 2o20.
Prokopchuk, who was born in Ukraine, graduated from Kyiv State University with a degree in Romance and Germanic languages and literature in 1983, and from the Russian State Tax Academy with a degree in law in 2000.
During the 1990s, he served as head of several regulatory and law enforcement agencies on personnel policy, tax and revenue. He was promoted to the rank of police major-general by presidential decree in 2003, when he began working in police agencies. He has led the Russian interior ministry's national central bureau of Interpol since 2011.
Kremlin foe speaks out
Leading Kremlin critic Bill Browder, an American-born British financier who formerly ran investment fund Hermitage Capital in Moscow, raised the alarm on the Interpol election as a danger to him and other activists.
Just a day earlier, Russian prosecutors had announced new criminal charges against Browder, accusing him of forming a criminal group to embezzle funds in Russia and alleging he could be behind the death of his former lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, who died in 2009 in a Russian prison.
After the 37-year-old Magnitsky said he had uncovered US$230 million in tax fraud by Russian officials, he was detained and found dead. A Russian presidential commission concluded he was beaten and denied medical care. Browder campaigned to bring the killers to justice.
The US Congress passed the Magnitsky Act in 2012, imposing travel and financial sanctions on top Russian officials. Russia convicted Browder in absentia on charges of tax evasion and illegally sending money overseas.
Together with ex-political prisoner Mikhail Khodorkovsky, founder of the Open Russia Movement, Browder told a London news conference that he could not imagine "a more inappropriate person" than Prokopchuk to serve as head of Interpol.
Prokopchuk has been "the architect of the abuse doled out to me by Russia at Interpol,” Browder told reporters. “This is a perfect way for Putin to basically breathe the fear of God into all of his enemies so they know they can’t even escape Russia if one of his guys is at the head of Interpol.”