BEIJING — A top Chinese police official was elected president of Interpol on Thursday, setting off alarm bells among rights advocates over abuses and a lack of transparency within China’s legal system, as well as the potential misuse of the police organization to attack Beijing’s political opponents.
Vice Public Security Minister Meng Hongwei is the first Chinese to hold the post.
The Lyon, France-based International Criminal Police Organization has 190 member nations and has the power to issue “red notices.” It is the closest instrument to an international arrest warrant in use today. Interpol circulates those notices to member countries listing people who are wanted for extradition.
While Interpol’s charter officially bars it from undertaking “any intervention or activities of a political, military, religious or racial character,” critics say some governments, primarily Russia and Iran, have abused the system to harass and detain opponents. Interpol says it has a special vetting process to prevent that from happening.
Interpol’s president is a largely symbolic but still influential figure who heads its executive committee. Jürgen Stock is the organization’s secretary general.
Meng, who takes over from Mireille Ballestrazzi of France for a four-year term, will assume his new duties immediately.
His election comes as Chinese President Xi Jinping is seeking to give new momentum to his four-year-old campaign against corruption, including a push to seek the return of former officials and other suspects who had fled abroad. China filed a list of 100 of its most-wanted suspects with Interpol in April 2014, about one-third of whom have since been repatriated to face justice at home.
China’s police and judicial systems have been routinely criticized for abuses, including confessions under torture, arbitrary travel bans and the disappearance and detention without charges of political dissidents and their family members. That has prompted reluctance among many Western nations to sign extradition treaties with China or return suspects wanted for nonviolent crimes.
China also stands accused of abducting independent book sellers who published tomes on sensitive political topics from Hong Kong and Thailand.
Given those circumstances, Meng’s election is an “alarming prospect,” said Maya Wang, a Hong Kong-based researcher with Human Rights Watch.
“While we think it’s important to fight corruption, the campaign has been politicized and undermines judicial independence,” Wang said. Meng’s election “will probably embolden and encourage abuses in the system,” she said.
Interpol member countries nominate officials for the post of president. Presidents are elected in a vote by members on a one-country, one-vote basis.