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Pressure on Interpol grows as the agency considers making a Russian its chief

Alexander Prokopchuk, a major general in the Russian Interior Ministry, is currently one of Interpol’s vice presidents. (Handout/Reuters)

Several countries have expressed concern that Interpol might elect a Russian as its new chief despite criticism that Moscow has used the international police agency to punish political opponents.

Police chiefs meeting in Dubai are expected to vote Wednesday on a successor to Meng Hongwei, who went missing in China in September. Chinese officials, who admitted detaining him, later said Meng resigned after being charged with accepting bribes.

The United States “strongly endorses” the South Korean candidate to replace Meng, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Tuesday. But the leading candidate for the job is Alexander Prokopchuk, a major general in the Russian Interior Ministry who is one of Interpol’s vice presidents.

The possibility of a Russian ascending to the presidency of Interpol has set off alarm bells in capitals including Washington and London. The agency is a clearinghouse for national police services pursuing suspects outside their borders.

In the past, Russia and other countries have been accused of abusing “red notice” alerts on perceived political enemies, leading to their being stopped at airports and detained.

The best known example is Bill Browder, a U.S.-born British financier and Kremlin critic. Browder lobbied Congress to pass the Magnitsky Act, named after Browder’s Russian lawyer and friend Sergei Magnitsky, who accused the Russian government of tax fraud and died in prison in 2009. Browder has vowed to avenge Magnitsky’s death. Since then, he has been detained at least seven times in numerous countries while Interpol sought to verify arrest warrants issued by Russia.

Only this week, Russian authorities launched a new criminal investigation into Browder, accusing him of being involved in Magnitsky’s death.

Browder: The world can’t let Russia run Interpol. My experiences show why.

Prokopchuk is well known within Interpol and considered a professional. He is believed to have the support of numerous countries that are not usually allies of Russia. The South Korean candidate, Kim Jong-yang, is the acting president now, but he is not as well known as Prokopchuk.

The State Department in recent days has sent démarches to embassies and consulates, according to people with knowledge of the diplomatic notes used to persuade and inform foreign governments.

“Without getting into details, we would note that there is more than one candidate for this position, and we are actively and broadly engaged with Interpol member states to underscore the need to elect someone who will promote, not undermine, the values and practices that make Interpol such a vital international body,” said an official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to be more frank about the behind-the-scenes lobbying effort.

Four U.S. senators issued a statement Monday likening Prokopchuk’s selection to “putting a fox in charge of a henhouse” and urging police chiefs from the 192 member nations to reject him.

“Russia routinely abuses Interpol for the purpose of settling scores and harassing political opponents, dissidents and journalists,” said the statement, which was signed by senators Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.). “Alexander Prokopchuk has been personally involved in this intimidation strategy which ultimately seeks to weaken democratic institutions and empower Putin’s authoritarian regime.”

Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, issued a statement calling the senators’ letter an example of “interference in the electoral process” at Interpol. The phrasing appeared to be a slap at U.S. officials and lawmakers who believe Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election.

As the vote for the new chief neared, opposition around the world was growing.

The Lithuanian Parliament adopted a resolution proposing the country should consider withdrawing from Interpol if Prokopchuk wins. Britain also has endorsed the South Korean candidate, expressing concerns not about Prokopchuk but about the government he works for.

“To honor Magnitsky, don’t let a Russian MVD official become head of Interpol,” tweeted Michael McFaul, a former U.S. ambassador to Moscow who was repeatedly stalked and harassed during his tenure.

“This is not good, for Interpol or the world,” he added.

Browder tweeted that “Putin is about to gain control of the world’s main law enforcement organization” and said that the agency would become “an arm of the Russian mafia.”

“I cannot imagine a more inappropriate person than a person who has been the architect of the abuse doled out to me by Russia at Interpol,” Browder said at a news conference in London. “There is probably no more inappropriate person than this person, and there is no more inappropriate country to have any type of leadership position at Interpol than Russia.”