South Korean named Interpol president in blow to Russia
In this photo provided by South Korea National Police Agency, South Korea's Kim Jong Yang speaks during the 87th Interpol General Assembly in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Wednesday, Nov. 21, 2018. Kim was elected as Interpol's president on Wednesday, edging out a longtime veteran of Russia's security services who was strongly opposed by the U.S., Britain and other European nations. (South Korea National Police Agency via AP)
Aya Batrawy And Angela Charlton, The Associated Press
Published Wednesday, November 21, 2018 5:54AM EST
Last Updated Wednesday, November 21, 2018 9:59AM EST
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates -- Interpol elected a South Korean as the organization's president on Wednesday, edging out a veteran of Russia's security services who was strongly opposed by the United States, Britain and other European nations.
Kim Jong Yang's surprise election was seen as a victory for the White House and its European partners, who had lobbied up until the final hours before the vote against Alexander Prokopchuk's bid to be named the policing organization's next president.
The U.S. and others expressed concern that if Russia's candidate had been elected, that would have led to further Kremlin abuses of Interpol's red notice system to go after political opponents and fugitive dissidents.
Russia accused its critics of running a “campaign to discredit” its candidate, calling Prokopchuk a respected professional.
Groups campaigning to clean up Interpol celebrated the win, as did South Korea. South Korea's police and Foreign Ministry issued a joint statement saying Kim's election is a “national triumph” that could elevate the country's international standing.
Kim's win also means he secured at least two-thirds of votes cast at Interpol's general assembly in Dubai on Wednesday. Interpol does not release how member states voted or how many votes Kim received. He will serve until 2020, completing the four-year mandate of his predecessor, Meng Hongwei, who was detained in China as part of a wide anti-corruption sweep there.
Kim, a police official in South Korea, served as interim president after Meng's detention and was also senior vice-president at Interpol.
Russia's Interior Ministry said after the vote that Prokopchuk, one of three vice-presidents at Interpol, will remain in that position. Spokeswoman Irina Volk told the Interfax news agency that Prokopchuk will “focus on advancing the stature of Interpol in the international police community and making its work more effective.”
Most of Interpol's 194 member-countries attended the organization's annual assembly this year, held in an opulent Dubai hotel along the Persian Gulf coast.
Interpol had faced a pivotal moment in its history as delegates decided whether to hand its presidency to Prokopchuk or Kim, the only two candidates for the post.
Interpol Secretary General Jurgen Stock told reporters in Dubai later on Wednesday that a president's nationality does not affect the organization's neutrality.
“It is fundamental to Interpol's existence that we are neutral and that we are independent,” he said.
Based in the French city of Lyon, the 95-year-old policing body is best known for issuing “red notices” that identify suspects pursued by other countries, effectively putting them on the world's “most-wanted” list. Interpol's rules prohibit the use of police notices for political reasons.
In 2016, Interpol introduced new measures aimed at strengthening the legal framework around the red notice system, including bringing on an international team of lawyers and experts that first check a notice's compliance with Interpol rules and regulations before it goes out. Interpol also says it enhanced the work of an appeals body for those targeted with red notices.
However, countries can issue requests - known as “diffusions” - that flag a person wanted for arrest before Interpol issues a red notice, leading to what critics say is a major flaw and loophole in the system.
“We accept the fact that systems can be improved and recognize that a very small number of non-compliant red notices can seriously affect the lives of innocent citizens,” Stock said.
Stock said that red notices and diffusions have helped lead to the arrest of 10,000 serious criminals this year alone, nearly 200 of them suspected terrorists.
Critics say countries like Russia, Turkey, Egypt, Iran and China have used the system to try to round up political opponents, journalists or activists.
Interpol faced criticism two years ago when its member states approved Meng as president for a four-year term. Amnesty International has criticized “China's longstanding practice of trying to use Interpol to arrest dissidents and refugees abroad.”
Still, member countries can issue requests directly to other countries using Interpol's communication system, without going through the centralized Interpol vetting in place for red notices. Watchdog groups are urging Interpol to reform the diffusion system too.
Bill Browder, who runs an investment fund that had once operated in Moscow, says Russia used the diffusion system against him, which led to his brief arrest in Spain earlier this year.
Browder and another prominent Kremlin critic, oligarch-turned-dissident Mikhail Khodorkovsky, warned Tuesday that electing Prokopchuk- who has ties to President Vladimir Putin- would have undermined the international law enforcement agency and politicized police co-operation across borders. Prokopchuk was in charge of facilitating Interpol warrants on behalf of Russia.
Browder and Khodorkovsky - who are reviled by the Kremlin - celebrated the result of the Interpol vote. Browder told The Associated Press that “common sense has prevailed in a dark world. This is a real humiliation for Putin, who thought he'd get away with it.”
A lawyer who wrote a book on Interpol, Christopher David, hailed Kim's election as “a solid, uncontroversial choice.” He said in a statement that if Interpol is to be a credible crime-fighting resource, Kim must increase transparency “to demonstrate and maintain its political neutrality.”
A day before the Interpol vote, the White House had come out publicly against the election of Prokopchuk, with National Security Council spokesman Garrett Marquis saying “the Russian government abuses Interpol's processes to harass its political opponents.” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Washington was encouraging all nations and organizations that are part of Interpol to choose Kim.
Russia, however, secured a win for its ally Serbia on Tuesday when Kosovo's bid to join Interpol failed to garner enough votes at the general assembly in Dubai. The move would have boosted Kosovo's efforts at recognition of its statehood. Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008.
Charlton reported from Paris. Associated Press writers Nataliya Vasilyeva in Moscow and Danica Kirka in London contributed.