A growing chorus of critics is calling on Interpol to reject a Russian candidate to lead the organisation, over fears Moscow could abuse the role to target political opponents.
The Kremlin has denounced what is says is ‘interference’ in the vote, set for Wednesday at the close of Interpol's annual conference in Dubai, to replace the former president who was detained in China on charges of accepting bribes.
Concerns have been raised over Russia's previous applications for Interpol ‘Red Notices’, or international arrest warrants, for those who have fallen foul of the Kremlin.
Russian interior ministry official and current Interpol vice president Alexander Prokopchuk appears to be the favourite for the position.
In an open letter this week, a bipartisan group of US senators said that choosing Prokopchuk would be like ‘putting a fox in charge of a henhouse’.
‘Russia routinely abuses Interpol for the purpose of settling scores and harassing political opponents, dissidents and journalists,’ they wrote.
The senators said Prokopchuk has been ‘personally involved’ in this strategy since being elected to Interpol's executive committee.
Delegates from Interpol member countries will elect a new president to replace Meng Hongwei, who went missing in his native China in September.
Beijing later informed Interpol that Meng had resigned after being charged with accepting bribes.
The other candidate running is South Korea's Kim Jong-Yang, the acting president, and whoever is elected will serve out Meng's term until 2020.
British foreign office minister Harriet Baldwin on Tuesday told parliament that London would support the South Korean's bid.
‘We always seek to endorse candidates who have a history of observing standards of international behaviour,’ she said.
- 'Political persecution' -
Anti-Kremlin figures have raised concerns ahead of the vote, including Alexei Navalny, the Russian opposition leader who has been repeatedly jailed by authorities.
‘Our team has suffered from abuse of Interpol for political persecution by Russia,’ Navalny wrote on Twitter. ‘I don't think that a president from Russia will help to reduce such violations.’
The controversy also comes amid security concerns over accusations of Russian agents carrying out a spy poisoning in Britain and attempting to hack the network of the global chemical weapons watchdog.
Ukraine, deeply at odds with Moscow over its annexation of Crimea and support for separatists, threatened to pull out of Interpol if Prokopchuk prevailed. The Baltic state of Lithuania said it would consider withdrawing from the network.
Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov dismissed the US senators' letter as a ‘vivid example’ of an attempt to interfere in the vote.
Meanwhile Moscow's interior ministry denounced a ‘foreign media campaign aimed at discrediting Russia's candidate’.
‘We consider the politicisation of Interpol... unacceptable,’ spokeswoman Irina Volk said.
Analysts point out the position of president is largely honourary, with much greater influence in the hands of the secretary general, currently Germany's Jurgen Stock.
- Putin's 'tentacles' -
But Bill Browder, a British financier who was briefly arrested in Spain this year under a Moscow-issued Red Notice, insisted this was an attempt by Putin to ‘expand his criminal tentacles to every corner of the globe’.
Browder fought for -- and in 2012 secured -- US sanctions against Russian officials believed to be involved in the death of his tax consultant, Sergei Magnitsky.
Magnitsky died in jail in 2009 after accusing Russian officials of a $230 million tax fraud.
Russia has rejected the claims and this week announced it was opening a new probe into Browder on suspicion of running a ‘transnational criminal gang’, even suggesting he was behind Magnitsky's death.
Russian prosecutors said he would be put on an international wanted list ‘in the near future’.
Multilingual Prokopchuk worked in tax enforcement before starting as a Russian representative at Interpol in 2006, according to the interior ministry.
A decade later he was elected to a vice president position in the organisation.
Russia has already made its mark even if Moscow's candidate does not lead the organisation, security expert Andrei Soldatov told AFP.
‘Even if people are not extradited to Russia, they face problems,’ he said, pointing to detention at borders and the reputational damage of being issued with an Interpol notice.
‘Interpol is a system that Russia has learned to use well for its own purposes.’
The Interpol general assembly on Tuesday voted for the third time to reject Kosovo's bid for membership. Russia has long blocked Kosovo's attempts to join the United Nations.
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