Interpol named South Korea's Kim Jong-yang as its new president on Wednesday, in a blow to Russia which denounced ‘unprecedented pressure’ against its own candidate to lead the global policing body.
There had been growing Western calls for Interpol to reject Alexander Prokopchuk -- a Russian interior ministry official and current Interpol vice president -- over fears Moscow could abuse the role to target political opponents.
US-backed Kim, Interpol's acting president, was picked at a meeting of delegates from member nations in Dubai to replace Meng Hongwei, who went missing in his native China in September.
Beijing later said Meng resigned after being charged with accepting bribes.
The Kremlin expressed dismay that Prokopchuk, who had been seen as the frontrunner, was beaten.
‘The election took place in the atmosphere of unprecedented pressure and interference in these elections,’ Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters.
The meeting was Interpol's largest to date with 180 member states present, its secretary general Jurgen Stock said.
Describing the agency as ‘neutral and independent’, he said a breakdown of the secret ballot would not be made public.
Kim's election was ‘democratic, transparent, free and clear,’ Stock said at a Dubai press conference.
- 'Unprecedented changes' -
On Tuesday, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo threw his weight behind Kim, who will serve out Meng's term until 2020.
‘We encourage all nations and organisations that are part of Interpol and that respect the rule of law to choose a leader with integrity. We believe Mr. Kim will be just that,’ Pompeo told reporters.
Critics have raised concerns over Russia's previous applications for Interpol ‘Red Notices’, or international arrest warrants, to target those who have fallen foul of the Kremlin.
British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt welcomed the vote's ‘excellent’ outcome.
‘Very important news for rule of law internationally and encouraging that in a secret ballot this was so widely recognised,’ he wrote on Twitter.
Interpol's president chairs its General Assembly while day-to-day operations are handled by Stock.
In remarks posted on Interpol's official Twitter account, Kim said after his election: ‘Our world is now facing unprecedented changes which present huge challenges to public security and safety.
‘To overcome them, we need a clear vision: we need to build a bridge to the future.’
- 'Political persecution' -
In an open letter this week, a bipartisan group of US senators said 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.
Russian spokesman Peskov dismissed the US senators' letter as a ‘vivid example’ of an attempt to interfere in the vote.
Anti-Kremlin figures had also raised concerns, 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 comes amid security concerns over accusations of Russian agents attempting to poison an ex-spy in Britain and trying 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. Lithuania also said it would consider withdrawing from the network.
The Ukrainian foreign ministry welcomed Kim's selection, saying it had campaigned not to allow Moscow to use Interpol to help Russian special services on foreign soil.
‘This battle is won,’ Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov tweeted.
Two foes of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who have been targeted by international arrest warrants sought by Moscow, said Tuesday they were launching a bid to get Russia suspended from Interpol for abusing the agency.
The legal challenge was announced by financier Bill Browder, named in multiple Interpol warrants, and Mikhail Khodorkovsky -- a former oil baron who spent 10 years in a Russian jail and now lives in exile in London.
‘The Interpol constitution has very specific rules which forbid countries who are serial abusers from using the system,’ Browder told reporters.
Briefly arrested in Spain this year under a Moscow-issued Red Notice, Browder said the Russian candidacy was an attempt by Putin to ‘expand his criminal tentacles to every corner of the globe’.