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Interpol, the International Criminal Police Organization, elected South Korean Kim Jong-yang as its new president, in an unexpected result where Russian Alexander Prokopchuk was hotly tipped to take the post.
The 194-member policing body — which shares intelligence across countries, issues international arrest warrants and conducts searches for missing persons — made the decision during its annual conference in Dubai on Wednesday.
The lead-up to the vote saw Prokopchuk, one of the agency's four vice presidents and a former major general in Russia's interior ministry, tipped to win.
However, his candidacy spurred widespread condemnation from human rights groups and several countries, who pointed to his track record of issuing "red notices" — or Interpol arrest warrants — for opponents of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Critics say he abused the system by taking advantage of his role to promote the Kremlin's agenda, which is known for targeting dissidents, activists and members of the press. Moscow has rejected claims of abuse.
A number of Western politicians had expressed their opposition to Prokopchuk's election, including a group of U.S. senators, which the Kremlin's spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said on Tuesday amounted to "election meddling."
"This is probably a certain kind of interference in the electoral process of an international organization," Peskov told reporters during a conference call.
While the role of Interpol chief is largely ceremonial, the post still carries weight and Prokopchuk's election would have been considered a powerful win for Russia.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had on Tuesday expressed Washington's support for Kim. U.K. lawmakers similarly backed the South Korean, while Lithuania, an EU and NATO member which gained independence from Russia in 1990, threatened to abandon Interpol if Prokopchuk became the agency's head.
The news comes after the resignation of former Interpol president Meng Hongwei, a Chinese national. Hongwei went missing in September after traveling to China, where Chinese authorities now say he is being detained over allegations of bribe-taking.
Kim, who was previously serving as acting president in Meng's absence, will serve a two-year term.
Kremlin critics were sounding the alarm ahead of the vote, recounting what they believed were Russian abuses of the arrest warrant system in previous years. Hermitage Capital Management founder Bill Browder, a U.S. born financier and rights activist who was once Russia's largest foreign investor, has personal experience.
Browder has been hit with seven Russian-issued Interpol red notices while traveling, each time being detained only to be released again shortly thereafter as the warrants were dismissed for being — according to Interpol itself — "of a predominantly political nature." Browder spearheaded the Global Magnitsky Act, which enables sanctions on officials involved in corruption and human rights abuses.
The act is named after Browder's former lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who uncovered wide-ranging fraud and corruption by Russian government officials and was consequently killed in a Russian prison, with forensic evidence showing signs of battery. The Kremlin has rejected the accusations, claiming that Browder himself ordered his lawyer's death, which the investor and Western officials have dismissed as ludicrous.
The Russian government has repeatedly called for Browder's arrest, issuing the warrants since the Magnitsky Act's passage in 2012, which has successfully placed sanctions on a number of Russian officials close to Putin whom Browder blames for his lawyer's death. During the July Helsinki summit between President Donald Trump and Putin, the Russian leader explicitly called for Browder's expatriation back to Russia to be tried.
"If a Russian is president of this organization, the Russian will be acting on the instructions of Vladimir Putin," Browder had said before the vote. Speaking to CNBC by phone after the decision was made Wednesday, he said, "If Putin had gotten his man at the head of Interpol we would have been living in a very dark world. This is a very good outcome."
The next step, he added, would be to "suspend Russia from using the Interpol system because of their consistent abuse for political purposes." Browder is beginning an initiative with his legal team to use Interpol's own rules against abuse to suspend Russia.
Moscow has consistently rejected the claims as well as the allegations outlined in the Magnitsky Act sanctions, calling them baseless and a result of "anti-Russian hysteria." Russia's interior ministry defended Prokopchuk, saying ahead of the vote, "We see a campaign aimed at discrediting the Russian candidate," lamenting what it believed was "unacceptable politicization" of the organization.