Interpol elects top Chinese police official, worrying human rights groups

Meng Hongwei was named president Thursday of the 190-member international criminal police organization. His election may bolster Chinese President Xi Jinping's anti-corruption campaign, which has come under criticism abroad.

Du Yu/Xinhua/AP
In this photo released by Xinhua News Agency, China's Vice Minister of Public Security Meng Hongwei delivers a campaign speech at the 85th session of the general assembly of the International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol), in Bali, Indonesia, Thursday. The top Chinese police official was elected president of Interpol on Thursday, setting off alarm bells among rights advocates over the legitimization of abuses and lack of transparency within China's legal system.

Human rights groups voiced reservations Thursday at the news that the international criminal police organization Interpol, based in France, had elected its first Chinese official as president.

Advocates worry that placing Meng Hongwei, China's vice public security minister, at the head of Interpol could bolster Chinese President Xi Jinping's anti-corruption campaign – an initiative that has raised questions about the objectivity and accountability of China's justice system, but is popular with Chinese citizens. 

Maya Wang, a researcher who works for Human Rights Watch from Hong Kong, said Mr. Meng's election raises an "alarming prospect."

"While we think it's important to fight corruption, the campaign has been politicized and undermines judicial independence," Ms. Wang told The Associated Press, adding that Meng's election "will probably embolden and encourage abuses in the system."

As evidence, she cited reports that Russia recently attacked political opponents of President Vladimir Putin via Interpol.

Similarly, China has already been using Interpol as a political tool, some critics say. Therefore, placing a Chinese official in the organization's top post could prove problematic, according to Nicholas Bequelin, the regional director for East Asia at Amnesty International.

"This is extraordinarily worrying given China's longstanding practice of trying to use Interpol to arrest dissidents and refugees abroad," Mr. Bequelin tweeted Thursday.

Interpol, which has 190 member countries worldwide, can issue "red notices," which are the nearest thing to an international arrest warrant currently in existence. In 2014, China issued red notices for its 100 most-wanted corruption suspects who had fled the country, at least one-third of whom have been returned to China.

Meng's election comes as Beijing has sought more international support for its corruption crackdown, but Western countries have been reluctant for fear they might send defendants back to face mistreatment in a flawed justice system – especially in cases when China has remained unwilling to provide evidence of the alleged crimes.

Critics have argued, furthermore, that President Xi's anti-corruption initiatives has been as political as anything else. That's an allegation the government denies.

Since its launch in 2013, the Chinese government's aggressive effort to root out corruption has involved more than 1 million party officials, as The Christian Science Monitor's Michael Holtz reported from Beijing last month:

Xi has wielded the anticorruption banner, many critics have argued, to push aside political rivals and stifle internal party dissent. But his focus on cleaning up a party rife with abuse has also been portrayed as a life-and-death struggle for the survival of China’s Communist Party.

"Xi Jinping has set out over the last four years to restore what he thinks the party should be, a highly disciplined party with certain ideals and convictions," says Joseph Fewsmith, a professor at Boston University who specializes in elite Chinese politics. "He’s trying to make it into a party that will respond to Beijing’s dictates, especially to his own."

The Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, an internal watchdog group in the Communist Party, leads the government's anti-corruption efforts, further driving questions about transparency. Several high-profile suspects have been associated with former President Hu Jintao and other Xi rivals, but authorities deny allegations that their actions are politically motivated. 

For its part, China contends that a three-decade economic boom has spawned white-collar crimes that must be prosecuted, and Meng said in a release issued by Interpol that he intends to lead fairly during the most serious public security challenges since World War II.

"Interpol, guided by the best set of principles and mechanisms to date, has made a significant contribution to promoting international police cooperation," Meng was quoted as saying. "Interpol should continue to adhere to these principles and strategies, while further innovating our work mechanisms in order to adapt to the changing security situation we see today."

Material from The Associated Press and Reuters was used in this report.

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