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Chinese public security official named head of Interpol, raising concerns among human rights advocates

The international police organization, Interpol, elected a Chinese security official as its president Thursday, raising concerns among human rights advocates that the appointment could fortify Beijing’s efforts to hunt down political opponents abroad. 

The organization’s general assembly elected Meng Hongwei, China’s vice minister for public security for the past 12 years, to the post effective immediately during a meeting in Bali, Indonesia. 

“We currently face some of the most serious global public security challenges since World War  II,” Meng said at the meeting.

Interpol, an intergovernmental organization that facilitates police cooperation, also appointed a Russian police official, Alexander Prokopchuk, as its vice president for Europe.

Although Interpol does not have the power to dispatch officers to countries to arrest or issue arrest warrants for  individuals, it may issue a “red notice,” alerting governments about wanted people. In 2014, China gave Interpol a list of 100 suspected financial fugitives, a third of whom have since been repatriated. Beijing called the effort “Sky Net.”

Meng’s appointment “is extraordinarily worrying given China's longstanding practice of trying to use Interpol to arrest dissidents and refugees abroad,” Nicholas Bequelin, regional director for East Asia, Amnesty International, wrote on Twitter.

Interpol’s constitution prohibits it from taking any action of a “political character.”

Since 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping has overseen far-reaching crackdowns on perceived threats to the Communist Party’s grip on power, including corruption and dissent. More than 1 million officials have been punished, and scores of dissidents, human rights lawyers and journalists have been threatened or detained. 

Critics have accused Xi of using his anti-corruption campaign to eliminate or cow political opponents. Most cases unfold in secrecy. 

In 2015, China’s top corruption watchdog, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, announced that its Operation Fox Hunt, a broader repatriation effort for Chinese criminal suspects abroad, had netted 738 fugitives. 

The watchdog said that 41% of those suspects were “persuaded to return,” without elaborating. 

Although Beijing has said that it strives to obey foreign laws, Chinese security agents have been accused of acting with little regard for international protocol.

In late 2015, Chinese authorities detained five Hong Kong booksellers who specialized in publishing political tomes about top Communist Party leaders. One vanished from his apartment in Thailand and another from Hong Kong. They both later resurfaced on the mainland in police custody, leading human rights groups and Hong Kong politicians to accuse Beijing of conducting extralegal cross-border abductions.

Western countries, dismayed by Beijing’s record of political persecution and torture, have been reluctant to cooperate with the country’s extradition requests. China does not have extradition treaties with the U.S., Canada or Australia, favored destinations for Chinese corruption suspects who flee abroad.

Meng has shown fierce Communist Party loyalty in past speeches. 

“‘Politics first, party first, and ideology first’ is a fundamental principle for peacekeeping forces,” Meng said at a training program for China’s overseas “peacekeeping forces” in 2014. “We should consistently implement the three 'first' principles in our work … to build a strong team with a solid political stance.”

Meng has also sought experience with overseas police. In September, the Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily reported that he attended a European police leaders’ summit; he met with New York Police Department delegates in March. 

The department “has great experience in maintaining the social order in big cities, fighting terrorism and violence, tackling emergencies, and hunting fugitives, which is what China’s big cities’ police should learn from,“ he said, according to the Ministry of Public Security’s website. 

China will host Interpol’s next General Assembly in 2017, according to China’s State Council Information Office. 

jonathan.kaiman@latimes.com

For more news from Asia, follow @JRKaiman on Twitter

Nicole Liu and Yingzhi Yang in The Times’ Beijing bureau contributed to this report.

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