Interpol elections raise rights concerns about fair police action
Paris – Human rights groups and Western lawmakers have warned that Interpol’s powerful network of global police officers could end up under the control of authoritarian governments, as the global police agency meets in Istanbul this week to elect a new leadership.
Representatives of countries such as China and the United Arab Emirates are vying for top positions in the France-based police force when its general assembly convenes in Turkey on Tuesday.
Interpol says it refuses to be used for political purposes. Critics claim that if these candidates win, instead of hunting down drug smugglers, human traffickers, suspected war crimes and alleged extremists, their countries will use Interpol’s global reach to arrest exiled opponents and even political opponents at home.
Two candidates faced particular criticism: Major General Ahmed Nasser Al Raisi, the inspector general of the UAE Ministry of Interior, who is seeking to be elected President of Interpol for a four-year term; Hu Binxin, an official with China’s Ministry of Public Security, expected a vacancy on the Interpol Executive Committee.
Thursday’s vote is expected. The INTERPOL President and Executive Committee set policy and direction. They also supervise the General Secretary of the Authority, who handles the day-to-day operations and is its public face. This position was filled by German official Jürgen Stock.
The president is accused of torture and has criminal complaints against him in five countries, including in France, where Interpol is based, and in Turkey, where elections are being held.
Hu Jintao is backed by the Chinese government, which is suspected of using the global police agency to track down exiled dissidents and hide its own citizens.
Hiring Ho could be risky—including, perhaps, for himself. Meng Hongwei of China was elected president of Interpol in 2016, but disappeared on a return trip to China two years later. He is now serving a 13-and-a-half-year prison sentence for corruption, accusations that his wife Grace Minge, who now lives in France with her children under police protection, insisted in an interview with the Associated Press were fabricated and politically motivated.
Al Raisi, who is already a member of Interpol’s executive committee, emphasized in a LinkedIn post on Saturday that the UAE prioritizes “protecting human rights at home and abroad.”
But a recent report by the MENA Rights Group describes routine violations of rights perpetrated by the UAE security system, in which lawyers, journalists and activists have been subjected to enforced disappearance, torture, arbitrary detention and intimidation for their peaceful claim to basic rights and freedoms.
Matthew Hedges, a British doctoral student who was imprisoned in the United Arab Emirates for nearly seven months in 2018 on spying charges, had apparent difficulty at a press conference in Paris where he described torture and months of solitary confinement without being allowed to contact a lawyer.
“I was given a combination of drugs…to alter my mental state,” Hedges said. I still rely on most of this medication now. I could hear screaming coming from other rooms, and there was evidence on the floor of my body being tortured and beaten.”
UAE President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan has pardoned Hedges, but Emirati officials still insist that Hedges was spying for MI6, without providing conclusive evidence to support their allegations. He, his family and British diplomats have repeatedly denied the accusations.
“There is no way a country’s police force, willing to do that to foreign nationals, let alone their own strength, would be given the honor of holding one of INTERPOL’s highest positions,” Hedges said.
“Electing the principal, the man responsible for what was happening to me, would be a slap in the face to justice and an embarrassment to other police forces who believe in upholding the rule of law.”
He and fellow Briton Ali Issa Ahmed, a football fan who says he was tortured by Emirati security forces during the 2019 AFC Asian Cup, have filed a lawsuit against Al Raisi and other Emirati security officials in the UK, as well as filing criminal complaints in Norway, Sweden and France. .
If French prosecutors decide to pursue the case, the principal can be arrested and questioned about alleged crimes committed in another country if he enters France or French territory.
Ahmed said he was attacked by Emirati security agents in civilian clothes at a match between Iraq and Qatar in Abu Dhabi. He was wearing a cheerleader shirt with the Qatari flag at a time of bitter diplomatic spat between Qatar and other Gulf states.
He said agents attacked him at the beach, threw him into a car, handcuffed him and put a plastic bag over his head. Using pocket knives, he said, they carved the outline of the Qatari flag on his chest as they cut the emblem off his shirt. Ahmed was imprisoned for two weeks and only released after pleading guilty to the charge of “wasting police time”. Police say he was actually injured when he presented himself to a police station in Sharjah.
Another torture complaint under the principle of universal jurisdiction is pending in France against Al Raisi, filed in June over the alleged torture of prominent Emirati human rights defender and blogger Ahmed Mansoor, who is currently serving a 10-year prison sentence for insulting “the situation”. And the prestige of the Emirates “and its leaders on social networking sites.
A major concern for opponents is the potential for misuse of an INTERPOL Red Notice – the equivalent of putting someone on a global “wanted” list, meaning a suspect can be arrested anywhere he or she travels.
Interpol insists that a country’s request to issue a Red Notice is checked for compliance with its constitution, “under which the organization is strictly prohibited from undertaking any interference or activities of a political, military, religious or ethnic nature”. But critics say member governments have used Interpol in the past for political purposes, and that this could get worse under the new leadership.
The chief ran an impressive campaign for the presidency, traveled the world to meet with lawmakers and government officials, and earned UK and US academic degrees and years of policing experience.
In an opinion piece for the government-run newspaper in Abu Dhabi, Al Raisi said he wanted to “modernize and transform” Interpol, capitalizing on “the UAE’s role as a leader in technology-enabled policing and bridge-building in the international community.”
The UAE, and in particular the skyscraper-studded city of Dubai, has long been identified as a major money-laundering hub for both criminals and rogue states. But in recent months, the UAE police announced a series of arrests targeting suspected international drug dealers and gangsters living there. Residents also noted lower levels of street crime and reported harassment, likely as a result of all residency visas being linked to employment.
A prominent French human rights lawyer, William Bourdon, said that Emirati officials cannot hide behind a facade of modernity and progress.
“Behind the beaches and palm trees, there are people, and they are screaming because they are being tortured,” he said.
John Lister contributed to this story from Lyon, France.
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