PARIS (AP) — Human rights groups and Western lawmakers are warning that Interpol’s powerful network of global police officers could end up under the sway of authoritarian governments, as the world police agency meets in Istanbul this week to elect new leadership.
Representatives of countries like China and the United Arab Emirates are bidding for top posts in the France-based policing body when its general assembly convenes in Turkey on Tuesday.
Interpol says it refuses to be used for political ends. Critics contend that if these candidates win, instead of hunting down drug smugglers, human traffickers, war crimes suspects and alleged extremists, their countries would use Interpol’s global reach to apprehend exiled dissidents and even political opponents at home.
Two candidates have drawn special criticism: Maj. Gen. Ahmed Naser al-Raisi, inspector general at the UAE's interior ministry, who is seeking to be elected Interpol’s president for a four-year term; and Hu Binchen, an official at China’s ministry of public security, expected to be up for a vacant spot on Interpol’s executive committee.
A vote is expected Thursday. Interpol’s president and executive committee set policy and direction. They also supervise the body’s secretary-general who handles the day-to-day operations and is its public face. That post is filled by German official Juergen Stock.
Al-Raisi is accused of torture and has criminal complaints against him in five countries, including in France, where Interpol has its headquarters, and in Turkey, where the election is taking place.
And Hu is backed by China’s government, which is suspected to have used the global police agency to hunt down exiled dissidents and of disappearing its citizens.
Appointing Hu could be fraught with peril — including, possibly, for himself. Meng Hongwei of China was elected Interpol president in 2016, only to vanish on a return trip to China two years later. He is now serving a 13½-year jail sentence for corruption, charges that his wife Grace Meng, now living in France with her children under police protection, insisted in an interview with The Associated Press were trumped up and politically motivated.
Al-Raisi, already a member of Interpol’s executive committee, contended in a LinkedIn post Saturday that the UAE prioritizes “the protection of human rights at home and abroad.”
But a recent report by the MENA Rights Group describes routine rights violations by the UAE security system, in which lawyers, journalists and activists have been forcibly disappeared, tortured, arbitrarily detained, and intimidated for peacefully asking for basic rights and freedoms.
Matthew Hedges, a British doctoral student who was imprisoned in the UAE for nearly seven months in 2018 on spying charges, visibly struggled at a news conference in Paris as he described torture and months of being held in solitary confinement with no access to a lawyer.
“I was given a cocktail of medication ... to alter my mental state,” Hedges said. “I am still dependent on most of this medication now. I would hear screams coming from other rooms, and there was evidence on the floor of torture, physical torture, beatings.”
Hedges was pardoned by UAE President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, but Emirati officials still insist Hedges was spying for Britain's MI6 intelligence agency, without offering definitive proof to support their claims. He, his family and British diplomats have repeatedly denied the charges.
“There is no way that a country’s police force that is willing to do this to foreign citizens, let alone their own, should be given the honor of holding one of the highest positions at Interpol,” Hedges said.
“Electing al-Raisi, the man responsible for what was happening to me, would be a slap in the face of justice and an embarrassment to other police forces who believe in upholding the rule of law.”
He and fellow Briton Ali Issa Ahmad, a soccer fan who says he was tortured by UAE security agents during the 2019 Asia Cup soccer tournament, have filed a lawsuit against al-Raisi and other Emirati security officials in the U.K. They also filed criminal complaints in Norway, Sweden and in France.
If French prosecutors decide to pursue the case, al-Raisi could be detained and questioned about alleged crimes committed in another country if he enters France or French territory.
Ahmad said he was attacked by plainclothes UAE security agents at a match between Iraq and Qatar in Abu Dhabi. He was wearing a fan T-Shirt with a Qatari flag at a time of bitter diplomatic dispute between Qatar and other Gulf countries.
He said the agents attacked him on the beach, threw him in a car, handcuffed him and put a plastic bag over his head. Using pocketknives, they carved the outlines of the Qatari flag on his chest as they cut out the emblem from his T-shirt, he said. Ahmad was jailed for two weeks and was released only after pleading guilty to the charge of “wasting police time.” Police say he already was hurt 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, currently serving a 10-year sentence for charges of insulting the “status and prestige of the UAE” and its leaders in social media posts.
A major concern for dissidents is potential abuse of the Interpol red notice — the equivalent of putting someone on a global “most-wanted” list, meaning a suspect could be arrested anywhere they travel.
Interpol insists that any country’s request for a red notice is verified for compliance with its constitution, “under which it is strictly forbidden for the organization to undertake any intervention or activities of a political, military, religious or racial character.” But critics say Interpol has been used in the past by its member governments for political ends, and that this could get worse under new leadership.
Al-Raisi has run a slick campaign for the presidential post, traveling the world to meet lawmakers and government officials and boasting academic degrees from the U.K. and the U.S. and years of experience of policing.
In a opinion piece for the government-run newspaper in Abu Dhabi, al-Raisi said he wants to “modernize and transform” Interpol, drawing on “the UAE’s role as a leader in tech-driven policing and a bridge builder in the international community.”
The UAE, particularly the skyscraper-studded city-state of Dubai, long have been identified as a major money-laundering hub for both criminals and rogue nations. But in recent months, the Emirati police have announced a series of busts targeting suspected international drug dealers and gangsters living there. Residents also note low reported levels of street crime and harassment, likely an effect of residency visas all being tied to employment.
Prominent French human rights lawyer William Bourdon said UAE officials can't hide behind a facade of modernity and progress.
“Behind the beaches and the palm trees,” he said, “there are people, and they are screaming because they are being tortured.”
John Leicester contributed to this story from Lyon, France.