In Putin’s era it’s crazy to let a Russian lead Interpol. We must prevent it

Mikhail Khodorkovsky
Interpol vice-president Alexander Prokopchuk (left), with the former president, Meng Hongwei, in 2017. Meng was detained while visiting China in September 2018. Photograph: Roslan Rahman/AFP/Getty Images

This week, the 192 member countries of Interpol are due to appoint a new president of the organisation. Remarkably, the favourite is Alexander Prokopchuk, a representative of Russia’s law enforcement agencies, which have a long track record of abusing the Interpol system.

Prokopchuk holds the rank of major general in the Russian police, and worked in the Russian bureau of Interpol for 10 years from 2006, first as deputy head and later as head. During this time, Russian abuses of the Interpol “red notice” system became epidemic as the Putin system clamped down on its enemies. Political activists, business people, human rights defenders and others found themselves at risk of detention abroad and potential extradition to Russia because the Russian authorities claimed that there were justifiable grounds to detain them in Russia. These practices continue to this day.

In a country such as Russia, the police do not fight organised crime. They cooperate with it

The Kremlin is not alone in instrumentalising international police cooperation to pursue its opponents across the world, but it is among the most active. Interpol’s constitution is supposed to prevent the use of its system for politically motivated persecution. However, its provisions have proved hard to enforce when the system relies on national police agencies to submit reliable data.

In the case of a country such as Russia, the vulnerabilities of the Interpol system are clear. The criminal group that is in power uses the law enforcement system to protect its leaders’ interests against those of the Russian people. As a result, the police do not fight organised crime. They cooperate with it. Criminal investigations are often a tool to extort money or steal assets. They have little do with solving crimes and pursuing justice.

For instance, the people who commissioned the murders of the journalist Anna Politkovskaya and the politician Boris Nemtsov have never been identified – not because it was impossible to find them but because the investigators were not allowed to interrogate the suspects. The use of polonium to murder Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006 and the deployment of a chemical weapon to poison Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury this year have not resulted in any criminal investigations in Russia.

Instead, Putin awarded a medal to the main suspect in the Litvinenko case and denied there was any evidence linking Russia to the attempted murder of the Skripals, despite the extensive evidence presented by the British police and the subsequent unmasking of the two suspects as representatives of Russian military intelligence.

The discovery of nearly 400kg of cocaine in a Russian Embassy building in Buenos Aires in February this year is a graphic indication of how organised crime has become associated with the Russian state. The drugs were due for transportation to Russia as diplomatic cargo.

Meanwhile, the Kremlin has continued to use the Interpol “red notice” system to target individuals who have received political asylum abroad, despite efforts by Interpol to stamp out this practice.

Interpol describes its mission as “connecting police for a safer world”. If democratic countries are genuinely committed to supporting the rule of law in Russia and the rest of the world, they must work together to block Prokopchuk’s appointment and find a suitable alternative. It would be highly inconsistent to maintain sanctions against the criminal group in the Kremlin and then entrust the management of Interpol to someone connected to them.

Appointing a member of Russia’s criminalised security apparatus to head Interpol will undermine its values and signal to governments across the world that the Russian state’s abuses of the law are acceptable. It will also delay much-needed reform of the organisation that is now under way.

To stand by and do nothing will strengthen the forces of evil that western rules-based systems have done so much to counter since 1945. International police cooperation already has a dark history: in 1942 the Nazis hijacked Interpol’s predecessor, the International Criminal Police Commission, and put Reinhard Heydrich, an architect of the Holocaust in charge. It would be a tragedy if a force for good were to surrender again to the interests of those criminals set on subverting it.

• Mikhail Khodorkovsky is the founder of the Open Russia movement, former Yukos CEO and Amnesty prisoner of conscience