ALARM bells have been ringing amongst human rights activists after a top Chinese police officer was elected president of Interpol – the International Criminal Police Organisation.

Meng Hongwei is China’s vice public security minister and was named the first Chinese person to hold the post at Interpol’s general assembly.

Interpol, based in Lyon, can issue “red notices” to its 190 member nations, the closest instrument to an international arrest warrant in use.

Its charter officially bars it from undertaking activities “of a political, military, religious or racial character”, but critics say some governments, primarily Russia and Iran, have abused the system to harass and detain opponents.

Meng said he takes over at a time when the world is facing some of the most serious security challenges since the Second World War.

“Interpol, guided by the best set of principles and mechanisms to date, has made a significant contribution to promoting international police cooperation,” he said. “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.”

Interpol’s president is a largely symbolic figure, but the incumbent still has influence as head of its executive committee, although secretary-general Jurgen Stock is the chief full-time official..

Meng takes over from Mireille Ballestrazzi of France for a four-year term. His election comes as Chinese President Xi Jinping tries to give new momentum to his four-year-old campaign against corruption, including a push to seek the return of former officials and other suspects who have fled abroad.

The anti-corruption drive is led by the Communist Party’s internal watchdog, the highly secretive Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, rather than the police, prompting questions about its transparency and fairness.

More than a million officials have been handed punishments from lengthy prison terms to demotions. Authorities deny their targets are selected for political purposes, but several high-profile suspects have been associated with Xi’s rivals.

China’s police and judicial systems have been routinely criticised for abuses, including confessions under torture, arbitrary travel bans and the disappearance and detention without charges of political dissidents.

Given those circumstances, Meng’s election is an “alarming prospect”, said Maya Wang, a researcher with Human Rights Watch in Hong Kong.

And Nicholas Bequelin, Amnesty International’s director for East Asia, tweeted: “This is extraordinarily worrying given China’s practice of trying to use Interpol to arrest dissidents and refugees abroad.”

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