Interpol is facing a pivotal — some say possibly fatal — moment in its history as members decide whether to hand its presidency to a man who represents Vladimir Putin's Russia.
Kremlin critics fear they could soon face arrest wherever they go. Western governments worry that Russia could use the post to undermine the rule of law.
Interpol, which elects a new president Wednesday , has weathered many challenges in its 95 years. While Hollywood has portrayed it as a hive of swashbuckling agents, in reality it's an organization sometimes tangled in red tape and clashing geopolitical interests. Nazis took it over in the 1930s, and authoritarian governments have long tried to use it to hunt down fugitive dissenters.
But the latest storm of criticism comes at an exceptional time — just as Russia is trying to expand its global clout and as some powerful countries are questioning whether they need multilateral organizations like Interpol at all.
Interpol's general assembly is choosing the agency's new president at a meeting in Dubai where the front-runner is Alexander Prokopchuk, a general in Russia's Interior Ministry who is currently an Interpol vice president. Interpol's interim president, South Korea's Kim Jong Yang, is also seeking the post.
Two prominent Kremlin critics warned Tuesday that electing a high-placed Russian would undermine the international law enforcement agency and politicize police cooperation across borders.
Bill Browder, who runs an investment fund that had once operated in Moscow, and oligarch-turned-dissident Mikhail Khodorkovsky told reporters in London that Putin has tried to use Interpol to hunt down critics such as themselves. Having a Russian lead the agency could intensify such efforts to silence dissent, they said.
Activists argue that the organization needs to increase recent efforts at muscular reform, and this won't happen if Prokopchuk becomes president, because of his ties to Putin.
"It was his government that organized a terrorist attack in the U.K. using chemical weapons in Salisbury. It was his government that shot down MH17, killing 298 innocent individuals. It was his government that cheated and hacked in elections in the United States and Europe," Browder said of Putin. "To put his representative in charge of the most important international crime-fighting organization is like putting the mafia in charge."
To Moscow, the complaints are all part of a Western-led campaign to weaken a resurgent Russia.
Russia denies accusations of foreign interference and announced new charges against Browder this week in a long-running legal battle against him. Russian Interior Ministry spokesman Irina Volk accused critics Tuesday of running a "campaign to discredit" Prokopchuk, calling him a respected professional.
Browder has pressed for sanctions against Russian officials charged with human rights abuses after his former lawyer died in custody. Khodorkovsky, a former oil tycoon, spent a decade in prison after exhibiting political ambitions. Both said their places in the public eye would make them poor targets for abuse, adding that they were motivated to speak out because many other campaigners who are less well-known would be silenced if governments are allowed to export repression.
The White House came out Tuesday against the election of Prokopchuk, with National Security Council spokesman Garrett Marquis saying that "the Russian government abuses Interpol's processes to harass its political opponents." He said the U.S. "strongly endorses" Kim.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo added: "We encourage all nations and organizations that are part of Interpol and that respect the rule of law to choose a leader with credibility and integrity that reflects one of the world's most critical law enforcement bodies. We believe Mr. Kim will be just that."
Interpol's general assembly is made up of its 192 member states, each of which has an equal vote.
Based in the French city of Lyon, Interpol is best known for issuing "red notices" that identify a suspect pursued by another country, effectively putting them on the world's "most-wanted" list.
Critics argue that countries like Russia, Turkey, Egypt, Iran and China have used the system to try to round up political opponents, journalists or activists.
The watchdog group Fair Trials International detailed in a report last month the strides Interpol has made in reducing political abuse of red notices. The group's chief, Jago Russell, said a Russian official as Interpol president could stall or reverse those reforms.
"We're at a pivotal moment for Interpol," he told The Associated Press.
"Either countries back away from it and find other ways to cooperate, or Interpol fixes its system so that it can be trusted. ... Already there are noises about pulling out of Interpol" and creating a separate agency just for democratic countries, he said.
The U.S. seems committed to Interpol for now, but has pulled out of UNESCO and international accords under President Donald Trump. Britain is pulling out of the European Union and has expressed concern about management of international bodies funded by taxpayers.
Interpol itself won't comment on the upcoming vote. The Interpol presidency is more of an oversight position, compared with the hands-on leadership role of the secretary-general.
Interpol's charter explicitly proclaims its neutrality, and two years ago it introduced measures aimed at strengthening the legal framework around the red notice system. As part of the changes, an international team of lawyers and experts first check a notice's compliance with Interpol rules and regulations before it goes out.
But the possibility of a Putin loyalist in such a prominent role has prompted concern among those critical of the Russian president's leadership. Four U.S. senators, including Marco Rubio, have urged the Trump administration to oppose the Prokopchuk candidacy. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, who on Monday stated that Russia was "rooting for the Russian candidate," said that amounted to meddling in the vote.
Fair Trials International warned that a Russian president of Interpol could try to limit the money spent on staff needed to vet red notices, for example, or get rid of a recent measure to protect refugees from unfair arrest.
This is far from the first time that Interpol's votes are causing controversy.
Human rights groups raised the alarm two years ago when Interpol's general assembly approved Meng Hongwei, a longtime senior Chinese security official, as president. Amnesty International criticized "China's longstanding practice of trying to use Interpol to arrest dissidents and refugees abroad."
Meng is now under arrest in China as part of a possible domestic political purge — hence Wednesday's emergency vote to replace him.
Interpol's general assembly also votes on membership, like they did on Tuesday when they rejected admitting Kosovo . Interpol members voted last year to admit Palestine as a member, creating an uproar in Israel.