After China's vice minister of public security Meng Hongwei took over the presidency of international police organization Interpol, human rights activists say Beijing has been misusing the crime-fighting body's system of "red notices."
On the eve of the opening of Interpol's annual general assembly in Beijing, the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said it doubts Meng's ability to maintain Interpol’s neutrality and to respect and protect human rights as head of the organization.
In an open letter to Interpol secretary general Jurgen Stock, HRW said the ruling Chinese Communist Party has broken Interpol regulations by issuing "politically motivated red notices" targeting peaceful critics of the regime.
"Since President Xi Jinping assumed power ... the Chinese government has carried out its harshest and most systematic crackdown on human rights since the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989," HRW China director Sophie Richardson wrote.
"Authorities have ... increasingly reached beyond China’s borders to intimidate or silence those they perceive as problematic, often using law enforcement as a pretext for forcing someone to go to China," the letter said.
Police operations codenamed Fox Hunt and Skynet have been used to bring back "hundreds" of overseas former officials wanted on corruption charges, often from jurisdictions with weak legal protections, it said.
But while Interpol’s red notice is an alert to seek the arrests of wanted persons with a view to extradition, China's human rights record makes it a dangerous weapon in the wrong hands.
"China's record of arbitrary detention, torture, and enforced disappearance of dissidents and activists, as well as the politicized nature of judicial proceedings in past cases of forced repatriation, raise serious concerns," the letter said.
It said Beijing is increasingly working with foreign governments, for example, in Kenya and Egypt, to repatriate Chinese and even Taiwanese nationals with scant legal redress.
It cited the 2015 abduction of Swedish national and Hong Kong-based publisher Gui Minhai from his holiday home in Thailand and his subsequent detention at an unknown location in China, along with the repatriation of ethnic minority Muslim Uyghurs from Cambodia in 2009.
"These cases demonstrate China’s disdain at home and abroad for human rights protections, including the right to a fair trial, to freedom of movement, and to be free of torture or ill-treatment," Richardson wrote.
Interpol is constitutionally obliged to operate within the parameters of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the organization is barred from "undertak[ing] any intervention or activities of a political, military, religious, or racial character."
But Beijing has "tried to control and persecute dissidents and activists abroad by issuing politically motivated red notices through Interpol," the letter said.
One such red notice was issued against Dolkun Isa, a Uyghur man who was granted refugee status in Germany in 1996 and was subsequently naturalized as a German citizen.
According to Beijing, Isa is "wanted by the Interpol for severe criminal and violent terrorist activities including bombing, robbery and murder."
Isa is unable to challenge the notice without the cooperation of Chinese officials, Richardson said, and China has refused to discuss the notice. However, it is believed to be behind Isa's repeated questioning and detention in various countries that he visits or travels through.
As vice minister of public security, Meng oversees China's powerful state security police, as well as counterterrorism teams targeting Muslim communities in the northwestern region of Xinjiang, HRW said.
It said it has documented many incidents of police harassment, arbitrary detention, torture, imprisonment, or forced disappearances of individuals, particularly Uyghurs, in Xinjiang for peacefully exercising their fundamental rights.
The group called on Interpol to detail steps taken to prevent human rights abuses and unconstitutional red notices during Meng's tenure.
Wu Fan, editor in chief of the U.S.-based Chinese-language magazine Chinese Affairs, told RFA, "The persecution perpetrated by the Chinese Communist Party overseas shows that this regime is extremely unstable,."
"They are terrified that overseas forces could throw the Chinese government into crisis."
Meanwhile, U.S.-based democracy activist Xie Zhongzhi said the cross-border detentions of five Hong Kong booksellers including U.K. national Lee Bo, and Hong Kong residents Lui Por, Lam Wing-kei, and Cheung Chi-ping had sent shock waves through the city, which was promised the maintenance of a separate jurisdiction following the 1997 handover to Chinese rule.
Lee Bo was taken directly from his workplace in Hong Kong, while colleagues Lui, Lam, and Cheung were detained as soon as they crossed the border into China.
Lui, Cheung, and Lam were released with a set of instructions from China's state security police: to reappear in Hong Kong, refute reports of their disappearance, and claim to be voluntarily helping police with their inquiries.
"Cross-border law enforcement has had a huge impact on the confidence of Hong Kong people," Xie said. "The promise of one country, two systems, is already dead in the water."
"It has become one country and one system."
In July, veteran democracy activist Wei Jingsheng and fellow Chinese dissidents and journalists demonstrated outside Germany's federal police bureau over similar concerns.
Wei told the gathering that his name has long been on the Chinese government's Interpol wanted list, leading to his brief detention in Switzerland when he traveled there to attend an event, and said that the organization shouldn't become "a hit man for dictatorial regimes."
Dissidents have pointed to a precedent for such a takeover when Interpol's predecessor organization was controlled by key figures in the German secret police during the Nazi years..
But Interpol Secretary General Jurgen Stock have declined to discuss their concerns, saying he doesn't engage in politics.
With 190 member countries, Interpol is the second largest intergovernmental organization next to the United Nations.
Meng was elected president at the Interpol General Assembly held in 2016 and will serve until 2020.
China already wields increasing influence among its smaller neighbors, who have proved willing to detain dissidents fleeing persecution and send them back again without the need for Interpol's help.
Chinese dissidents who have sought political refuge in Thailand have described a climate of fear for exiles in the country.
Reported by Lin Ping for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.