French police have opened an investigation after the wife of the president of Interpol, Meng Hongwei, said she had not heard from her husband since he travelled home to his native China last week.
French police sources and justice officials said Meng’s wife, who lives with him and their children in Lyon, south-east France, where the global organisation for police cooperation is based, reported him missing on Friday.
Interpol said it was aware of the reports but it was “a matter for the relevant authorities in France and China”, adding that the day-to-day running of the organisation was the responsibility of its secretary general, Jürgen Stock, rather than the president, who chairs its executive committee.
Meng was last seen leaving for China from Interpol’s headquarters on 29 September, a judicial source close to the investigation told Agence-France Presse. “He did not disappear in France,” the source added.
Meng, 64, was formerly China’s deputy minister of public security, a position which critics say gave him control over the country’s secret police, and has also previously served as director of the coastguard and deputy head of the Chinese state oceanic administration.
The first Chinese leader of Interpol, which connects the law enforcement agencies of its 192 member countries, Meng was elected the organisation’s head in November 2016, replacing French police officer Mireille Ballestrazzi, and was due to serve until 2020.
The disappearance of high-level Chinese officials is typically seen as a worrying sign. Since taking power in 2012, China’s president, Xi Jinping, has launched a sweeping crackdown, punishing more than a million officials, many accused of corruption. But critics say the drive is merely a way for Xi to take down his political enemies.
Communist party members, including Meng, are subject to a separate investigation system outside of China’s state legal system and those suspected of violated party rules can be held without many legal protections. News of Meng’s disappearance was absent from Chinese news outlets.
But the appointment as the president of Interpol would normally mean Meng was seen as politically safe. The unusual disappearance highlighted the China’s murky legal system and lack of accountability, observers said.
“It’s really terrifying, and underscores that no one – no one – is safe,” Sophie Richardson, the China director for Human Rights Watch, tweeted.
Rights organisations such as Amnesty International expressed grave concerns about Meng’s appointment at the time, suggesting China might use it to pursue regime opponents beyond the country’s borders.
Amnesty International’s director for east Asia tweeted that Meng’s appointment was “extraordinarily worrying, given China’s longstanding practice of trying to use Interpol to arrest dissidents and refugees abroad”, adding that the mandate of police in China included protecting the Communist party’s power.
Western countries have also been reluctant to sign extradition treaties with China due to concerns from rights groups over the mistreatment of criminal suspects, and have said China can be reluctant to provide proof of suspects’ crimes.
Beijing saw Meng’s election as a chance to enlist international help in tracking down alleged economic criminals – including corrupt officials living abroad – who were targeted as part of Xi’s much-publicised anti-graft drive.
In 2014, China issued an Interpol “red notice” – the closest thing to an international arrest warrant – for the country’s 100 most-wanted corruption suspects who had fled the country, many of whom have since been returned.
Some countries have alleged the campaign, known as Operation Fox Hunt, has led to Chinese law agents operating undercover on their territory without consent.