Beijing, Oct 08 (AP/UNB) — Chinese authorities scrambled to contain a public relations mess over the disappearance of the former Interpol president during his trip home to China, saying Monday that he was being lawfully investigated for bribery and other crimes.
But the government's announcement did little to address concerns raised about the risks of appointing Chinese officials to leadership posts in international organizations. On Monday, the acting Interpol president told The Associated Press the agency had not been informed in advance of the Chinese probe into Meng Hongwei, who is also China's vice minister of public security.
On Sunday, Meng's wife made a bold public appeal from France to the international community to help locate her husband. The appeal — especially unusual for senior Chinese officials — cast an unwelcome light on extralegal detentions that have increasingly ensnared dissidents and allegedly corrupt or disloyal officials alike under President Xi Jinping's authoritarian administration.
In a sign of the urgent and possibly unplanned nature of the investigation, the Ministry of Public Security said in an announcement that top ministry officials met in the early hours of Monday to discuss Meng's case. The announcement said Meng was being investigated for accepting bribes and other crimes that were a result of his "willfulness."
"We should deeply recognize the serious damage that Meng Hongwei's bribe-taking and suspected violations of the law have caused the party and the cause of public security and deeply learn from this lesson," said the announcement about the meeting, chaired by Minister Zhao Lezhi.
Meng is the latest high-ranking official to fall victim to a sweeping crackdown by the ruling Communist Party on graft and perceived disloyalty. Most officials investigated by anti-graft authorities are quietly spirited away for questioning, cut off from contact from their families and not allowed access to lawyers, sometimes for months.
But that wasn't how it played out with Meng, 64, whose unexplained disappearance while on a trip home to China late last month prompted the French police to launch an investigation. The French government and Interpol also made their concerns known publicly in recent days.
By late Sunday night, China issued a terse announcement that Meng was in the custody of party investigators, and shortly after, Interpol said Meng had resigned as the international police agency's president. Meng could not be reached for comment.
The revelation that Chinese authorities would be bold enough to forcibly make even a senior public security official with international stature disappear has cast a shadow over the image Beijing has sought to cultivate as a modern country with the rule of law.
Willy Lam, a Chinese politics expert at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said Meng's case shows how Chinese officials, no matter where they are, have to obey the Communist Party first and foremost. "This puts China's internal political struggle over and above the international norms on the rule of law," Lam said.
Rights groups had criticized Meng's appointment as head of Interpol in 2016. They pointed to the lack of transparency in China's legal system and the potential that the position would be misused to attack Beijing's political opponents — by using the police group's red notices to pursue political or economic fugitives, for instance.
"By putting him in the position of Interpol chief, China hoped to show its determination to govern by law," said Zhang Lifan, an independent Chinese political analyst. "But now the spokesman is in trouble and it has definitely dealt a blow to China's image."
Zhang said the haphazard way the case unfolded suggested that officials were acting as if in some state of emergency. "China proceeded to do this in an unconventional manner without caring about its image. It is rather an insult to Interpol," he said.
The acting president of Interpol, Kim Jong Yang, said it had not been told about the investigation of its chief. "I find it regrettable that the top leader of the organization had to go out this way and that we weren't specifically notified of what was happening in advance," Kim said in a phone interview.
"We still don't have sufficient information about what's happening (with Meng) or whether it has anything to do with Chinese domestic politics," he added.
Monday's statement on the ministry of public security's website provided no details about the bribes Meng allegedly took or other crimes he is accused of, but suggested that he was also in trouble for political lapses.
Officials at the meeting were told that they "must always maintain the political quality of being absolutely loyal to the party," the statement said.
Questions about Meng's case dominated a regular briefing by China's foreign ministry on Monday. The spokesman, Lu Kang, rejected the suggestion that China's handling of the Meng probe would hurt the country's image abroad, saying that it demonstrated Beijing's commitment to tackling graft.
"This has shown the Chinese government's firm resolve to crack down on corruption and crime," Lu said. "It has also made very clear that this case fully demonstrates that the party is firm in fighting corruption."
However, Lu did not directly answer questions about whether Meng would be formally arrested or allowed to hire a lawyer, or receive a visit from his wife.
Grace Meng, his wife, made an impassioned plea Sunday for help in bringing her husband to safety. She said she thought he sent an image of a knife before he disappeared in China as a way to warn her he was in danger.
She pledged to pursue "truth, justice and responsibility toward history" for her husband and young children's sake, and "for all the wives and children, so that their husbands and fathers will no longer disappear."
The emotional appeal was an extremely unusual move for the spouse of a senior Chinese official to take, given the risk that public lobbying might backfire and lead to a heavier punishment. Many don't have a chance to speak up even if they want to: spouses of officials under investigation, if they're in China, would likely be placed under 24-hour surveillance, Lam said.
"The terrible allegations made by Mrs. Meng provide the world with a rare window of opportunity to look at the way in which judicial processes are being handled in China," Lam said.
"It's not a pretty picture."
Palu, Oct 8 (AP/UNB) — The death toll from the devastating earthquake and tsunami on Indonesia's Sulawesi island neared 2,000 on Monday, but thousands more are believed unaccounted for and officials said search teams plan to stop looking for victims later this week.
The official toll hit 1,948, mostly in the hard-hit city of Palu, said Jamaluddin, an official from the disaster task force who uses one name. He corrected the number during a news conference in Jakarta after initially saying it was 1,944. He said a navy ship had docked in the area and opened a field hospital.
Willem Rampangilei, head of the National Board for Disaster Management, said there could be as many as 5,000 victims still buried in deep mud in Balaroa and Petobo, two of Palu's hardest-hit neighborhoods. But he added that number must be verified by his teams because it is an unofficial figure which came from village heads in the area. The Sept. 28 quake caused loose, wet soil to liquefy there. It is too soft to use heavy equipment for recovery, and decomposition of bodies is already advanced.
"It is impossible to rebuild in areas with high liquefaction risk such as Petobo and Balaroa," he said, adding villages there will be relocated.
Talks were underway with religious authorities and surviving family members to decide whether some areas could be turned into mass graves for victims entombed there with monuments built to remember them.
Officials reiterated that the search is expected to end on Thursday. However, the deadline could be extended if needed.
Rampangilei said life is starting to return to normal in some areas affected by the disaster. Immediate food and water needs have been met, and the local government has started to function again. Many schools have been completely destroyed, but he said classes will resume where possible. However, many students are still too scared to return.
Banja Luka, Oct 8 (AP/UNB) — Pro-Russia Serb leader Milorad Dodik won a race to fill the Serb seat in Bosnia's three-member presidency Sunday, deepening ethnic divisions in the country that faced a brutal war some 25 years ago.
Preliminary official results from the election gave Dodik 56 percent of the vote and his main opponent, Mladen Ivanic, 42 percent. The projections were made with 44 percent of ballots counted.
"The will of the people leaves no doubt what they want," Dodik said, adding that voters "punished" his opponent for his "servile policies toward the West."
Ivanic conceded defeat. Complete official returns were expected Monday.
Dodik advocates the eventual separation of Serbs from Bosnia. His election to the three-person presidency, which also has a Muslim member and a Croat member, deals a blow to efforts to strengthen unity in the country, where ethnic divisions fueled the 1992-95 war that killed 100,000 people and left millions homeless.
"The number one priority for my job in the future will be the position of the Serb people and Republic of Srpska," Dodik said, referring to the Serb-run mini-state he has led since 2010 and which resulted from a 1995 peace settlement.
The general election was seen as an indicator of Bosnia's future direction: moving toward integration in the European Union and NATO or driven by entrenched rivalries and friction.
Russian President Vladimir Putin had endorsed the openly anti-West Dodik. The United States has imposed sanctions on Dodik for actively obstructing efforts to implement the 1995 Dayton Accords that ended the Bosnian war.
Voters in Sunday's election filled positions in the complex governing system the peace accord created. The country consists of two regional entities — the Serb-run Republika Srpska and a Muslim-Croat federation — with joint institutions in a central government.
Supporters of a unified, multi-ethnic Bosnia found encouragement in the lead a moderate candidate for the Croat position in the tripartite presidency held after the partial count. Zeljko Komsic, had 49 percent, while nationalist contender Dragan Covic had 38 percent.
Covic advocated further fragmentation of Bosnia with the creation of a separate entity for the country's Croats. However, Komsic's likely victory still could trigger discord within the Muslim-Croat federation.
Croat nationalists dispute his legitimacy as a Croat representative, arguing that Komsic was backed overwhelmingly by Muslims. Covic has warned of an "unprecedented crisis."
Sefik Dzaferovic, from the ruling Party of Democratic Action, won the Muslim seat in the presidency.
Along with the Bosnian presidency, voters picked the Serb president, the two entities' parliaments and cantonal authorities during Sunday's election.
More than half of Bosnia's 3.3 million eligible voters cast ballots, election officials said. The campaign was marred by divisive rhetoric and allegations of irregularities that fueled tensions.
Election officials described the voting that took place as "extremely fair."
Lyon, Oct 8 (AP/UNB) — Interpol says a Chinese official who was reported missing has resigned as head of the international police agency. The update came after Beijing announced Meng Hongwei was under investigation in China.
Interpol said Sunday night that Meng had resigned as president of the agency's executive committee, effectively immediately. It did not say why.
Meng is China's vice minister of public security. His whereabouts and status have been mysteries since his wife reported Friday that she had not heard from him since he went to China at the end of September.
The disciplinary organ of China's ruling Communist Party said Sunday night that Meng is "currently under the monitoring and investigation" of China's new anti-corruption body, for unspecified legal violations.
Interpol, based in Lyon, France, said the senior vice president of its executive committee, Kim Jong Yang of South Korea, would become acting president.
Istanbul, Oct 07 (AP/UNB) — Turkish investigators believe a prominent Saudi journalist who contributed to The Washington Post was killed in "a preplanned murder" at the kingdom's consulate in Istanbul, the Post reported Saturday night, citing two anonymous officials.
One Turkish official also told The Associated Press that detectives' "initial assessment" was that Jamal Khashoggi was killed at the consulate, without elaborating. Saudi authorities early Sunday called the allegation "baseless."
Khashoggi, who has lived in self-imposed exile in the U.S. for the last year, vanished Tuesday while on a visit to the consulate. His disappearance has threatened to upend already-fraught relations between Saudi Arabia and Turkey, and it raises new questions about the kingdom and the actions of its assertive Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, whom Khashoggi wrote critically about in his columns.
"If the reports of Jamal's murder are true, it is a monstrous and unfathomable act," the Post's editorial page editor Fred Hiatt said in a statement. "Jamal was — or, as we hope, is — a committed, courageous journalist. He writes out of a sense of love for his country and deep faith in human dignity and freedom."
The Post cited one anonymous official who said investigators believe a 15-member team "came from Saudi Arabia." The official added: "It was a preplanned murder."
A Turkish official, requesting anonymity to discuss the ongoing investigation, told the AP earlier Saturday night something similar.
"The initial assessment of the Turkish police is that Mr. Khashoggi has been killed at the consulate of Saudi Arabia in Istanbul," the official said. "We believe that the murder was premeditated and the body was subsequently moved out of the consulate."
Khashoggi, 59, went missing while on a visit to the consulate in Istanbul for paperwork to marry his Turkish fiancée. The consulate insists the writer left its premises, contradicting Turkish officials.
"Jamal is not dead! I don't believe he's been killed!" his fiancée Hatice wrote on Twitter late Saturday night.
Turkey's official Anadolu News Agency said Saturday that the Istanbul public prosecutor's office began a probe into Khashoggi's disappearance Tuesday, immediately after he went missing. It added the investigation over allegations that the writer was detained had "deepened," without elaborating.
The state-run Saudi Press Agency early Sunday morning carried a statement from the Istanbul Consulate that "strongly denounced these baseless allegations, and expressed his doubt that they came from Turkish officials that are informed of the investigation or are authorized to comment on the issue." It said Saudi Arabia sent a team of investigators to help look into the case.
Khashoggi is a longtime Saudi journalist, foreign correspondent, editor and columnist whose work has been controversial in the past in the ultraconservative Sunni kingdom. He went into self-imposed exile in the United States following the ascension of Prince Mohammed, now next in line to succeed his father, the 82-year-old King Salman.
As a contributor to the Post, Khashoggi has written extensively about Saudi Arabia, including criticizing its war in Yemen, its recent diplomatic spat with Canada and its arrest of women's rights activists after the lifting of a ban on women driving. All those issues have been viewed as being pushed by Prince Mohammed, who similarly has led roundups of activists, businessmen and others in the kingdom.
"With young Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's rise to power, he promised an embrace of social and economic reform," Khashoggi wrote in his first column for the Post. "But all I see now is the recent wave of arrests."
Khashoggi was known for his interviews and travels with Osama bin Laden between 1987 and 1995, including in Afghanistan, where he wrote about the battle against the Soviet occupation. In the early 1990s, he tried to persuade bin Laden to reconcile with the Saudi royal family and return home from his base in Sudan, but the al-Qaida leader refused.
Khashoggi maintained ties with Saudi elites, including those in its intelligence apparatus, and launched a satellite news channel, Al-Arab, from Bahrain in 2015 with the backing of Saudi billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal. The channel was on air for less than 11 hours before it was shut down. Its billionaire backer was detained in the Ritz Carlton roundup overseen by Prince Mohammed in 2017.
The dispute over Khashoggi's disappearance also threatens to reopen rifts between Ankara and Riyadh. Turkey has supported Qatar amid a yearlong boycott by Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates over a political dispute. Turkey's support of political Islamists, like the Muslim Brotherhood, also angers leaders in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, which label the organization a "terrorist group" threatening their hereditarily ruled nations.
U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, the Connecticut Democrat who sits on the Senate's Committee on Foreign Affairs, expressed shock over the news.
"If this is true — that the Saudis lured a U.S. resident into their consulate and murdered him — it should represent a fundamental break in our relationship with Saudi Arabia," Murphy wrote on Twitter.
Press freedom groups likewise have decried Khashoggi's disappearance.
"If Khashoggi was indeed murdered inside a diplomatic facility, it is an act of terror that echoes Russian and Chinese tactics of extraterritorial, extrajudicial attacks on dissidents, intended to intimidate any who would speak out against the Saudi government, no matter where they may be, and giving the lie to official narratives of 'reform' in Saudi Arabia," said Summer Lopez, PEN America's senior director of free expression programs.
"If Saudi authorities wish to counter these claims, they must produce Khashoggi immediately. If the killing is confirmed, those responsible for this heinous crime must be held accountable," she added.