European Interest

How Azerbaijan bribed ex-Council of Europe members

Flickr/PAN Photo/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev at the trilateral meeting with presidents of Armenia and Russia in Sochi, December 22, 2016.

Former members of the Council of Europe’s parliamentary assembly engaged in “corruptive activities” and violated the human rights body’s code of ethics, according to independent investors. On April 22, they released a report suggesting that members of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) had acted contrary to its ethical standards.

“The parliamentarians involved are invited to suspend their activity while a committee examines their situation on a case-by-case basis,” said PACE President Michele Nicoletti.

As reported by Deutsche Welle (DW), Germany’s international broadcaster, at least one German is among the former members named in the report, which was compiled by a team including two former judges of the European Court of Human Rights, a Council of Europe body.

The allegations stem from the so-called Caviargate scandal in which Azerbaijan is alleged to have exerted undue influence on members of the assembly to avert probes into its election and soften criticism of its human rights record.

In 2017, corruption watchdog Transparency International called on the EU to investigate “politicians, banks and business that helped to launder the reputation of Azerbaijan across Europe”.

“It is shocking to see that some politicians at respected bodies like the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe are up for sale and are willing to turn a blind eye to corruption and human rights abuses for cash,” said Transparency International chair Jose Ugaz.

Meanwhile, The Guardian noted that the 218-page report also names former Italian deputy Luca Volontè as suspected of “activities of a corruptive nature”. He played “an important role” in undermining a report on political prisoners in Azerbaijan that detailed how the judicial system was used to silence government critics. Although the report reflected widespread concerns of other human-rights groups, its findings were rejected by PACE MPs in a controversial 2013 vote.

Italian police are currently investigating Volontè for corruption in relation to €2.39m he is accused of taking in bribes from Azerbaijan. Volontè denies all charges and has been acquitted on a separate count of money laundering.

Meanwhile, the report concluded that accepting luxury gifts, such as caviar and all-expenses paid trips, was more “symbolic” and “courtesy gifts” instead of bribes.

Commenting on the situation in the country, Ambassador Arif Mammadov – one of Azerbeijan’s most vociferous critics of President Ilham Aliyev and a former ambassador of Azerbaijan to the COE – recently told European Interest that corruption has “rocketed to unimaginable levels”.

“A proper judicial system has been totally destroyed… In a word, with the big influx of petrodollars after the completion of the Baku Tbilisi Ceyhan pipeline, the regime became more arrogant, dictatorial and aggressive,” he told European Interest on March 9.

In the report, Mammadov is quoted as saying that “dirty lobbying” was done in parallel with diplomatic work. He confirmed, however, that the Permanent Representation of Azerbaijan to the COE had not been involved in this. Instead it has been managed through the Presidential Administration and the man in charge of it in PACE was Azerbaijani MP and PACE member Elkhan Suleymanov. Mammadov said he had heard from the members of the Azerbaijani delegation to PACE that Suleymanov had €30m at his disposal for this dirty lobbying.

The money reportedly came from the minister of emergency situations, Kamaladdin Heydarov, and not from the budget.

Leyla Yunus, an Azerbaijani human rights activist who serves as the director of Institute of Peace and Democracy, however, has alleged that the bribing of European officials was funded from various sources. For instance, students participating in a state-funded programme to study in Strasburg were required to take with them €10,000 to deliver to member of PACE.

There are also allegations that diplomatic members of the Permanent Representation had been required to report on who in the Assembly voted against Azerbaijan. This information would be sent to the foreign ministry, which would then forward it to the relevant embassies abroad. Later, the embassies would report that those who had voted against Azerbaijan apologised for doing so.

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