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13 Council of Europe members expelled in Azerbaijani bribery scandal

Expelled members were found to have established financial and commercial interests with Azerbaijan

Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe
Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe

The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe expelled 13 members for accepting gifts and bribes from the Azerbaijani government following an independent investigation.

The expelled members were found to have established financial and commercial interests with Azerbaijan and did the bidding of the Azerbaijani government, according to the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project.

A 14th member, Andreas Gross from Switzerland, was also investigated but allowed to serve. He was listed as declining a summons to appear before the committee but was not found to have violated ethical rules.

There were a number of investigative reports on Azerbaijan’s alleged efforts to boost the country’s image among PACE members, including one by the OCCRP and partners that exposed an alleged money-laundering scheme involving US$2.9 billion used to pay off European politicians and buy luxury goods.

As a result, PACE ordered an independent investigation, which drew up a report compiling the evidence and explaining the relationship between the Azerbaijani government and Europe’s parliamentary assembly going back to 2001, when Azerbaijan joined the Council of Europe. Last Friday, PACE published its decisions for each council member.

Azerbaijan has been ruled by Ilham Aliyev since 2003 and there have been a multitude of allegations of breaches of human rights, suppression of free speech and media, and corruption.

Malta’s relationship with Azerbaijan has been highlighted in a 2017 report drawn up by Freedom Files – an NGO that conducts research on human rights and democracy problems in authoritarian countries – which said “Malta is considered by Azerbaijani oligarchs as one of the “provinces” of Azerbaijan.”

In 2014, there was an unannounced visit by Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, his chief of staff Keith Schembri, his communications coordinator Kurt Farrugia and then energy minister Konrad Mizzi to Azerbaijan where they met Aliyev.

The Freedom Files report also pinpoints Malta as one of the key locations where corrupt Azerbaijani officials keep their money. Several members of the ruling elite of Azerbaijan held accounts in Pilatus Bank whose owner Ali Sadr Hasheminejad, has since been apprehended in the US by the FBI and is facing charges that carry a penalty of up to 125 years imprisonment. Only last week, the Malta Financial Services Authority requested the European Central Bank to revoke its licence.

A leading human rights NGO in Azerbaijan also linked the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia to the climate of repression against journalists in Azerbaijan and her reports on the links between the ruling elite in Azerbaijan and the Maltese government.

The PACE report notes that one of its responsibilities is to investigate member countries’ human rights records with an eye towards encouraging strong national laws and sanctioning states who fall short and specifically highlights human rights concerns about Azerbaijan’s handling of political prisoners.

The European Stability Initiative (ESI) think tank raised concerns about Azerbaijan’s role in the Council of Europe in a 2012 report on “caviar diplomacy,” or Azerbaijan’s attempts to silence PACE criticism of the country in exchange for gifts and money. A second report published in 2013 connected this practice to the issue of political prisoners when it noted a division in the Assembly between members who backed Azerbaijan’s handling of political prisoners in recent years and those who vehemently denounced it.

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