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With friends like Azerbaijan…

Reporters Without Borders UK Bureau Director Rebecca Vincent speaking to The Shift News at the Council of Europe building in Strasbourg during the vote on the Special Rapporteur's report on Malta.

An op-ed by Rebecca Vincent, Reporters Without Borders UK Bureau Director.

Did you ever have one of those déjà vu moments? This week it was my turn, at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE). I was there on behalf of Reporters Without Borders, along with colleagues from other freedom of expression organisations, to advocate support for a crucial report and accompanying resolution on the assassination of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia and rule of law in Malta.

Given the Maltese authorities’ failure to achieve justice for Caruana Galizia’s assassination close to two years after her assassination in a car bomb outside her home, and the government’s resistance to launching an independent public inquiry despite clear deficiencies of the criminal investigation highlighted in reports by European institutions, we expected the Maltese government – and ruling Labour Party members of the Maltese delegation – to attempt to counter the damning findings of the report and turn support away from the resolution.

Indeed, they did. But even more vocal than the Maltese ruling party itself was their somewhat unusual bedfellows from the Azerbaijani delegation.

Caviar Diplomacy and the Azerbaijani Laundromat

Azerbaijan is a country close to my heart, having lived there twice, gotten expelled in connection with my work with local human rights groups, and in the end, having worked predominately on human rights issues and cases from Azerbaijan for a decade.

During that time, many friends and colleagues – journalists, human rights defenders, political activists – were systematically targeted through a range of pressures, including political imprisonment, and from abroad I led international campaigns for their releases.

In the context of that work, I often attended PACE sessions to advocate support for resolutions and other measures aimed at holding the Azerbaijani government to account for its human rights obligations, and to secure the releases of political prisoners. This sometimes felt like a disproportionately difficult uphill battle, and eventually, we found out why.

In 2012, reports of so-called “caviar diplomacy” surfaced – a term coined by the European Stability Initiative in their initial reporting on corrupt lobbying tactics used by Azerbaijan within the Council of Europe and beyond.

In the midst of this, the Azerbaijani delegation celebrated an unlikely victory that was particularly demoralising to us who had worked so hard on the other side. A key report by then-Special Rapporteur Christoph Strässer on the situation of political prisoners in Azerbaijan was narrowly defeated.

Just before the vote took place, head of the Azerbaijani delegation Samad Seyidov made  a particularly emboldened statement: “I am completely against the approach it takes to Azerbaijan, but I will still be a member of the Assembly because this is not Mr Strässer’s Council of Europe; it is my Council of Europe, just as it is my Azerbaijan, as it will be forever”. Indeed, it certainly felt like Seyidov’s Council of Europe.

Five years later, in October 2017, details of an even bigger scandal emerged: the ‘Azerbaijani Laundromat’. The Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) uncovered a €2.5 billion fund used by Azerbaijan’s elite in a complex money-laundering and influencing-buying scheme that included payoffs between 2012 and 2014 to politicians to help launder Azerbaijan’s image, including at PACE.

To those of us working on human rights in Azerbaijan, the Laundromat revelations were no surprise: they crystallised and vindicated the things we had felt were happening during those disheartening years of attempting to hold the Azerbaijani government to account at the international level, including at PACE.

For its part, PACE convened an investigation and eventually found that 17 current and former MPs had broken PACE’s Code of Conduct, including Azerbaijan delegation head Seyidov, who was banned from holding any senior post within PACE for two years, as well as from representing PACE at third-party events, but remains able to speak within the assembly.

Two other MPs – Cezar Florin Preda from Romania and Jordi Xuclà from Spain – also received two-year bans with these conditions, and Preda continues to serve in the assembly.

Former PACE president, Spanish MP Pedro Agramunt, received a 10-year ban, but had already resigned his post as president in October 2017 for “personal reasons” before a motion for his dismissal (connected to his participation in a Russian-led trip to meet with Syrian president Bashar al-Assad) could be debated.

In June 2018, 13 other current and former MPs were banned from PACE and the broader Council of Europe for life.

The unholy alliance with Malta

Fast forward to this week at PACE. The day prior to the debate on the resolution on the assassination of Caruana Galizia, ruling party members of the Maltese delegation tabled a series of amendments aimed at weakening and undermining the resolution.

These amendments (ultimately unsuccessful) were supported by…you guessed it…delegates from Azerbaijan. The Azerbaijani delegation also hosted a side event competing with the side event we had organised in support of the Malta resolution, to present on ‘New Challenges and Ongoing Reform in Azerbaijan’ despite nothing of the sort being on the plenary agenda for the week.

The Azerbaijani delegation was out in full force during the plenary debate on the report and resolution, with a staggering four out of 20 total speaking slots taken by Azerbaijani MPs (compared to a modest two spaces for ruling party Maltese delegates themselves). Among them, Seyidov himself, attempting to dismiss the lack of justice for the murder of a journalist with the platitude “nobody’s perfect”, and along with three other Azerbaijani MPs, attacking Pieter Omtzigt’s character and credibility and calling for an investigation into corruption in Europe.

Although Malta’s ruling party MPs refrained from voting (after the deployment of Malta’s diplomatic muscle failed), all six of Azerbaijan’s MPs voted against the resolution.

One lesson can be drawn from the failed results of this unholy alliance, and that is despite the Azerbaijani government escaping largely unscathed for its previously documented corrupt lobbying practices, the era of caviar diplomacy is well and truly over.

As I stated in our side event before the plenary debate, it is an insult to both the intelligence and integrity of the Assembly in its entirety for delegations to continue to behave so crudely and assume they can convince anyone at all, or get their way. And that is the point that the Maltese government, and ruling party members of the Maltese delegation, so clearly missed.

We don’t know what, if any, arrangement might have taken place to secure Azerbaijan’s support in working to influence MPs against the resolution on the assassination of Caruana Galizia. We don’t know why the Azerbaijani delegation – more than the Maltese themselves – so vigorously promoted wrecking amendments or spoke so spectacularly unconvincingly on the floor of the Assembly.

Or perhaps there was no arrangement. Perhaps the Azerbaijani delegation simply viewed it as an injustice – in light of Azerbaijan’s own dismal human rights record, including impunity for past cases of murders of journalists – for PACE to dare to attempt to hold a Council of Europe member state accountable for its obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights.

Perhaps they were still angry with Omtzigt for leading calls for PACE to launch an inquiry into reports of corruption in the assembly and for PACE to write a new report on the issue of political prisoners in Azerbaijan.

Perhaps they were offended by the light the Malta resolution (which mentioned Azerbaijani involvement in examples of corruption in Malta) cast on Azerbaijan, referred to by one Azerbaijani MP who spoke both as “blackmail” and an attempt to damage Azerbaijan’s relations with Europe.

Or perhaps they simply wanted to impress their friends from Malta; their friends who continue to block efforts towards justice for the assassination of a journalist who had been investigating Azerbaijani money-laundering and investment into a secret shell company called 17 Black. Their friends who sell “golden passports”, granting full access to Europe. Their friends who, despite being an EU member state, are moving ever closer to matching the human rights record of their own authoritarian government.

And if that’s the case, really – who needs enemies?

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