“Will they call von der Leyen corrupt? Will they falsify signatures claiming her husband owns a company and accepted cash from the Azerbaijanis?” This was Joseph Muscat’s petulant whining when reacting to the news that a desperate European Union struck a deal with Ilham Aliyev.
Muscat is back to default mode – humiliating himself and wrecking what’s left of Malta’s reputation. Even after being forced out, Muscat keeps cropping up in the most cringe-worthy public appearances. Those are not comments worthy of a former prime minister. They are the comments of a petty, bitter man desperately trying to launder his reputation.
The EU’s decision to strike a deal with Aliyev for its gas made Muscat’s day. In his warped logic, von der Leyen’s deal somehow exonerates his own opaque and shady SOCAR arrangement. Muscat shoves the EU’s Azerbaijan memorandum into his critics’ faces as some sort of personal exoneration, a kind of laundromat for his filthy pact with Aliyev.
Muscat travelled to Baku with Konrad Mizzi, Keith Schembri and Kurt Farrugia without civil servants or local media. SOCAR got an 18-year exclusivity agreement to provide gas to Electrogas worth $1 billion. The anti-corruption organisation Global Witness highlighted major deficiencies in the tendering process, particularly its opacity.
So did the Auditor General, who found a lack of documentation leading him to question how such a lucrative agreement could be signed based on “ministerial direction”. That minister was Konrad Mizzi. And his “direction” cost Malta millions of euro. The Guardian reported that Malta was “losing money hand over fist”. It is estimated that Malta lost €40 million to SOCAR in one year.
In the meantime, Aliyev’s two daughters, Leyla and Arzu, became Pilatus Bank’s largest clients and the ultimate beneficial owners of several opaque offshore companies. Tale and Nijat Heydarov, the sons of Azerbaijan’s emergency minister, were also beneficial owners of other companies in the network.
Pilatus Bank was used to send $10 million of “suspicious” transactions to a mystery company in the 17 Black money trail. Lazr international, a UAE company, used Pilatus to transfer millions to a Seychelles company called Mayor Trans. Mayor Trans then wired $1.4 million to Yorgen Fenech’s 17 Black.
Joseph Muscat revealed it was Joe Debono Grech who had advised him that “countries will be queuing up to this state; Mintoff was insulted for opening the doors to China, but he was proven right, you do the same (with Azerbaijan), and this is what will happen”.
A report titled ‘European Values Bought and Sold’ documenting Azerbaijan’s sophisticated system of buying western politicians revealed how Azerbaijan laundered $3 billion doing so. That report states that “as early as January 2013, Debono Grech was suspected of receiving gifts while travelling to Azerbaijan”. Debono Grech denied receiving any gifts but finally admitted receiving “a silk carpet”.
Debono Grech visited Azerbaijan around 30 times. He repeatedly voted with Azerbaijan at the Council of Europe. He claimed “Azerbaijan is on the right track” while Baku imprisoned, tortured, blackmailed and murdered journalists and activists.
Elmar Huseynov, a journalist critical of Aliyev, was shot in the mouth, a gangland trademark of imposing silence. Khadijah Ismayilova, who uncovered Aliyev family corruption, was filmed by Aliyev’s secret services, and intimate footage of her with her boyfriend was used to silence her. When that failed, she was imprisoned for seven and a half years on trumped-up charges. When she received a Swedish award for “courage and tenacity in exposing corruption at the highest levels”, she couldn’t collect it as Aliyev banned her from travelling.
Amnesty International’s latest report on Azerbaijan states that “torture and other ill treatment remain widespread”. Politically motivated persecution and harassment of government critics continue unabated, and many of its victims remain imprisoned. Police violently break up peaceful rallies.
Opposition activist Tofig Yagoublu was hospitalised with serious injuries inflicted by the police. Sadar Askerov was detained, beaten and released after being forced to apologise for a post criticising local authorities. Other bloggers have been sentenced to years’ imprisonment for “defamation”.
Opposition activist Niyameddin Ahmedov was sentenced to 13 years on politically motivated charges. The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) ruled that Azerbaijan arbitrarily denied registration to 25 NGOs in violation of the right to freedom of association. Another ECtHR ruling found that the authorities had frozen bank accounts and imposed travel bans to paralyse NGOs’ human rights work.
Despite all this, Joseph Muscat, as a member of an Azerbaijani government-funded lobby group, signed a grovelling letter to Aliyev. “We extend our congratulations to your excellency as we reflect on the enormous progress Azerbaijan has made,” it read. “We have noted with appreciation the decisive steps taken by your government under your leadership. We would like to extend our heartfelt thanks to you, Mr President”.
No wonder Muscat hit it off with Aliyev. Both were declared Person of the Year in Organized Crime and Corruption by the OCCRP. Muscat’s fawning over Aliyev exposes a rotten amoral logic. Debono Grech’s advice to Muscat reveals that those attitudes are deeply entrenched and longstanding within Labour.
Debono Grech highlighted how other countries followed Mintoff’s lead in courting China. That fact makes China no less oppressive, autocratic or brutal in suppressing basic freedoms. Neither does the EU’s accord with Aliyev make Azerbaijan less abusive of basic human rights.
It certainly doesn’t make Muscat’s deal with Aliyev smell cleaner. And it definitely doesn’t make Muscat any less toxic.
That matters little to Muscat, who maintained a private Whatsapp group with Yorgen Fenech, who invited Fenech to his birthday bash and accepted his lavish gifts, who travelled with him to Italy to attend Ali Sadr Hasheminejad’s wedding, or who appointed Adrian Hillman to the AUM board. Muscat presided over Vitals, Electrogas, AUM, SOCAR, Mozura, DB’s ITS and other rotten deals.
He’s not fussed about decency. The only thing he’s interested in now is his own survival – and he’ll clutch at any straw.