Euro­pean par­lia­ment calls for in­ves­ti­ga­tion into 'Azer­bai­jani Laun­dro­mat'

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The Euro­pean par­lia­ment has called for an in­ves­ti­ga­tion into rev­e­la­tions by the Guardian and me­dia part­ners that Azer­bai­jan ran a se­cret $2.9bn (£2.2bn) slush fund to pay in­flu­en­tial Euro­peans to paint a pos­i­tive im­age of the au­thor­i­tar­ian regime.

MEPs have de­manded a “com­pre­hen­sive” in­ves­ti­ga­tion into “at­tempts by Azer­bai­jan and other au­to­cratic regimes ... to in­flu­ence Euro­pean de­ci­sion-mak­ers through il­licit means”, fol­low­ing a last-minute amend­ment to a re­port on cor­rup­tion.

In a sep­a­rate move, the head of the Coun­cil of Europe, Thor­b­jørn Jagland, called for un­prece­dented le­gal ac­tion against Azer­bai­jan over its re­fusal to re­lease a po­lit­i­cal pris­oner in de­fi­ance of the Euro­pean court on hu­man rights.

The Coun­cil of Europe and ECHR are not part of the EU, but the co­in­ci­dence in tim­ing shows how po­lit­i­cal re­pres­sion and cor­rup­tion in Azer­bai­jan is ris­ing up the agenda of Europe’s in­sti­tu­tions.

Jagland’s in­ter­ven­tion cen­tres on op­po­si­tion leader Il­gar Mam­madov, who was jailed for or­gan­is­ing and tak­ing part in demon­stra­tions in 2013. Judges at the ECHR found he was jailed for crit­i­cis­ing Azer­bai­jani au­thor­i­ties but the govern­ment has re­fused to re­lease him.

At a meet­ing of Coun­cil of Europe am­bas­sadors on Wed­nes­day, Jagland called for the launch of le­gal pro­ceed­ings against Azer­bai­jan for flout­ing ECHR court judg­ments – an un­prece­dented step in the 68-year his­tory of the Coun­cil of Europe.

“We can­not have po­lit­i­cal pris­on­ers in Europe and we can­not have a sit­u­a­tion in which Azer­bai­jan con­tin­ues to de­prive Mam­madov of his lib­erty against the judg­ment of the high­est court – which clearly stated his ar­rest and de­ten­tion were ar­bi­trary,” Jagland said in a state­ment re­leased to the Guardian. “The time has come for Azer­bai­jan to think hard about its obli­ga­tions as a mem­ber of the Coun­cil of Europe and whether it still wants to ful­fil them.”

Azer­bai­jan signed the Euro­pean con­ven­tion of hu­man rights in 2001 but its re­fusal to im­ple­ment ECHR rul­ings has con­trib­uted to a slow­burn­ing cri­sis for the court.

Jagland wants to in­voke the Coun­cil of Europe con­ven­tion’s ar­ti­cle 46.4, which could ul­ti­mately lead to Azer­bai­jan be­ing ejected from the hu­man rights body. This “nu­clear op­tion” has never been used be­fore and would re­quire ac­tion from Euro­pean for­eign min­is­ters, fol­low­ing a court as­sess­ment.

The pol­i­tics of the oil-rich coun­try were also be­ing de­bated in the Euro­pean par­lia­ment, when MEPs voted to set up a cor­rup­tion in­ves­ti­ga­tion by 349 votes to 290, with 42 ab­sten­tions. “Fol­low­ing the re­cent ‘Azer­bai­jani Laun­dro­mat’ rev­e­la­tions, at­tempts by Azer­bai­jan and other au­to­cratic regimes in third coun­tries to in­flu­ence Euro­pean de­ci­sion-mak­ers through il­licit means [the Euro­pean par­lia­ment] calls for a com­pre­hen­sive par­lia­ment in­ves­ti­ga­tion,” the text stated.

The amend­ment was tacked on a re­port on cor­rup­tion and hu­man rights in non-EU coun­tries. Drafted by Cata­lan MEP Jordi Solé, the amend­ment had been seen as a long shot un­likely to sur­mount op­po­si­tion from the large cen­tre-right and lib­eral blocs.

In the­ory, the in­ves­ti­ga­tion could be wide-rang­ing as the amend­ment calls for a broad in­quiry into “the in­flu­ence ex­erted by such regimes”, but it re­mains to be seen whether it will even get un­der way.

The Euro­pean par­lia­ment has set up ad-hoc in­ves­ti­ga­tions into tax avoid­ance in Lux­em­bourg, the Panama pa­pers and the “Diesel­gate” emis­sions scan­dal, but other calls for ac­tion have fallen on stony ground – for in­stance, a vote in favour of a Euro­pean-Is­raeli-Pales­tinian par­lia­men­tary fo­rum went nowhere.

Fail­ure to set up an in­ves­ti­ga­tion would dam­age the cred­i­bil­ity of the Euro­pean par­lia­ment, which strug­gles to make its voice heard on for­eign pol­icy, where it has lim­ited pow­ers.

Solé said his group would push for “swift es­tab­lish­ment” of an in­ves­ti­ga­tion. “We will in­sist that it thor­oughly looks into the var­i­ous re­spon­si­bil­i­ties of all those in­volved in this mas­sive money laun­der­ing and cor­rup­tion scan­dal, in­clud­ing Euro­pean banks, and holds them ac­count­able,” he said.

“The par­lia­ment needs to en­sure that it has ad­e­quate safe­guards in place to pro­tect it­self from such forms of pres­sure, which, ul­ti­mately, un­der­mine our demo­cratic cred­i­bil­ity.”

No mem­bers of the Euro­pean par­lia­ment have been im­pli­cated in the Azer­bai­jan laun­dro­mat rev­e­la­tions, where bank records showed mul­ti­ple pay­ments to for­mer mem­bers of the Coun­cil of Europe’s par­lia­men­tary assem­bly, Pace.

One is Ed­uard Lint­ner, a Ger­man ex-MP and mem­ber of the Chris­tian So­cial Union, the Bavar­ian sis­ter party to An­gela Merkel’s rul­ing Chris­tian Democrats. An­other is the Ital­ian for­mer chair of the cen­tre-right group in Pace, Luca Volontè.

Bel­gian me­dia said on Tues­day that the trail led back to two Bel­gian politi­cians. A joint in­ves­ti­ga­tion by

L’Echo and De Tijd found that Lib­eral MP Alain Des­texhe and for­mer politi­cian Stef Goris had set up a not-for­profit elec­tion ob­ser­va­tion or­gan­i­sa­tion that re­ceived $800,000 be­tween 2012 and 2014 from Lint­ner. Des­texhe de­nies be­ing in­volved in the man­age­ment of the or­gan­i­sa­tion, while Goris said he did not re­ceive any money from Azer­bai­jan.

Des­texhe is the au­thor of a Pace re­port on hu­man rights in Azer­bai­jan that has been crit­i­cised for not men­tion­ing cor­rup­tion.

Pho­to­graph: Pa­trick Hert­zog/AFP/Getty Im­ages

MEPs at the Euro­pean par­lia­ment. They have de­manded a ‘com­pre­hen­sive’ in­ves­ti­ga­tion in Azer­bai­jan af­ter an amend­ment to a re­port on cor­rup­tion.

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