BAKU. June 29, 2015: Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev has spent billions on capturing the world’s attention to the European Games in his Caspian seaside capital of Baku. He has spared no expense, including slapping plastic facades on tired buildings, building new roads and booking megastar Lady Gaga for the Opening Ceremonies. The best hotels are booked solid.
In its two-week run, the first-ever competition played host to and showcased 6,000 athletes and 3,000 officials and support staff from 50 countries.
While taxpayers ultimately foot the bill for this, two privileged citizens have been massively enriched by the games: the president’s daughters.
That’s because they control an enormous chunk of the luxury hotel business in Baku. Their hotels, sporting such well-known Western brands as the Four Seasons, Sheraton and the Marriott, sit at key points in the city.
Reporters for the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) found that Leyla and Arzu Aliyeva directly own or are closely connected with six five-star hotels in Baku. One more hotel is under construction. They also own two exclusive mountain resorts, and likely have a role in a 10th hotel.
Reminiscent of the palaces of Arab princes, these hotels are known to most Azerbaijanis only through TV. They’re so expensive it would cost the average Azerbaijani a month’s salary to check in for a night or two.
WASHINGTON. June 25, 2015: Writing in The New York Review of Books, Michael Ignatieff suggests that the problem with America is not its policy challenges abroad but its “democratic dysfunction at home.” A major component of that dysfunction is “the gross failure to control the invidious power of money in politics.” (http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2014/sep/25/new-world-disorder/)
A little noted and relatively minor example of such dysfunction occurred in May of 2013. But this minor example is indicative of the larger influences at work in the U.S. Congress.
The Assembly of the Friends of Azerbaijan (AFAZ) held a massive conference in Baku.
The country just happens to have a lot of oil. In fact, the center of Russia’s oil industry was traditionally in Baku, Azerbaijan’s capital, when the Baku Khanate was part of Russia. Now the country produces close to 1 million barrels of oil per day, most of which is transported by pipeline to the Turkish port of Ceyhan where it is loaded on tankers and shipped to world markets.
Azerbaijan’s U.S. Congressional friends have been very helpful in supporting the pipeline projects. The 2013 conference was only one part of that. Since then campaign funds have flowed to some of the delegation. Rep. James Bridenstine (R-Okla.), one of the conference goers, sponsored an amendment to the annual defense appropriation bill asserting the crucial significance for NATO security of building the pipelines.
While the amendment did not make it into the bill that was signed into law, he received $29,000 in campaign contributions for his 2014 re-election bid from friends of AFAZ and the Gulen movement.
Other conference goers also benefitted from campaign contributions. Representative Michael Turner (R. OH) has received $38,200 since 2011. Shirley Jackson Lee (D. Tex) has received $78,000. Ted Poe (R. TX) has received $39,000 from the same sources.
All in all, that group of donors has contributed $482,000 to federal political candidates since 2011.
WASHINGTON. June 23, 2015: The rise of Brenda Shaffer as a scholar and oft-quoted expert in the field of energy politics illustrates just how vulnerable the American foreign policy establishment is to manipulation by foreign agents.
Supported by an overseas regime and an assorted network of overt and undercover lobbyists, she used oil money to build her academic credentials, then in turn used those credentials to promote Azerbaijan’s agendas through Congressional testimony, dozens of newspaper op-eds and media appearances, countless think tank events, and even scholarly publications.
She’s still doing it.
Shaffer first walked into Congress in 2001 to testify before the House of Representatives’ Committee on International Relations.
She was introduced as “the director of the Caspian Studies Program and a post-doctoral fellow in the international security program at the Belfort [Belfer] Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government”.
Addressing lawmakers, she asked them to repeal a section of the Freedom Support Act that barred direct US aid to the Azerbaijani government. “They have extended their hand to the US. They have huge expectations that the policy of this country is based on some sort of morality and high ideals,” she told them, and reinforced this in written testimony she also submitted.
Washington. June 20, 2015: To see how foreign interests distort reality to steer political debate and influence American foreign policy, look no further than a Dec. 5, 2012, meeting in the US Congress chaired by then-Rep. Dan Burton, R-Indiana.
The meeting was of the House subcommittee on Europe and Eurasia, and the star witness was Brenda Shaffer, a Ph.D. specialist on the Caucasus and former research director of Harvard’s Caspian Studies Program.
Burton introduced her as “the prettiest gal at the table.” And she, in turn, proceeded to warn assembled lawmakers that Iran was destabilizing pro-Western countries in that region, particularly its small but oil-rich neighbor, Azerbaijan.
But Burton and Shaffer both had ties to Azerbaijan they did not tell the committee about.
Shortly after this hearing was held, Burton resigned from the House and started a new job as chairman of the board of the Azerbaijan America Alliance, a lobby group promoting closer ties between the countries and apparently funded by a family close to the president of Azerbaijan.
BAKU. June 19, 2015: A propaganda campaign to drum up support for the Olympic European Games is fuel for memes.
The first Olympic European Games are currently underway in Azerbaijan, and President Ilham Aliyev is extremely worried about his nation’s image. So much so that pro-government TV stations have been dressing up native Azerbaijanis as foreign tourists or getting sympathetic vacationers to praise the oil-rich Caucasian country in outlandish terms. It’s all to the delight of Azerbaijan’s independent media, which has satirized these Potemkin interviews in a series of viral videos and Internet memes.
On Lider TV, for instance, a channel owned by one of Aliyev’s cousins, carried this brief but hilarious exchange with a young man who identifies himself in heavily accented English as “James Bonar.” He claims to have come from London on his first ever trip to “beautiful” Baku, which he describes as “a very fantasy, just fantasy.” Also, the food is “really, really, really good, very good.”
He would certainly know since James Bonar is in fact an Azeri-born man called Seymur Safarov, from the Jebrail region, according to Emin Milli, the managing director of independent Meydan TV and a recent contributor to The Daily Beast. Clever social media sleuths at Meydan found Safarov’s original Facebook page, where he’s dressed exactly the same as he was for his Lider spot.
WASHINGTON. June 19, 2015: Rejoice! After years of enviously watching athletes in Asia, Africa, the Pacific and the Americas flaunt their sporting might together as continental brothers and sisters, Europe finally has a competition to call its own. Live, from the fifth most censored country in the world, it’s the first ever European Games.
Jutting out into the glistening Caspian Sea, Baku, the oil boom capital of Azerbaijan, is fizzing and popping with European Games mania. Six thousand athletes from 50 countries have descended on the city to run, twist and grunt their way through two weeks of gruelling sporting competition. Stadia have sprouted like mushrooms, glassy hotels stretch into the clouds and phalanxes of volunteers marshal the masses of spectators, hacks and dignitaries into arenas to watch the games, some of which will qualify athletes for the Rio Olympics next year.
It is impressive to see Baku holding an event so flash, sophisticated and well-attended when one remembers that barely two decades ago the city was a dusty backwater still convulsing from the collapse of the Soviet Union and war with neighbouring Armenia. Yet even before the opening ceremony on June 12th, there were sinister signals that this event would not quite live up to the Olympic ideals. Officials from Amnesty International, which planned to hold a press conference in Baku during the games, to highlight the country’s political prisoners, were denied visas. As were delegates from Human Rights Watch. A British activist from Platform London was detained at Baku airport for over 30 hours before being promptly deported. Journalists from the BBC, the Guardian, Radio France International and German broadcaster ARD were also denied accreditation.
BAKU. June 17, 2015 (au.eusport.com): Baku, one of the richest capital cities in Eastern Europe thanks to the oil money in Azerbaijan, witnessed the singer perform a set which was widely acclaimed as a superb centrepiece for the ceremony as the first ever European Games opened up on Friday night.
It subsequently emerged that her performance didn't come cheap, with the eye-watering sum (for a set of just 10 minutes) in stark contrast to the nominal £1 fees demanded by the likes of Paul McCartney at the opening of the London 2012 Olympics.
Was it worth it? Liam Morgan of Inside The Games said yes, even if he found Gaga's flower-strewn piano somewhat offputting: "It was difficult not to stand back and think that having Gaga perform was a true coup for the event as a whole.
LONDON. June 15, 2015: Ilham Aliyev’s family owns a 10,500-square-foot London mansion worth more than US$ 25 million.
The house is on Hampstead Lane, in a leafy corner of North London – a cool oasis from the bustle of the central tourist zone. The red-brick building stands behind an imposing security gate, hidden from prying eyes by thick hedges. The curtains in its large windows are drawn, and the driveway stands empty save for a couple of service personnel who come and go in a battered Fiat Punto.
It is an old neighborhood, and a rich one.
Just across the street stands the baronial Kenwood House, an enormous wedding-cake-style structure built in the 17th century, which was once owned by William Murray, first Earl of Mansfield.
It overlooks the rugged green expanse of Hampstead Heath, a kind of wild urban park whose landscapes inspired the great English Romantic poet John Keats.
MONTREAL. June 15, 2015 (Meydan.tv): U2 frontman Bono sent a personal message to Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, demanding release of political prisoners.
"Message for President Aliyev! And that message is this Sir: if anything happens to one of our friends, we will hold you responsible!" he said at a concert in Montreal.
Bono referred to jailed Azerbaijani activists and journalists Emin Huseynov, Khadija Ismayilova, Anar Mammadli, Leyla Yunus, Rasul Jafarov, and Intigam Aliyev, whose photos were displayed in the arena.
Bono's impassioned appeal came in response to a request from the Sport for Rights campaign. Speaking on stage from his concerts in Montreal both on 12 and 13 June, Bono mentioned "six friends of ours who tonight are locked behind bars for the crime of expressing their opinion”.
BERLIN. June 12, 2015 (HRW.ORG): The first European Games will open in Azerbaijan on June 12, 2015, in an atmosphere of government repression unprecedented in the post-Soviet era, Human Rights Watch said today.
The authorities have detained dozens of critics of the government and failed to allow several journalists from major European outlets to enter the country to cover the games. They have also barred the human rights organization Amnesty International from releasing a report in Baku, the capital.
“Government repression is making the European Games historic for all the wrong reasons,” said Rachel Denber, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The European Olympic Committee still has the chance to prevent the Games from being tarnished by the Azerbaijani government’s abuses, but time is running out.”
Azerbaijan is hosting the inaugural European Games, a multi-sport event for over 6,000 athletes from 50 European nations, in Baku from June 12 to 28. The European Olympic Committees (EOC), an association of 50 National Olympic Committees, owns and regulates the games. Azerbaijan’s president, Ilham Aliyev, is also the president of the country’s National Olympic Committee, and has strong ties with the sports world.
In recent weeks Azerbaijani authorities denied or failed to provide required press accreditation and visas to at least three foreign journalists with European media outlets. A reporter with a leading European television station said he has yet to receive accreditation despite following all of the procedures. The authorities denied accreditation to Regis Gente, a journalist with Radio France Internationale who has been based in the South Caucasus reporting news stories on Azerbaijan since 2002. A third journalist denied accreditation works for a major European news media outlet.
BAKU. June 12, 2015 (Azadliq.org): A terrifying video clip has emerged of a bus ramming into a group of teenage Austrian competitors at the European Games in Azerbaijan in an incident that has left Austrians reeling and overshadowed the start of the sporting extravaganza.
The synchronized swimmers, all 15 years old, were walking on the pavement in the athletes' village on June 11 when a shuttle bus rammed into them, dragging several of them underneath.
The grisly collision was captured on camera.
The incident came on the eve of the opening ceremonies of the first-ever European Games, touted as Europe's answer to continental events like the Pan-American Games and the Asian Games.
It deals a blow to Azerbaijan's efforts to burnish its image, tarnished by accusations of corruption and human rights abuses.
BAKU. June 12, 2015: From June 12 to 28, over 6,000 athletes will compete in the European Games, a new event on the sporting calendar modeled on the Olympic Games.
The host country, Azerbaijan, which has a population of 9.5 million and is located on the western shore of the Caspian Sea, has spared no expense. President Ilham Aliyev, in power since 2003, has spent over €8 billion ($10 billion) on the games, according to human rights organizations—a cost that cannot be verified because of a lack of transparency.
Regardless of the costs, which include state-of-the-art facilities and lucrative sponsorship contracts, it is Azerbaijan’s human rights record that has come under scrutiny—but not enough. The European Union should be in a much stronger position to challenge Baku’s miserable record, but it seems unwilling to risk a major confrontation.
This is despite the fact that over the past twelve months, human rights organizations have documented a sustained government crackdown on protests organized by individuals calling for civil rights and freedoms in this oil-rich country. Protesters now in prison include Rasul Jafarov, the founder of the group Human Rights Club, the investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova, and human rights activists Leyla and Arif Yunus.
Some have called for a boycott of the European Games. Others simply want more freedoms. Either way, Aliyev will not tolerate any civil society movements or individuals who might dent the hegemony of the ruling party’s power.
PRAGUE. June 11, 2015 (OCCRP Report):From a distance, Azerbaijan may look like any other oil-rich country.
Its capital Baku shines at night, thanks to the multicolored lights from newly-constructed futuristic buildings that evoke the architectural playgrounds of the United Arab Emirates. The government is happily spending billions on marquee events to show off the country such as this year's 2015 European Games, expected to cost US$ 8 billion.
But while outwardly the country is rich, that wealth is not trickling down to the 9.6 million citizens of Azerbaijan who increasingly are going into debt to survive.
As of Feb. 1, there were 2.3 million people who had bank loans, a sharp increase of 17.7 percent in one year, as many struggle to cover sharply rising living expenses.
Borrowing this money is not cheap: interest rates on consumer loans in 2014 averaged 18 percent, three times higher than in the European Union.
WASHINGTON.June 11, 2015: “However life turns out — the hardest part is I can’t see you. And this is our 37th year together.” So ends a letter from Azerbaijani political prisoner Leyla Yunus to her husband Arif, also imprisoned by his country’s increasingly thin-skinned authoritarian government. The Yunuses were arrested nearly a year ago and have not been allowed to see each other since. The charges leveled against them — high treason, espionage, fraud — are patently absurd. Leyla Yunus is one of the country’s best-known human rights activists and a relentless critic of President Aliyev and his corrupt regime. She is also a tireless advocate for the country’s other political prisoners, who add up to twice as many — according to a detailed open letter signed by a plethora of human rights organizations, academics, and regional experts — as Belarus and Russia combined.
Azerbaijan has papered over its dismal human rights record by presenting itself to the United States as a loyal partner in the “war on terror,” a stalwart friend to Israel, and an important energy supplier.
LONDON. June 11, 2015 (International Business Times): This is supposed to be Azerbaijan's moment, showing a modern, outward-looking country to the world after its ruling regime has spent an estimated $6.5 billion on the first-ever European Games.
This is the first of a series of sporting events Azerbaijan has bid for, including the European Grand Prix 2016 and matches in the 2020 European football championship.
In Baku, no expense has been spared, with athletes receiving free flights and accommodation, all on the state, as well as London restaurants, a specially printed magazine, and sponsorship of European football clubs.
All this is supposed to buy the ruling regime an air of respectability - but Azerbaijan's jails tell a very different story. Far from the new stadiums and sporting facilities some of the best minds Azerbaijan has to offer sit behind bars.
WASHINGTON. June 10, 2015 (RFE/RL): On June 12, the first-ever European Games will kick off in Azerbaijan -- a sporting event of Olympic magnitude, featuring 50 nations competing in 30 sports over two weeks. The host government has spent at least $10 billion preparing for the games, building sports facilities, conducting controversial (sometimes deadly) beautification efforts, and pledging to pay the tab for more than 6,000-plus participating athletes.
On June 10, RFE/RLive gathered several experts and observers to consider whether the glitz of the European Games will overshadow the many costs being incurred by the Azerbaijani government to stage the event.
BRUSSELS. June 8, 2015 (Azadliq.org): The day after the tragic fire that killed 15, an Azerbaijani diplomat, head of the Permanent Observer Mission of Organization of Islamic Cooperation to the European Union, Arif Mammadov posted on his personal Facebook profile, a status, critical of the official authorities in Azerbaijan:
“This tragedy is the pain and tragedy of every Azerbaijani. No people will tolerate so much shame and injustice. Officials make millions off our people’s suffering, and if they do not fear the wrath of our people, then let them fear Allah's wrath!”
Hikmat Hajiyev, was among those who "liked" the update above. However, Hajiyev, also a diplomat, and Foreign Ministry spokesperson apologized for his “like” shortly after: “From the technical point of view the “like” option on social media platforms does not mean acceptance or approval of any opinion, and is more about the concept “seen it, read it”. Nevertheless, due to a misunderstanding of the “like” status in social networks related to the fire, I apologize.”
Hajiyev also added, “I strongly condemn the acts and thoughts of Arif Mammadov, who for several years worked in the Foreign Ministry of Azerbaijan […] Insults against his own people are not allowed. This is a prime example of how Arif Mammadov together with his patrons in Europe is involved in the anti-Azerbaijani propaganda campaign in the run-up to the European Games”.
BAKU. June 5, 2015: In a fruther escalation of the confrontation with the West, the official Baku has decided to shut down the local representation of the Organization for Scurity and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Turan News Agency reports that based on the communication between the Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry and the OSCE headqurters in Vienna on June 3, 2015. "The government of Azerbaijan has reported that there is no need for more activities of the OSCE Project Co-ordinator in Baku. Therefore, the Government of Azerbaijan considers the "Memorandum of Understanding between the Government of Azerbaijan and the OSCE on the OSCE Project Coordinator in Baku", signed September 24, 2014, null and void as of yesterday June 4, 2015. The government provides the OSCE one month to complete the technical issues that arise in such a situation," reads the letter. On June 5, the OSCE Secretary General Lamberto Zannier informed OSCE member states about the decision of the official Baku.
Any comments from the Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry and other structures have been reported yet.
It should be noted that two years ago Baku lowed the level of the OSCE, which has been downgraded to the embassy to the OSCE Project Coordinator.
BAKU. June 5, 2015: The European Games open in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, on 12 June. Some 6,000 athletes from almost 50 countries are set to compete.
But Khadija Ismayilova, below, the country's best known investigative journalist, is unlikely to attend. Ismayilova, a correspondent for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) has just celebrated her 39th birthday in prison.
For years Ismayilova has been subjected to harassment, smear campaigns and intimidation after exposing the business activities of the country's ruling elite. At one stage intimate footage of Ismayilova was released on the internet in an attempt to silence her. Unbowed, she continued working until 5 December 2014, when she was arrested on the Kafkaesque charge of inciting an ex-colleague to attempt suicide.
Three weeks later her Baku office was raided. Investigators and armed police ransacked the bureau, confiscated documents and detained other staff members for several hours before releasing them. Ismayilova's accuser withdrew his claim but a new set of charges soon followed: embezzlement, abuse of power, tax evasion and running an illegal business. Ismayilova faces a prison sentence of 12 years if found guilty.
BAKU. June 2, 2015: Yesterday, the Grave Crimes Court of Azerbaijan sentenced Elvin Abdullayev, the youth activist from the opposition Popular Front Party of Azerbaijan (PFPA), to six years in jail on the trumped up drug charges. The PFPA called the entire legal process a sham and a cover-up for an act of political repression against an opposition activist. Making his final statement before the announcement of the court's verdict, Elvin Abdullayev said he was not guilty and that his arrest was an act of political persecution. "My arrest is a victory over the dictator, I am happy that I have won this battle and I became a political prisoner. I consider myself a winner because the dictatorial regime is afraid of me. A power, which sells three tons of heroin (reference to the fact that last year the Customs Service of Georgia caught three tons of heroin being transported from Azerbaijan and at the time the Azerbaijani officials tried to cover up the entire story of traficking of large amount of heroin from the country - Ed.), accuses me of possessing three grams of heroin. There will be a time when this regime will be convicted here."
GENEVA. June 2, 2015 (OHCHR.org): The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, Michel Forst, today criticised the “relentless prosecution and repression of prominent rights activists in Azerbaijan” and called for their immediate release ahead of the inaugural European Games in Baku which begin on 12 June.
“As preparations were in full swing for the Baku Games, the Azerbaijani authorities stepped up their efforts to harass, jail, and surveil human rights defenders, as well as ban them from travel and freeze their assets,” the independent expert said.
“Such unjustifiable criminalization has been usually justified with trumped-up or politically-motivated charges of state treason, illegal entrepreneurship, tax evasion and abuse of office,” Mr. Forst said. “As a result, most Azerbaijani defenders have had to endure prolonged pre-trial detention, imprisonment or exile.”
The UN expert drew special attention to the cases of Intigam Aliyev and Khadija Ismail for documenting cases of political prisoners; Anar Mammadli, Bashir Suleymanli and Elnur Mammadov for monitoring the presidential elections in October 2013; Leyla Yunus and her husband, Arif, for criticising the government; and Rasul Jafarov for organising the “Sport for Rights” initiative during the Baku Games to expose corruption and rights abuses in the country.
BAKU. June 2, 2015: The activity of Alex Shakhtakhtinsky, as a head of the OSCE office in Azerbaijan has been stopped, wrote in his microblog on Twitter on Monday the deputy head of the Presidential Administration Novruz Mammadov. "I received an information that the mandate of Shakhtakhtinsky was suspended," wrote Mammadov. Some time later, the Azerbaijani government official made a new record saying that the OSCE representative's move to have his photo taken together with the Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev became the reason for his dismissal.
Novruz Mammadov wrote: "The US Special Representative to the OSCE Daniel Baer reproached Shakhtakhtinsky for it, and that was the main reason." Further, the Azerbaijani government official ironized that maybe if Mr. Shahtakhtinsky had posed in a photo next to Mr. Baer and not the Azerbaijani president, he would have still kept his position.
The OSCE office told the Turan News Agency that Alex Shahtakhtinsky stopped being the OSCE representative in Azerbaijan because his term had expired. The OSCE office in Vienna provided no comments on the Azerbaijani government official's statements about the US ambassador to the OSCE Daniel Baer.
"I noted that the two photos of you were with President Aliyev and the foreign minister... There was no photo of you reading the Decalogue, there was no photo of you with civil society, and I would just like to remind you that, while consultation with the host government is certainly an important part of your work, you work for all of us, and you work for the principles that underlie this organization. Your masters are not the Government of Azerbaijan..." Baer said to Shahtahtinski in Vienna to the Permanent Council of the OSCE, which took place in May 2014.
PRAGUE. May 28, 2015 (OCCRP.ORG): A company close to Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and his family likely walked off with more than US$ 1 billion in a takeover of his country’s stake in Azercell Telecom, the largest mobile operator in the country. The process was aided by a subsidiary of TeliaSonera, the Swedish-Finnish telecom giant, which acted against its own interest to allow the deal to happen.
TeliaSonera, which owns a majority share of Azercell, facilitated and financed the takeover and agreed to dilute its own ownership stake and turn down dividends in order to placate the government of Azerbaijan. In exchange, Azercell would receive all required regulatory approvals and licenses necessary to operate in Azerbaijan, according to internal documents from an early version of the deal. A former financial investigator who reviewed the findings called it possibly the largest bribery in Swedish history.
Reporters from the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), Swedish Television’s program “Uppdrag Granskning” (“Mission Investigate”) and the Swedish News Agency TT spent three months examining hundreds of pages of business records, annual reports and internal documents related to the deal. Swiss Radio and Television (SRF) and the Turkish daily Hurriyet contributed to the reporting.
The analysis uncovered a scheme to transfer the states shares of the profitable mobile carrier into the hands of a “local partner” with numerous links to the ruling Aliyev family. In addition, TeliaSonera and its partners down played and obscured what was really going on in its documents and its public statements at the time were often misleading.
WASHINGTON DC. May 27, 2015: Several lawmakers caught up in an investigation of their participation in a lavish overseas trip introduced legislation that would benefit the alleged host of their spring 2013 junket – the state-owned Azerbaijani oil company. Additionally, these lawmakers — and others on the trip — have received tens of thousands of dollars in donations from a network of individuals with close ties to two nonprofit organizations to which the oil company allegedly funneled money to pay for the trip.
The official actions of the lawmakers to encourage energy development in the Caspian Sea and the clusters of contributions from people linked to the nonprofits that facilitated the trip have not been previously reported. The trip itself has been scrutinized by the Office of Congressional Ethics, which found that the State Oil Company of the Azerbaijan Republic (SOCAR) provided hundreds of thousands of dollars to the two nonprofits to pay for the 10 lawmakers to attend a conference in Baku, Azerbaijan, at which the development of natural gas pipelines through the Caucasus region and Turkey were discussed, according to the Washington Post. Earlier reports on the trip said it was paid for by two Texas nonprofits closely affiliated with followers of Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen, the Turquoise Council of Americans and Eurasians and the Assembly of the Friends of Azerbaijan (AFAZ).
A representative of SOCAR confirmed to OpenSecrets Blog that his company provided the money to AFAZ. According to a Foreign Agents Registration Act filing from 2014, AFAZ was working on behalf of SOCAR. Travel disclosures by the lawmakers who went to Baku indicate the travel and other costs were paid by the Turquoise Council or one of several Turkic-American groups with close ties to the Council.
BAKU. May 25, 2015: A fire that killed 15 people and destroyed an apartment block in the Azerbaijani capital Baku has raised fears about building standards, as the city undergoes a makeover ahead of next month’s European Games.
Although the fire service was swiftly on the scene when the 16-storey block caught fire on May 19, officers could not check the flames as the plastic cladding on the building’s exterior burned uncontrollably over four hours. Four of the 16 residents who died were young children. Fifty others were injured, and most were later said to be in serious condition.
“When I came to in the evening, a doctor told me I had lost two children – three-year-old Farah and my unborn baby,” Gunay Maharramova told the Minval.az news service. “Then I stopped feeling the aching pain of the wounds I received in the fire, and a new fire started inside me that no one and nothing can ever put out.”
The government swiftly set up a commission to look into the tragedy, and President Ilham Aliev chaired its first meeting on May 20. Deputy Prime Minister Abid Sharifov, appointed to head the commission, said residents of the gutted apartment block in Baku’s Binagadi district would be given temporary accommodation and 20,000 manats (19,500 US dollars) per household in compensation, while families who lost members would get another 15,000 manats each.
Sharifov indicated that building and safety standards had not been observed, and Prosecutor General Zakir Qaralov pointed to the exterior plastic cladding, saying it had not been checked or certified.
WASHINGTON. May 21, 2015: Washington decided to hold off on carrying a bilateral dialogue over civil society and democracy with the Azerbaijani officials, TURAN’s U.S. correspondent Alakbar Raufoglu was informed by the diplomatic sources.
State Department official Tom Malinowski, the assistant secretary of state for human rights, was planning to visit Baku early last week to focus on current challenges between the two countries in a wave of an ongoing crackdown against civil society and western institutions in Azerbaijan.
The trip, however, got cancelled at the last moment, according to the diplomatic sources, leading to rumors that the Azerbaijani side prevented it. Baku previously snubbed another top U.S. government delegation’s trip prior to 2013 presidential election,which was supposed to be lead by then DAS Thomas Melia on democracy and human rights.
Speaking to TURAN’s Washington correspondent on Wednesday, May 20 a State Department Official ruled out the possibility ofAzeri cancellation of Malinowski trip.
“It’s not correct that the Azerbaijan government prevented a trip,” State Department Officials noted. “While the US and Azerbaijan agreed to hold such a dialogue during [Assistant Secretary] Toria Nuland’s February visit to Baku, we simply don’t believe that such a dialogue would be productive right now given the current climate. That’s our judgment, and our decision.”
Although the agreement on creation of a bilateral U.S.-Azerbaijani dialogue was announced in February, it yet remained unclear whether Azeris, or the U.S. side initiated the idea.
WASHINGTON. May 19, 2015: The government of Azerbaijan is pursuing two big, interrelated campaigns. One of them is a relentless domestic effort against any independent voices who criticize the regime. The other is an international campaign to convince audiences beyond the country’s borders that no real crackdown is taking place or, if it is, that it should not be taken all that seriously.
The domestic campaign has gathered steam in advance of the first ever European Games that will open in Azerbaijan’s capital, Baku, on June 12th. Civil society activists and news media have felt the brunt of the deepening repression. The international campaign takes the form of massive investments aimed at shaping elite opinion and decision making in key Western capitals, including Washington and Brussels.
A spotlight was shined on these issues at a recent discussion held in Washington titled “Azerbaijan: A Test Case for Democratic Solidarity.” Kennan Aliyev, director of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s (RFE/RL’s) Azerbaijani Service, observed that in an already repressive media environment the government in Baku is doing “everything it can” to disrupt independent media. He noted the use of raids and various forms of pressure against a growing number of individuals and organizations that support transparency, accountability, and democratic development in the country; the jailing of award-winning journalist Khadija Ismayilova in December 2014 drew particular international attention. She remains imprisoned, her pre-trial detention having been recently extended by another three months.
BAKU. May 19, 2015: A police officer and a fire fighter help child victim of an apartment building fire in Baku, Azerbaijan, Tuesday, May 19, 2015. Azerbaijani officials say 16 people have died and more than 50 have been injured in a fire at an apartment building in Baku, the capital. The massive fire quickly engulfed 16-story apartment building Tuesday and took hours to contain. Azerbaijan's chief prosecutor, Zakir Garalov, said the bad quality of plastic paneling covering the building contributed to the fire and a criminal probe has been launched to determine the culprits. (AP Photo/Orxan Azim)
WASHINGTON, May 14, 2015: According to the Washington Post, the Office of Congressional Ethics has discovered that a state-owned Azerbaijani energy company used nonprofit proxies to fund a trip by 10 members of the House of Representatives to a 2013 conference in Azerbaijan. Such foreign-funded travel would appear to violate the Foreign Gifts and Decorations Act; per the Post, however, there is no evidence any of the legislators who took the trip knew that the two Houston-based nonprofits that funded it were actually fronts for Azerbaijani government interests.
The independent Office of Congressional Ethics, which was launched in 2008 to conduct investigations, has given its report on the matter to the House Committee on Ethics. The House Committee on Ethics can recommend sanctions against House members (which would then be voted on by the full House) and can also refer incidents of potential illegality to state and federal authorities.
The Azerbaijani energy company involved is known as SOCAR, and its presumed motive for wining and dining United States figures, per the Post, is to ensure that a gas pipeline on which both SOCAR and an Iranian company are working continues to win exemptions from American sanctions against Iran. Such exemptions allow companies involved with the pipeline to continue to do business in the United States and have been granted by Congress and signed into law by President Obama on multiple occasions. (Travel-funding shenanigans aside, the pipeline is considered beneficial to American interests “because it would bolster European security by offering an alternative to Russian gas,” the Post writes.)
In February Ismayilova was fined 2,500 manat (about $2,500 -ed.) for defamation of former opposition leader Elman Hasanov. The decision to postpone her appeal comes as she enters her six month in pretrial detention over a number of separate charges, dismissed as spurious and trumped up by international human rights organisations.
“The continued judicial harassment of Khadija Ismayilova by Azerbaijani authorities is cruel and unjust,” said Index CEO Jodie Ginsberg. “As Azerbaijan prepares to host this summer’s inaugural European Games, it is worth remembering that the treatment of Ismayilova flies in the face of the principles of press freedom and human dignity enshrined in the Olympic Charter.”
Ismayilova was arrested on December 5 on charges of inciting suicide and given two months in pretrial detention, which has since been extended twice, last in early March. The initial charge has in recent weeks been further discredited by the backtracking of the accuser, Tural Mustafayev.
In April Mustafayev said in a radio interview that he no longer stands by the letter he wrote in November 2014, accusing Ismayilova of inciting him to suicide, and that he had written to the head public prosecutor to retract his complaint. He says he had first tried in December to withdraw the complaint. Then in May, he accused the city prosecutor’s office in Baku of using his suicide attempt as an opportunity to target Ismayilova.
NEW YORK. May 9, 2015: Khadija Ismayilova, a jailed Azerbaijani investigative journalist the journalist of the local Azerbaijani office of the Radio Liberty, crowned her journalistic achievements on May 5 by winning a prestigious media freedom award from the PEN American Center. Chants of "Khadija, Khadija" erupted from the more than 800 guests gathered at a gala awards dinner in New York as top names in the journalism world moved to recognize Ismayilova's bravery and persistence in exposing corruption at the highest levels of power in Azerbaijan.
The Azerbaijani government have subjected Khadija Ismayilova to detention, legal harassment and character assassination. In December, she was arrested on the contrived charge that she had incited a colleague to suicide and she remains in pre-trial detention.
Not coincidentally, Ismayilova’s imprisonment coincides with the European Games, an Olympic-organized event to be held in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, in June. PEN presented Ismayilova with its PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award (for a writer imprisoned or persecuted for his or her work), last night, and commissioned the following cartoons speaking to her situation.
Living outside Washington, D.C. along with his family, Yunus says, he often visits the neighboring city Baltimore which reminds him of Baku — the city where he grew up.
Yunus, a former chief of staff of the Azerbaijani government and Parliament, was forced out of his country in 2003 due to political shift that he was strongly opposing, and got an asylum in the U.S. years ago.
Most of his family members though were persecuted since then for political reasons; and the government is still punishing some. Most recently, his brother Arif Yunus and Arif’s wife Leila Yunus, both leading rights activists in the country, have also been arrested, facing charges of fraud and treason that supporters say are used as a punishment for their long years of activism and regional peace efforts.
BAKU. May 1, 2015 (Radio Azadliq): Requirements for Azerbaijani nationals, permanently living and working abroad to register at the local consulates and embassies now extends to temporary residence holders as well.
All Azerbaijani citizens must register at the local consulates within a month of their arrival to a foreign country.
Relevant information will be sent to the Ministry of Labor and Social Protection as well as the State Migration Service twice a year – in March and September. This new amendment was added to the laws on "Citizenship” and on "Leaving, Returning and Passport”.
“The downside of this requirement is that Azerbaijani government will keep taps on all its citizens living and working abroad. It is going to be easy to locate those critical of the government. This law is part of the government’s attempt to keep its nationals under control”, says Asima Nasirli, lawyer focused on migration issues.