Council of Europe urged to investigate Azerbaijan bribery allegations

One of Europe’s most venerable human rights bodies has been warned it risks falling into irrelevance unless it sets up a robust investigation into allegations of vote-rigging in favour of Azerbaijan’s authoritarian regime.

The parliamentary assembly of the Council of Europe (Pace) has been accused of turning a blind eye to corruption, after allegations that a former senior member was paid €2.39m (£2.06m) to engineer votes to protect the kleptocratic regime of Azerbaijan’s president, Ilham Aliyev.

Pieter Omtzigt, a centre-right Dutch parliamentarian, is urging Pace leaders to launch a “deep, thorough investigation by an independent panel” that makes its findings public.

“We see a lot of suspicious outcomes of votes and procedures on Azerbaijan,” Omtzigt told the Guardian. The Dutch Christian Democrat is the co-author of a resolution calling for an urgent investigation and overhaul of the assembly’s code of conduct.

The Council of Europe, which was created in 1949 to protect democracy and promote the rule of law, has 47 members including Russia and Turkey. Azerbaijan joined in 2001, but observers have long raised questions about the parliamentary assembly’s weak response to ballot-box stuffing and human rights violations in the oil-rich country.

Human rights groups have blamed “caviar diplomacy”, gifts of gold, silver, silk carpets and the regional fishy delicacy, which are showered on visiting dignitaries to the capital, Baku.

The latest allegations are centred on Italian politician Luca Volontè, the former chair of the centre-right group in the parliamentary assembly. He is being investigated by the Milan public prosecutor’s office for allegedly accepting €2.39m in bribes, in exchange for working for Azerbaijan in the parliamentary assembly. Human rights groups allege he played a key role in orchestrating the defeat of a highly critical report on the abuse of political prisoners in Azerbaijan in 2013. Volontè denies any wrongdoing.

The allegations, which were aired by Italian public broadcaster RAI in November 2016, have plunged the parliamentary body into turmoil.

Many senior parliamentarians have warned that failure to carry out an independent investigation would erode the credibility of the human rights body, which was inspired by Winston Churchill, and sends election monitors to every corner of Europe. “It is not credible if you tell other countries to be open and transparent if you do not investigate credible allegations of vote-rigging,” Omtzigt said.

One fifth of Pace’s 324 parliamentarians have signed Omtzigt’s resolution, which states that “recent, serious and credible allegations of grave misconduct” risk undermining public confidence in the assembly. The signatories are a cross-party coalition, drawn from 25 countries, including the UK, France, Germany, the Nordic countries, the Baltic countries, Greece and Ukraine.

Mogens Jensen, a Danish politician who leads the socialists in the parliamentary assembly, has also warned that the body’s credibility is at stake. The allegations were a “great threat to the assembly’s reputation and reliability” he told parliamentarians last week, adding his voice to a chorus of calls for action.

Gerald Knaus, the chairman of the European Stability Initiative, a thinktank specialising in south-eastern Europe and the Caucasus, said the Council of Europe’s parliamentary leaders had failed to ask questions about “open and obvious” suspicions of corruption, which had been circulating in the corridors of the Strasbourg assembly.

The rosy picture of Azerbaijan’s elections painted by monitors from Pace should have raised questions years ago, Knaus said.

“We have had election observers from the Council of Europe in 2010, 2013 and again in 2015. Each time these elected parliamentarians came away saying the sun was shining, when everyone else said it was raining. Each time they say the elections were free and fair … and each time the long-term observer election experts from the OSCE and ODIHR, say there were major problems.”

Knaus said the assembly’s leaders had shown an “astonishing amount of indifference”. The Council of Europe “is an institution we need more than ever given all the attacks on core human rights in Europe,” he continued. “If Europe fails to defend these principles what hope is there for anywhere else in the world.”

The head of Pace, Spanish centre-right senator Pedro Agramunt, last week agreed to set up an independent investigation to “shed light on hidden practices that favour corruption”. He had initially resisted the inquiry, blaming fellow parliamentarians for “a campaign to discredit political opponents by means of slurs, intimidation and coercion”.

But Agramunt made an abrupt U-turn in favour of an investigation on Friday, after strongly-worded complaints from a dozen countries, including Switzerland, Belgium, the Baltic and Nordic states.

Knaus said the key question now was the terms of reference of the investigation, which will be presented to Agramunt in early March. “There is no reason to be confident about the caviar coalition,” he said, referring to perceived Azeri government interest groups in the parliamentary assembly. But he voiced hope that MPs could help ensure a credible inquiry.

The Pace president was not immediately available for comment.

The parliamentary assembly leader also faces pressure from the secretary general of the Council of Europe, Thorbjørn Jagland, who has said there can be “zero tolerance on corruption” when asked about the allegations by Transparency International.

Jagland’s spokesman said the secretary general had raised concerns internally within the Council of Europe, but could not confirm whether he had spoken to Agramunt. The spokesman added: “He has deemed and still deems this a matter for the parliamentary assembly.”

Under Jagland, the Council of Europe launched an investigation into Azerbaijan’s compliance with the European convention on human rights in 2015, the first such inquiry into a member country in more than a quarter of a century.

Jennifer Rankin in Brussels

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