MEPs say Baku tried to ‘influence European decision-makers through illicit means’, as Council of Europe calls for legal action over defiance over ECHR.
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 slow-burning 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-for-profit 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.