The Czech Republic remains an investment haven for Azerbaijani officials

In 2012, a journalist Khadija Ismayilova investigated Azerbaijani officials’s investments in the Czech Republic. She was arrested soon afterwards. Three years later, we focus on the development of the story within the context of Czech-Azerbaijani relations.

Photo: Chiara Neve/CreativeCommons


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Azerbaijan, under the personal dictatorship of President Ilham Aliyev who “inherited” the country from his father, Heydar Aliyev, has recently captured the international media’s interest because they hosted June’s European Games. The Guardian’s chief sports correspondent, Owen Gibson, was denied entry into Azerbaijan to report on the games 1 and asked, “whether a country with such a poor human rights record should host an international sporting event.” 2 This dilemma was also reflected in the European leaders’ boycott of the game’s opening ceremony. 3

Azerbaijan’s human rights track record is rather disappointing – Reporters Without Borders ranks Azerbaijan 162nd out of 180 countries for press freedom, explaining that, “outspoken journalists and bloggers are being given the same choice as human rights defenders – shut up, flee abroad or be jailed on trumped-up charges.” 4 Similarly, the Committee to Protect Journalists ranks Azerbaijan as the 5th most censored country in the world, 5 and Human Rights Watch pointed to 35 incidents of the detainment, prosecution or imprisonment of political activists and journalists in 2014. 6 The Guardian claims there are currently about 100 political detainees. 7

One of them is Azerbaijani investigative journalist and radio host, Khadija Ismayilova, who the Europe and Central Asia Programme Director at Amnesty International, John Dalhuisen, characterized as, “one of the last remaining independent voices in the country.” 8 In 2012 Ismayilova played a key role in investigating the “Azeri Enclave in the Czech Republic” case, which was published by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP). 9 The investigation focused on Azerbaijani officials, including members of the ruling Aliyev family, who established companies, bought land, and built luxury hotels and villas in the Czech Republic.

The mainstream media coverage in the Czech Republic was scarce – the report was only mentioned twice – once when one of the authors, Pavla Holcová, was invited to talk about the topic on Czech Radio, 10 and a second time when Petra Procházková, a respected journalist and analyst of the Caucasus Region, wrote a full article on the topic. She noted that instead of criminal investigations, which one might expect following the OCCRP report, nothing happened. Procházková concluded that “an important role in the complicated property webs were played by Czech intermediaries; although their names were publicly known, the evidence of their illegal activities were missing from records.” 11

Because Azerbaijani oppositional media raised interest in the case, officials moved to cover their tracks. Several changes occurred and property was reshuffled between owners, so that members of the Azerbaijani government and the MPs “disappeared” as direct owners, which, as Holcová concluded, was illegal. Fortunes were re-directed to their relatives, but no one was punished. 12

After the original text was published, there were two changes in Azerbaijani businesses in Karlovy Vary. First in September 2013, President Aliyev’s daughter, Arzu, sold Zodiac Immobilienbesitz for $1.2 million. However the new boss of the company, Mahir Rafiyev, is not without political connections himself. In addition to being an advisor to the Azerbaijani Minister of Taxes, he is also the presidential family’s business partner in the finance sector.

Second, Hotel Jeseter´s construction was completed and opened under a new name, Retro Riverside, targeting wealthy clientele. The locals were hoping the hotel would bring new life to the area around the dam, but those prospects were marred by the luxury hotel’s prices, which were far too high for locals to afford, making the place a foreign clientele haven.

The story of Khadija Ismayilova

Very soon after the publication of the original story, Ismayilova became aware she was to be detained. 13 She was summoned for questioning on December 5, 2014, and after giving her testimony was charged, the court decided to detain her for the two-month period leading up to her trial. It was alleged that Ismayilova incited her former Radio Free Europe colleague, Tural Mustafayev’s suicide attempt, a crime according to Azerbaijani law that is punishable by a seven-year incarceration. 14 The prosecutors conveniently picked St Nicholas Day for her arrest, knowing the media would be busy reporting the coming holidays.

The day after her arrest, a 15-man special commando police unit searched her apartment, where they confiscated 58 DVDs, a modem and a number of business cards. Then on January 27, 2015 the court decided to extend Ismayilova’s detention for two more months without setting a trial date.

The Washington Post reprinted a letter from Ismayilova on February 2015 in which she claimed that she was not intimidated by her detainment, because she knew she fought for a righteous cause, and she appealed to public to  seek the truth. 15 In a closed process on February 24th, Ismayilova was fined $2,400 for defamation. 16 Her lawyer made a public statement on March 3rd, in which Ismayilova accused Azerbaijan’s ruling regime of being a criminal establishment and referred to her indictment as an insult. 17 On March 8th the court again extended Ismayilova’s detention to May 24th. 18

On May 8th Ismayilova received the PEN American Center’s Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write award in absentia. Ismayilova in a letter that was smuggled from prison in pieces wrote: “The truth is that Azerbaijan is in the midst of a human rights crisis. Things have never been worse (…) as those at the top continue to profit from corruption, ordinary people are struggling to work, struggling to live, struggling for freedom.” 19

At the end of the ceremony, a series of cartoons by famous artists that told the story of the Azerbaijani journalist were presented to members of the audience. 20 While on May 14th, the court again extended Ismayilova’s detention until August 24th, 21 on May 18th The National Press Club announced that it would honor her with a 2015 Press Freedom Award. 22

An important figure in this case is Ismayilova’s former colleague, Tural Mustafayev. Although he initially accused her of incitement to suicide, after her detainment he later attempted to drop the charges. For various reasons this did not happen. He eventually wrote an official letter to the prosecutor in early April, withdrawing the charges, saying that he had placed them under stress and while experiencing psychological problems. 23 In early May, Mustafayev extended his statement via a YouTube video, in which he claimed to have been pressured by police to make the allegations. They supposedly blackmailed him and threatened to publish a video secretly filmed in his apartment. 24

Even though the original accusations were refuted, Ismayilova still faces up to 12 years in prison for other charges, which were brought against her during her detention. According to her lawyer, she is accused of embezzlement, illegal trade, tax evasion and abuse of power. 25 Before the beginning of the European Games she wrote: “I am carrying on my struggle here, from jail. ( (…) I have been punished for speaking out from jail, placed in solitary confinement and prevented from seeing my family and lawyers.” 26

Between business and human rights

There is a visible conflict between human rights and economic interests in the Czech Republic’s official approach to Azerbaijan. When Karel Schwarzenberg was Minister of Foreign Affairs between 2007 and 2013, Czech diplomacy sought to balance these approaches, even if it ignited conflict with Czech industry representatives and Azerbaijani officials.

Nowadays, the majority of Czech politicians are more inclined to prioritize the interests of local businesses, while sidelining human rights policies. The Czech NGO, People in Need (Člověk v tísni), even claims that some Czech politicians are directly or indirectly corrupt due to their “whitewashing“ of authoritarian regimes‘ behaviors. There have been instances where they have visited problematic countries and praised the “regular“ election processes, that critics have considered falsified or contrained. 27

As the current Minister of Industry and Trade, Jan Mládek, said, “Azerbaijan is our most important strategic trade partner in the Southern Caucasus,“ stressing that mutual trade turnover reached 1.16 billion euros in 2013. Azerbaijan is also the second largest importer of oil to the Czech Republic. 28 When Mládek visited Azerbaijan in March 2015, he dealt primarily with mutual cooperation in the energy sector, trade and development of Azerbaijani infrastructure. 29

President Miloš Zeman intends to keep good relations with Azerbaijan. In February 2014 he met with President Aliyev in Sochi, to discuss increasing mutual trade and Azerbaijan’s contribution to the fight against Islamic fundamentalism. 30 However, concerning relations with Azerbaijan, his tenure has not been completely “conflict-free”. Azerbaijan officially complained in a diplomatic note that Jindřich Forejt, President Zeman´s chief of protocol, did not let Azerbaijani Minister of Foreign Affairs, Elmar Mammadyarov, meet with or sit at the same table as the Czech President. 31

An important feature of Czech-Azerbaijani relations has been Czech support for Azerbaijani dissidents. In 2013, People in Need awarded the Homo homini prize to Intigam Aliyev, a lawyer who because of his participation at demonstrations commemorating the deaths of Azerbaijani soldiers, was arrested in March 2013. 32 A year later, the Human Rights Foundation awarded the Václav Havel´s Prize for Human Rights to Anar Mammadli, who was sentenced to five and a half years in May 2015 for establishing a center for the independent monitoring of elections. 33

When the prize to Intigam Aliyev was handed over, Karel Schwarzenberg met with the lawyer in the headquarters of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, saying that Western countries should not turn their eyes away from Azerbaijan’s human rights abuses. 34 Schwarzenberg branded Azerbaijan a “solid family dictatorship,” 35 and the daily Právo reported that President Aliyev responded by saying the Czech Minister would not be let into Azerbaijan unless he apologized for the statement. 36 Schwarzenberg however refused to apologize.

The Czech Republic’s recent official statement delivered March 17, 2015, at the Human Rights Council’s 28th session (RLP28) pointed out Azerbaijan’s deteriorating environment for independent media and the ongoing persecution and imprisonment of human rights defenders, activists and journalists there. 37

The Czech Republic also got involved in a memory battle between Armenia and Azerbaijan regarding the 1990´s conflict in Northern Karabakh. In 2013, the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Czech Parliament officially declared 38 compassion for the Azerbaijani people when commemorating the 21st anniversary of the Khojaly Massacre, 39 when both Azerbaijan and Armenia have both been accused of committing it. 40

The proclamation stated that 21 years had passed since Armenian units brutally killed 613 harmless civilians in the Azerbaijani town of Khojaly. It referred to the Human Rights Watch statement, 41 which said the Armenian units violated the usual norms for handling civilians. Many governments in the world condemned it, calling it a crime against humanity. The statement also highlights that the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolutions 822 (1993), 853 (1993), 874 (1993) and 884 (1993), all urging the Armenian units to terminate their occupation of Azeri territories; and that the UN General Assembly, European Parliament, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe all confirmed the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Azerbaijan, including Northern Karabakh.

The Czech Republic was the only EU country who condemned the Khojaly Massacre –the Czech Parliament´s declaration was met with surprise and was perceived as one sided considering the mutual violence committed in the conflict. 42 The journalist and senator, Jaromír Štětina, protested against the declaration, 43 saying it was adopted only several days after the Chairman of the Committee, David Vodrážka, met with Azerbaijan’s Envoy, Tahir Taghizad. He insinuated that the envoy misled the members of the committee about some of the basic facts of the massacre. 44

Moreover, the declaration put Minister Schwarzenberg in an awkward situation when he visited Armenia and had to explain the committee’s resolution. 45 And to the dismay of Azerbaijan and its envoy to the Czech Republic, Schwarzenberg commented on the Khojaly Massacre, saying that, “such things happen in a war.” 46 The envoy also criticized Schwarzenberg´s approach, claiming it a concerted campaign against Azerbaijan, creating a reputation of the Czechs being biased against Azerbaijan. 47

Please see the original article by Pavla Holcova, Khadija Ismayilova and Jaromir Hason “Azeri Enclave in the Czech Republic” published by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP)

Notes:

  1. AP, “Jailed journalist criticises Azerbaijan corruption as European Games begin,” The Guardian, June 12, 2015.
  2. Shearlaw, Maeve and Charlie Jones, “From political prisoners to media bans: Baku’s European Games in numbers,” The Guardian, June 29, 2015.
  3. The 2015 European Games were the inaugural edition of the European Games. It took place in Baku, Azerbaijan, from June 12th to 28th, and featured almost 6,000 athletes from 50 countries competing in 20 sports. For basic information see 2015 European Games (wiki article).
  4. 2015 The Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index highlights the worldwide deterioration in freedom of information in 2014.
  5. Attacks on the Press: 2015 Edition.
  6. Shearlaw, Maeve and Charlie Jones, “From political prisoners to media bans: Baku’s European Games in numbers,” The Guardian, June 29, 2015.
  7. Amnesty International: Azerbaijan
  8. Azerbaijan: Detention of journalist Khadija Ismayilova a blatant bid to gag free media 2015Amnesty International, December 5, 2014.
  9. Holcova, Pavla, Khadija Ismayilova and Jaromir Hason, “Azeri Enclave in Czech Republic,” OCCRP, October 11, 2012. The Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) is a not-for-profit, joint program of a number of regional non-profit investigative centers and for profit independent media stretching from Eastern Europe to Central Asia.
  10. Sedláčková, Veronika and Pavla Holcová, “Ázerbájdžánské elity prý ‘perou peníze’ v Praze a v Karlových Varech” (Azerbaijani elites allegedly involved in ‘money laundering’ in Prague and Karlovy Vary), Radiožurnál, October 12, 2012.
  11. Procházková, Petr, “Česko? Ráj pro boháče z Ázerbájdžánu” (The Czech Republic? A paradise for moneybags from Azerbaijan), Lidové noviny, March 23, 2013, p. 7.
  12. Sedláčková, Veronika and Pavla Holcová, “Ázerbájdžánské elity prý ‘perou peníze’ v Praze a v Karlových Varech (Azerbaijani elites allegedly involved in ‘money laundering’ in Prague and Karlovy Vary, Radiožurnál, October 12s, 2012.
  13. AP, “Jailed journalist criticises Azerbaijan corruption as European Games begin,” The Guardian, June 12, 2015.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Ismaylova, Khadiya, “A letter from an Azerbaijani prison,” The Washington Post, June 12, 2015.
  16. Ismayilova Convicted, Fined in Yet Another Case,” The Guardian, OCCRP, February 24, 2015.
  17. Azerbaijan: Jailed Journalist Rebukes President, Calls Charges Insulting,” OCCRP, March 3, 2015.
  18. Another letter from prison appeared on March 10th, in which Ismayilova wrote that her life would not end in prison. She described how Azerbaijan increasingly uses repressive methods similar to those used in Russia. However, she also added that she had not lost hope and was continuing work on her book. Fifteen days later Ismayilova was allowed to see her family for the first time, but only through a glass barrier.See “Vazba Chadídži Ismailové prodloužena do 24. května” (The detainment of Khadiya Ismaylova has been prolonged to 24 May), Cesta iniciativy, April 16, 2015. See also Prison is Not the End of Life, Cesta iniciativy, Free Khadija, March 10, 2015. .
  19. AP, “Jailed journalist criticises Azerbaijan corruption as European Games begin,” The Guardian, June 12, 2015.
  20. Morgan, Cara, “Khadija Ismayilova’s Plight Told in PEN American Center’s Cartoon Tribute,” OCCRP, May 8, 2015.
  21. Azeri Journalist’s Jail Sentence Extended on Eve of European Games,” RFERL, May 15, 2015.
  22. National Press Club to Honor Azerbaijani Journalist,” PR Newswires, May 18, 2015.
  23. Tural Mustafayev, ‘I Withdraw My Complaint Against Khadija Ismayilova’,” Azadliq Radiosu, April 8, 2015.
  24. Sensational Confession from Tural Mustafayev about case of Khadija Ismayilova,” Human Rights Freedoms, May 4, 2015.
  25. Knezevic, Milana, “Azerbaijan: Appeal from jailed journalist Khadija Ismayilova postponed indefinitely,” X Index, May 12, 2015.
  26. AP, “Jailed journalist criticises Azerbaijan corruption as European Games begin,” The Guardian, June 12, 2015.
  27. Ševela, Vladimír, “Alibi pro diktátory” (Alibi for dictators), Mladá fronta Dnes, December 5, 2013, p. 3.
  28. Juřenová, Lenka, “Ázerbajdžán je největším českým obchodním partnerem na jižním Kavkazu” (Azerbaijan is the biggest trade partner for the Czech Republic in Southern Caucasus), Hospodářské noviny, October 1, 2014, p. 1.
  29. Ministr Mládek v Ázerbájdažánu zaznamenal velký zájem o  rozvoj hospodářských vztahů s Českou republikou” (Minister of Trade and Commerce Mládek noticed a great deal of interest to develop the industrial relations with the Czech Republic from the Azerbaijani side), March 9, 2015.
  30. Prezident republiky se sešel s prezidentem Ázerbajdžánské republiky“ (President of the Czech Republic met with President of Azerbaijani Republic), February 7, 2014.
  31. Šafaříková, Kateřina and Martin Shabu, “Hradní hvězda pohasíná” (The President´s star fades away), Lidové noviny, June 24, 2014, p. 1.
  32. Procházková, Petra, “Nositele české ceny zadrželi v Baku na demonstraci” (The nominees of the Czech award detained during a demonstration in Baku), Lidové noviny, March 11, 2013, str. 6. See also Homo Homini Award.
  33. (ket), “Havlovu cenu za lidská práva získal Ázerbájdžánec Mammadli” (The Václav Havel´s Prize for human rights awarded to Azerbaijani Mammadli), CT24.cz, September 29, 2014. See also Winner of the 2014 VH Prize.
  34. Rovenský, Jan, “Baku chce omluvu. Schwarzenberg to odmítl” (Baku wants Schwarzenberg to apologise. He refuses), Právo, April 25, 2013, p. 12.
  35. Ázerbájdžánský velvyslanec: Naší opozici rozumím, výrokům Prahy ale ne,”(Azerbaijani envoy: I understand our opposition, but not the statements of Prague), denik.cz, June 5, 2015.
  36. Rovenský, Jan, “Baku chce omluvu. Schwarzenberg to odmítl” (Baku wants Schwarzenberg to apologise. He refuses), Právo, April 25, 2013, p. 12.
  37. 28th Session of the UN Human Rights Council Item 4 – General Debate, Statement by the Czech Republic, March 17, 2015.
  38. Parlament České republiky, Poslanecká sněmovna 2013, volební období 219: Usnesení zahraničního výboru z 25-A. mimořádné schůze dne 7. února 2013 k 21. výročí masakru v ázerbajdžánském městě Chodžaly a vyjádření soustrasti ázerbajdžánskému lidu (The declaration of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Czech Parliament on February 7, 2013, commemorating the 21st anniversary of the Khojaly Massacre). 
  39. For basic information see Khojaly District (wiki article).
  40. Soukup, Ondřej, “Ropa umožňuje Ázerbajdžánu korumpovat cizí vlády i poslance” (Azerbaijan can corrupt foreign governments and MPs due to oil), blog.iHned.cz, March 6, 2013.
  41. Human Rights Watch: Response to Armenian Government Letter on the town of Khojaly, Nagorno Karabakh, March 23, 1997.
  42. Cesta Iniciativy: “Česká republika jako jediná země EÚ odsoudila masakr v Chodžali,” March 8, 2013. 
  43. Dopis senátora Štětiny předsedkyni PS paní Miroslavě Němcové usnesení zahraničního výboru PSP ze dne 7. února 2013“ (A Jaromír Štětina´s letter addressed to the Chairwoman of the Czech Parliament, Mrs. Miroslava Němcová, concerning the declaration of the Foreign Chamber of the Czech Parliament from 7 February 2013).
  44. Ibid.
  45. Švec, Michael, “Jerevan chtěl po ČR vysvětlení, Baku trucuje” (Jerevan wanted the Czech Republic to explain, Baku sulks), Právo, April 12, 2013, p. 8.
  46. Ázerbájdžánský velvyslanec: Naší opozici rozumím, výrokům Prahy ale ne” (Azerbaijani envoy: I understand our opposition, but not the statements of Prague), denik.cz, June 5, 2015.
  47. Ibid. 
Jakub Hein

Jakub Hein

is a journalist. He is Deputy Director at the Czech Center for Investigative Journalism (http://www.investigace.cz/) and contributes to the weekly newsmagazine, Respekt.

Pavla Holcová

Pavla Holcová

is a founder of the Czech Center for Investigative Journalism (http://www.investigace.cz/). She also cooperates with other investigative reporters on international projects within the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (https://www.occrp.org/en ), and works for the non-profit organization, People in Need.

Jan Adamec

Jan Adamec

is editor of the V4Revue, historian and political scientist. His area of expertise is the history of Hungary, USSR and Czechoslovakia 1948 – 1957. He graduated from Central European University in Budapest and Charles University in Prague where he currently completes his PhD degree with thesis about the Hungarian uprising in 1956.