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The Council of Europe Headquarters in Strasbourg, France

In Milan, the courts are currently conducting a case against a parliamentarian of The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), Luca Volonté, on charges of bribery, handling bribes for other PACE-MP’s and money laundering. Between the end of 2012 (when the ‘Strasser’-report was finished) and the end of 2014, Volonté is supposed to have received a total of €2.39 million. Volonté claims the money was for personal advice to Azerbaijani lobbyists, for research, help with petitions, unspecified initiatives, and printing brochures. After two years of investigation, Milanese magistrates begged to differ, and asked for an indictment for money laundering and corruption, claiming that the money was a bribe, paid by the government of Azerbaijan in exchange for political support in PACE. At the time of the 2013 vote, Volontè was president of the largest faction in PACE, the Christen-Democratic EVP-CC.

PACE has a field of activity that is inversely proportional to how well known it is with the general public. It is the parliamentary arm of the Council of Europe, a 47-nation international organisation dedicated to upholding human rights, democracy and the rule of law. Its main claims to fame are ‘abolishing’ the death penalty in 1983, inventing the European twelve starred flag and using Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony as an anthem. It further stresses that it is not the EU, but represents an older and wider circle of nations, including for example Russia and Turkey. Importantly, it oversees the European Court of Human Rights.

As a guard dog of human rights, it was somewhat surprising that on 23 January 2013, it voted against the so-called ‘Strasser’-report. This report called for the release of alleged political prisoners in Azerbaijan. Although the report seems reasonable in calling for:

the [Azerbaijan] authorities to immediately release presumed political prisoners who have already served several years of their sentence, and to release on humanitarian grounds those who are seriously ill. Those who were convicted in breach of fair trial principles, or who were involved in certain political events only to a minor and very secondary degree, should be released or retried.

the motion was rejected by 128 votes to 79. But the reasons why the report was rejected now seem not to be the squeaky clean human rights record of Azerbaijan, but its ability to bribe its way out of damning reports.

In Milan, the courts are currently conducting a case against a parliamentarian of PACE, Luca Volonté, on charges of bribery, handling bribes for other PACE-MP’s and money laundering.

Six-figure transfers are said to have been made through banks in the Baltic states by shell companies based in the UK and in the Marshall Islands. Between the end of 2012 (when the ‘Strasser’-report was finished) and the end of 2014, Volonté is supposed to have received a total of €2.39 million. Money, that investigators have established was being sent by Azerbaijan. The transactions came to light after Volonté’s bank, BCC Barlassina, reported the suspicious transactions, after about a year.

Volonté claims the money was for personal advice to Azerbaijani lobbyists, for research, help with petitions, unspecified initiatives, and printing brochures. After two years of investigation, Milanese magistrates begged to differ, and asked for an indictment for money laundering and corruption, claiming that the money was a bribe, paid by the government of Azerbaijan in exchange for political support in PACE. At the time of the 2013 vote, Volontè was president of the largest faction in PACE, the Christen-Democratic EVP-CC.

In an interview with Italian Public Broadcaster RAI, Volontè said that the money was from Azerbaijani politician Elkhan Suleymanov, with whom he had been in contact since a trip to the country in July 2011. The two stayed in contact, with Volontè sharing his ideas on how to improve Azerbaijan’s image in the world. This included defending the country against the publication in May 2012 of a report called:

 “Caviar Diplomacy: how Azerbaijan silenced the Council of Europe”

by the think tank European Stability Initiative (ESI), which alleged widespread corruption and influencing by Azerbaijan of PAC-MP’s. At the time, Volontè claimed there was “no evidence of corruption“.

Gerald Knaus, Chairman of ESI, is quoted as responding to the beginning of the trial against Volontè as saying:

The Council of Europe is the most important human rights institution in Europe, but in recent years it has been captured by autocrats.

One of the indications of how far the rot of corruption has spread, is the title of the report itself. It is a reference to an interview held with a senior Azerbaijani policymaker who claimed that:

There are a lot of deputies in the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly whose first greeting, after ‘hello’ is ‘where is the caviar?'”