World News

Council of Europe Urged to Act Against Lawmakers Tied to Bribery

Posted May 6, 2018 3:22 p.m. EDT

Two weeks after an investigation found strong evidence that members of the Council of Europe’s parliamentary assembly had accepted bribes in return for silencing discussion of human rights violations in Azerbaijan, European governments are demanding sanctions against the lawmakers.

In a letter sent Friday to Michele Nicoletti, the assembly’s president, Anders Samuelsen, the Danish foreign minister and chairman of the council’s Committee of Ministers, described the corruption case as “deeply worrying” and called for the assembly to act “promptly and strongly.”

The lawmakers — including Pedro Agramunt, a former president of the assembly and a senator in Spain’s conservative governing party — have been accused of accepting money, jewelry, prostitutes and paid hotel stays in oil-rich Azerbaijan.

In his letter, which was seen by The New York Times, Samuelsen questioned whether the council’s parliamentary assembly was dragging its feet on punishing the officials named in the report.

“There is reason for concern if there are continued efforts on behalf of a small number of parliamentarians to divert or dilute the follow-up of the report,” Samuelsen wrote. He warned that if the assembly failed to act promptly, European ministers would instead “consider appropriate steps.”

The scandal is threatening to become one of the biggest credibility tests of the European institution; concerns over how Azerbaijan was using its membership have been rife for years.

In 2012, a Berlin-based think tank called the European Stability Initiative investigated how officials and lobbyists linked to the Azerbaijani government had illicitly influenced the assembly’s policies. It produced a report titled “Caviar Diplomacy: How Azerbaijan Silenced the Council of Europe.”

The Council of Europe was created after World War II to help protect human rights and the rule of law across Europe. It has 47 member states and predates the 28-nation European Union. The council’s assembly is made up of lawmakers from the members’ national parliaments. Azerbaijan joined the council in 2001.

The 324 members of the assembly cannot vote on binding laws, but recommend that countries make democratic reforms and defend human rights. While the institution has a low profile, it has been credited with pressuring countries to abolish the death penalty, as well as helping the former Soviet-bloc countries transition to democracy.

Last year, after receiving complaints that lawmakers had helped silence criticism of the country’s record on human rights and the rule of law, the assembly ordered an investigation into its members’ activities in Azerbaijan.

Three former European judges led the 10-month inquiry, and their findings, released two weeks ago, highlighted cases of conflicts of interest and corruption involving about a dozen former and current lawmakers. The investigation concluded that the officials had benefited from helping Azerbaijan dodge criticism from the European assembly in its reports on countries and some of its votes.

“Corruption is one of the most widespread and insidious of social evils,” the 291-page report concluded. “The parliamentary assembly of the Council of Europe has not been spared that scourge.”

Samuelsen highlighted the case of Agramunt, who is a senator representing the Popular Party of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy of Spain. In a radio interview last week, Agramunt, 66, said he had been threatened with blackmail by a Ukrainian lawmaker who claimed to have photos of him “with ladies.”

Agramunt jokingly told the Spanish radio station Cadena Ser when asked whether he had slept with prostitutes in Azerbaijan, that he would have been happy to share such photos with his friends if they had existed, but that he was too old for such activity.

Agramunt later apologized for his comments about prostitutes.

Like other lawmakers named in the report, he denied any wrongdoing, telling Cadena Ser that the former judges’ report was filled with “accusations, comments and rumors made anonymously and with neither proof nor evidence.”

Agramunt suggested he was the victim of a political crusade backed by the Open Society Foundations of American financier George Soros and driven by countries like Ukraine and Armenia, which are opposed to any European rapprochement with Russia.

But last year, the Spanish senator was forced to resign as president of the European assembly after he was found to have joined Russian lawmakers on a trip to Syria.

The corruption investigation also singled out another Spanish conservative politician, Agustín Conde, Spain’s state secretary of defense. The other politicians accused in the corruption case are from Austria, Belgium, Britain, Poland, Romania and Azerbaijan.

More recently, Italian authorities began a criminal case against Luca Volontè, a former representative of Italy and a member of the assembly, accusing him of receiving more than 2 million euros from two former members of the Azerbaijani delegation in the assembly.