Azerbaijan tolerates third anti-corruption Baku protest in a month

Azerbaijan tolerates third anti-corruption Baku protest in a month
By bne IntelliNews October 30, 2017

At least 1,000 demonstrators joined an opposition rally in the Azerbaijani capital Baku on October 28, according to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Organised by the National Council of Democratic Forces (NCDF), an umbrella organisation for opposition parties in Azerbaijan, the protest was the third officially sanctioned demonstration in the city against corruption in the last month.

The heavy-handed authorities in Baku are normally very strict with public demonstrations and refuse to sanction such rallies. Given the worsening human rights situation in the country in recent years, it is surprising and unclear why they have sanctioned the series of protests.

Government critics claim that the heavy presence of security forces and the fact that they ask demonstrators to remove their sunglasses indicates that the authorities are trying to identify and monitor potential critics. After a similar protest at the end of September, dozens of participants were reportedly called in for questioning.

The demonstrations are partly in response to a mounting number of exposes in recent years that have revealed just how entrenched corruption and abuse of power are in the high ranks of Azerbaijani politics. Most recently, The Guardian and media partners revealed in September, based on bank documents, that Baku allegedly laundered $3bn through a bank account with Danske Bank in the Baltics and used much of it to bribe European institutions—sometimes for obliging policy positions or publicity—and businesses.

Other investigations, most notably that involving the Panama Papers document cache in 2016, and a series of investigations by Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty, have revealed that Azerbaijan's first family owned some of the largest businesses in the country through shell companies registered in tax havens.

Baku has squarely denied all the revelations, alleging instead that foreign enemies are orchestrating a smear campaign against it.

Meanwhile, European institutions like the Council of Europe have launched investigations into the alleged bribery of members by Azerbaijani representatives.

The enfeebled opposition in Azerbaijan has little say over what is happening in the country, as political and economic power is concentrated in the hands of the ruling family and a few powerful individuals and oligarchs that hold ministerial positions.

The latest rally passed off peacefully, despite an alleged planned terrorist attack at the event revealed on October 25.

The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe passed a resolution on October 11 decrying the "reported persecution and detention of leaders of NGOs, human rights defenders, political activists, journalists and bloggers" in Azerbaijan, as well as instances of torture and inhuman treatment in police custody and prison.