Questions over MPs’ all-expense-paid trip to Azerbaijan

Questions over MPs’ all-expense-paid trip to Azerbaijan
August 29th, 2011
by Melanie Newman

[Photo: Defence Secretary Liam Fox MP talks at a TEAS meeting.]

Azerbaijan’s Eurovision Song Contest win, not to mention the recent
bulldozing of a Baku activist’s office, has put the country’s human
rights record in the spotlight.

British MPs should expect similar scrutiny of the all-expenses-paid
trips they’ve accepted from a group linked to an Azeri politician
about whom concerns about corruption were raised in a US diplomatic
cable.

The European Azerbaijan Society (TEAS), which was launched in the
House of Lords in 2008, acts as the secretariat to the UK’s All Party
Parliamentary Group for Azerbaijan and the Conservative Friends of
Azerbaijan. The group has been sponsoring MPs’ and journalists on
visits to Azerbaijan since its inception. TEAS is run by Tale and
Nijat Heydarov, members of one of the country’s most powerful families
and sons of Azerbaijan’s Minister for Emergency Situations, Kamaladdin
Heydarov.

A US diplomatic cable leaked to the Wikileaks site last year referred
to TEAS as purporting to be an independent advocacy group, but said:
`its talking points very much reflect the goals and objectives of the
GOAJ [government of Azerbaijan].

The cable, written in 2010 by Charge d’Affairs Don Lu, also reported
concerns that Colonel-General Heydarov, father of the men who head
TEAS. The cable claimed Heydarov had obtained `massive wealth’ as an
alleged result of illicit payments while chairman of the State Customs
Committee.

In 2010, Azerbaijan was listed as ranking 134 out of 178 in the World
Corruption Index by Transparency International.

There is no evidence that Tale and Nijat Heydarov were involved in or
benefited from this alleged corruption. And Colonel-General Heydarov
has never been found guilty by a court of law of any such accusations.

But with details lacking on who exactly is funding TEAS British
politicians have still been ready to accept its hospitality. The
Society has been particularly generous in 2011.

In May a delegation of parliamentarians including Bob Blackman,
Stephen Hammond, Gerry Sutcliffe, Lord Kilclooney, Lord Rogan and Mark
Field and his assistant, Julia Dockerill, enjoyed a five day visit to
Azerbaijan, paid for by TEAS. This trip was estimated as costing
£3,500 each in flights, accommodation and internal travel expenses.
According to the register of MPs’ interests the purpose of the trip
was to `meet senior Azeri political and business figures, British
diplomats and visit some of the regions’.

In a Commons debate on Azerbaijan in June this year, Mr Blackman, Mr
Sutcliffe, Mr Hammond and Mr Field had only good things to say about
the country. It was others that raised the issue of human rights
record and repressive laws in the country.

Some of these reticent politicians have visited the country at TEAS’
expense on several occasions. As well as the May visit, Mr Field
received a trip worth £2,500 in July 2010 to `speak at a Nato
conference and meet senior Azerbaijani political and business
figures’. In addition, Mr Field, who is the Conservative MP for
Cities of London and Westminster and chairman of the All Party
Parliamentary Group for Azerbaijan, is paid as a member of TEAS’
advisory board and received £1,000 for six hours’ work done in April
and May 2011.

The Bureau asked Mr Field whether he had looked into the sources of
TEAS’ funding. He was unavailable for comment.

Five members of the Conservative Friends of Azerbaijan, all
Parliamentarians, also visited the country on 28 July this year. Lord
Laird, chairman of the EAS advisory board, appears to have enjoyed two
trips to Azerbaijan funded by TEAS within a few months of each other
in 2010, in June and October. He was accompanied on the June trip by
Lord Kilclooney, though there is no mention of this in the latter’s
entry on the Lords register of interests for that year.

The Bureau made several attempts to contact Lord Kilclooney for
comment. He too was unavailable.

And in March this year ConservativeHome thanked TEAS, the `generous
sponsors’ of a party at the Tory Spring meeting. The event, which
featured Liam Fox as guest speaker, was apparently the hit of the
conference. TEAS is set to sponsor further drinks receptions at the
all three Party Conferences this autumn as well as managing its new
office in Brussels, which opened there last November.

Who’s funding the funders?

A spokesman for TEAS said it receives funding from individual and
corporate membership fees and donations and `complies with all
statutes and regulations’.

TEAS advisory board member Nigel Peters, a director at British
Expertise, told the Bureau his understanding was that TEAS is partly
funded by company subscriptions with the balance coming from the
Heydarov family in Azerbaijan. `That’s always been my understanding. I
can’t see where else the money would be coming from,’ he said, though
he stated he had not seen the organisation’s accounts. `My role on the
advisory council is partly to help TEAS recruit company members. I
believe they now have 30-40 members paying subscriptions – a big
increase over the last year.’

`Platinum` membership of TEAS costs £10,000, while gold membership is
£4,000 and ordinary corporate membership £750-1,500. But TEAS’
accounts report that it was £1,849,087 in the red in March 2010, with
assets of just £168,273. The abbreviated, unaudited accounts filed
with Companies House does not reveal the size of TEAS’ income.

Its outgoings, though, are large. The Society is supporting at least
ten staff in London as well as having to meet its hospitality bills.

TEAS’ directors, Tale and Nijat Heydarov, are also directors of
United Enterprises International Limited, whose December 2010 accounts
– also abbreviated and unaudited – record a debt of some £23,000. TEAS
is listed as an affiliate on the company’s website, and UEI and TEAS
share an address at 2 Queen Anne’s Gate, London SW1.

UEI promotes Jala Juice, which the UEI website says has been the
market leading pomegranate juice in Azerbaijan for 10 years. Jala
Juice is also a `gold sponsor` of TEAS’ business forum.

This fruit juice was also referred to in the Wikileaks cable. It was
stated: `The Heydarovs have largely cornered the fruit juice market in
Azerbaijan, maintaining extremely high prices for locally produced
juices and watered-down juice drinks, while making life difficult –
with the help of state customs – for cheaper competitors from Turkey,
Ukraine and Russia. When USAID tried to support the production and
distribution of pomegranate products in Azerbaijan, they quickly
learned that no one sells pomegranate juice, concentrate, or
derivatives from Azerbaijan without Heydarov’s permission.’

UEI denies that Jala Juice is the beneficiary of a monopoly based on
Heydarov family influence.

The cables also allege that many of the Heydarov family operations are
part of the `Gilan’, `Qabala’, `Jala’, or `United Enterprises
International’ family of companies. Gilan Holding is listed as an
`affiliate’ on the UEIholding.com website. Gilan Holding, a major
conglomerate in Azerbaijan, has the same Baku telephone number on its
website as UEI Holding. The Gilan conglomerate includes AFB Bank,
which is another `gold sponsor’ of the TEAS business forum.

UEI declined to expand on the nature of its links with Gilan.

A spokesman for TEAS said: `Both TEAS and the Azerbaijani Government
want to see a peaceful resolution to the conflict with Armenia, which
is slowing economic and political progress across the entire South
Caucasus region.’

He added: `Our activities are geared towards raising awareness about
the conflict and the humanitarian plight of the almost one million
refugees and Internally Displaced Persons living in camps in
Azerbaijan. We have no problem highlighting the fact that four UN
Security Council Resolutions and one UN General Assembly Resolution
remain unimplemented, verifying Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity
regarding Nagorno-Karabakh.’

TEAS also said it had a policy of not commenting on leaked US cables
`of doubtful provenance.’

None of the Parliamentarians who went on the TEAS’ trips was available
for comment.

Labour MP for Newport West Paul Flynn, who has previously criticised
Prince Andrew for his activities as trade envoy in Azerbaijan, was
available. He said he was worried by apparent Parliamentary links
with the Azeri regime, which he said had a `dreadful record of
corruption and jailing opponents’.

http://www.thebureauinvestigates.com/2011/08/29/questions-over-mps-all-expense-paid-trip-to-azerbaijan/

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