At least 1,000 people have taken part in a protest against corruption in the Azerbaijani capital, Baku. The demonstration on Saturday, which was organised by the National Council of Democratic Forces, an umbrella for opposition groups, was the third such protest to take place in a month. Despite the heavy police presence no arrests were made and the demonstration passed off peacefully. However, reports that people attending the rally were asked to remove their sunglasses has led some commentators to speculate that the security forces were trying to identify government critics to be arrested later, as happened after a similar protest in September.
The government of President Ilham Aliyev has been strongly criticised by the Azerbaijani opposition and international NGOs for persecuting dissident voices and independent journalists while enriching his family and associates from the proceeds of corruption. Aliyev, who has ruled Azerbaijan since the death of his father in 2003 has always denied these allegations, but his government has come under increased scrutiny since an investigation uncovered evidence of a $3 billion slush fund used by the Azerbaijani elite to launder money and buy-off international critics.
The investigation by several media outlets and anti-corruption organisations found that the ‘Azerbaijani Laundromat’, as it came to be known, created shell companies registered in overseas tax havens for the benefit of government conies. Foreign politicians and journalists were also implicated in the scandal for allegedly accepting money to advocate on behalf of Azerbaijan in the international media and political bodies like UNESCO and the Council of Europe. This followed the release of the Panama papers in 2016 which revealed that Aliyev and his family were the off-the-books owners of some the country’s largest companies, again involving the use of tax havens and shell companies.
At a plenary session of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe deputies called for an investigation into the allegations that some of its members had been paid by Azerbaijan to influence the parliament’s work. They also condemned the “unprecedented crackdown on human rights”, expressing particular concern about “the reported prosecution and detention of leaders of NGOs, human rights defenders, political activists, journalists and bloggers.”