Italian Court Sentences Former Council of Europe MP for Bribery

A court in Milan sentenced on Monday former Italian deputy and member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), Luca Volontè, to four years in prison for taking bribes from Azerbaijani politicians to help mute the Europe’s criticism of Baku’s human rights record.

Luca VolonteAs a member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, Luca Volonte worked to undermine a report that condemned Azerbaijan for holding political prisoners and other human rights violations. (Photo: European People's Party, Flickr, CC BY 2.0)Italian prosecutors claimed Volontè worked to undermine a PACE report that condemned Azerbaijan for holding political prisoners and other human rights violations, also known as the “Caviar Diplomacy” scandal.

The name of the scandal comes from a lobbying strategy that consists of expensive gifts given to foreign politicians and their costly trips to Azerbaijan that Baku paid for in exchange for beautifying PACE reports about the country at a time dozens of political prisoners were sitting in jails.

The ex-parliamentarian was promised €10 million (US$12.16 million) for his services, according to the PanArmenan Network but Italian news agency ANSA reported that Volontè was found guilty of taking about €2 million ($2.43 million) from two Azeri politicians, who were previously sentenced to four years each by other courts.

Volontè, as well as several other PACE officials, received money through British and offshore companies through a scheme known as the Azerbaijani Laundromat. The man at the core of the lobbying effort was his PACE colleague, Azerbaijani parliamentarian, Elkhan Suleymanov.

Suleymanov, who was also believed to be behind some of the Laundromat payments, was responsible for implementing an aggressive plan to improve the country’s image called “Azerbaijan 2020: Outlook for the Future,” initiated in late 2011 by President Ilham Aliyev.

Most of the funding came through the British company Hilux Services LLP and its account in an Estonian bank from Baktelekom MMC, a limited liability corporation in Azerbaijan, believed to be linked to Azerbaijan's first family.

It is believed that as the result of the lobbying, PACE voted against a unfavorable January 2013 report. This helped Azerbaijani authorities to unleash a severe crackdown on civil society, in which dozens of activists and journalists were arrested, while the Azerbaijani authorities imposed new, restrictive laws, as Human Rights Watch reported back then.