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Sleuthing Out Official Corruption Across Borders

Azerbaijan -- RFE/RL Azerbaijani Service correspondents Khadija Ismayilova and Nushabe Fatullayeva -- winners of the 2013 Global Shining Light Award for Investigative Journalism.
Investigative reporting can seem like a non-starter in countries that actively suppress journalists and access to information, but with persistence and the right tools, stories can be broken with profound impact for the public.

Along with their colleagues at the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) and the Czech Center for Investigative Journalism, RFE/RL Azerbaijani Service correspondents Khadija Ismayilova and Nushabe Fatullayeva uncovered a litany of dubious business deals undertaken by Azerbaijan’s ruling family. They did so at great personal risk, as the regime in Azerbaijan is notorious for jailing, harassing and intimidating journalists.

Azerbaijan -- President Ilham Aliyev. January, 2014.
Azerbaijan -- President Ilham Aliyev. January, 2014.
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, who succeeded his father in the same office in 2003 and is considered an autocratic ruler by many analysts, has, according to the findings RFE/RL and OCCRP investigations, taken significant financial positions in some of the country’s most profitable industries, as have his daughters and others connected to the family. These ownership structures are often non-transparent and involve offshore companies and proxy owners.

“All of these stories have an impact on the public,” said Ismayilova. “The ruling family and other officials use public money to invest in their projects done by their own companies.”

While investigating the companies behind the new Chovdar gold mine project in rural Azerbaijan that has displaced locals and may be an environmental threat, Ismayilova and her colleagues found that the president’s daughters were listed as the managers of one Panamanian registered company involved in the mine project.

The reporters also found that the first family personally profited from the massive Crystal Hall construction project erected to host the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest through the family’s hidden ownership stake in the Azenco construction company.

In addition to several other offshore companies owned by the Aliev family since at least 2008, RFE/RL, OCCRP journalists and researchers at the Czech Center for Investigative Journalism found that the first family had made illegal investments in luxury villas and hotels in a popular spa town in the Czech Republic.

The work of Ismayilova and her fellow journalists was recognized with the 2013 Global Shining Light Award.

Czech Republic - The Azeri president’s daughter owns a luxury villa in the spa town of Karlovy Vary, undated.
Czech Republic - The Azeri president’s daughter owns a luxury villa in the spa town of Karlovy Vary, undated.
Ismayilova said these discoveries were made possible by the use of investigative reporting tools, including The Investigative Dashboard, a space for investigators to find resources and share information, as well as by searching domain name databases and fishing through company registration databases in known offshore countries like Panama.

“The trend that surprised me the most was that the family was so bold that they registered these companies under their own names,” said Ismayilova. “But that has been another impact of these stories. After they were published the family began using proxy owners and to hide their names. That makes the job more difficult because finding someone behind a proxy is very difficult.”

The discoveries revealed by Ismayilova and her colleagues were met with indignation by the Azerbaijani government, and since 2012 when the reports were published she has been the target of a systematic campaign to assail her character and discredit her to the public, and to silence her through threats directed at both she and her family.

She has refused to be muted by intimidation, however, and continues in her work to expose fraud and corruption at the highest levels.

She also encourages other journalists who work in countries without transparent access to information on the business dealings of their leaders not to be deterred.

“The rule is that even in countries where access to information is not easy, it’s possible to do investigations because corrupt money normally doesn’t stay in the country,” she said. “It has to be invested and laundered, usually in an offshore haven. Once the money crosses the border it gives opportunities to investigative journalists.”

--Emily Thompson