Revelations of payments from Azerbaijan to several former members of the Council of Europe’s parliament promise to shake up a body that is meant to set Europe’s standards for democratic probity.
The details of the payments come as an independent panel begins confidential hearings into alleged corruption at the Council of Europe’s parliamentary assembly (Pace) in Strasbourg, one of the world’s oldest human rights bodies.
The investigation into unethical practices was set up in July, after Italian prosecutors accused Luca Volontè, the Italian former chair of the centre-right group in Pace, of accepting millions of euros in cash from Azerbaijan in exchange for supporting its government, which has been heavily criticised for subverting elections and jailing journalists and opponents.
Azerbaijan, a member of the Council of Europe since 2001, has been accused of “caviar diplomacy”, using cash and gifts to buy influence, charges first detailed by the European Stability Initiative thinktank in 2012. The council notably voted down a critical report on Azerbaijan’s political prisoners in 2013.
Gerald Knaus, the ESI’s director, said it had taken years for the Volontè case to generate a reaction: “The Pace code of conduct is more lax than that of Fifa,” he told Le Monde, one of the team of newspapers that collaborated on the latest revelations about Azerbaijani money.
Bank documents show Azerbaijan funnelled about $2.9bn (£2.2bn) out of the country via a network of secret British companies to pay supporters, lobbyists and politicians in Europe, buy luxury goods and services, and launder money for the Azeri elite.
Pieter Omtzigt, a Dutch centre-right MP who led calls for Pace to set up an investigation earlier this year, said the body was finally doing “serious and credible” work to clean up its act. But the Volontè case revealed a “systemic” problem within Pace, which was established after the second world war to safeguard democracy and human rights.
“It clearly points to deficiencies within the whole assembly,” he told the Guardian. “In any normal parliament, if a foreign court decides that you have paid a member of parliament and that [person] is being investigated for corruption, some kind of procedure is staring you in the face.”
Omtzigt said the parliamentary assembly had weak compliance in declaring gifts and hospitality, with only two items recorded in the gift register in 15 years.
The president of Pace, Pedro Agramunt, initially resisted calls to set up an inquiry, but lost that battle after his authority was weakened over an unrelated scandal.
The investigation, by a panel of three independent experts, will also look at “hidden practices that favour corruption”.
Andres Herkel, an MP from Estonia – through which the Azeri cash was routed – said Pace’s credibility had been damaged by the allegations. “Personally I never witnessed bribery in [the] strict and narrow sense. But I witnessed many strange interventions, opinions, voting,” said Herkel, who was the body’s rapporteur on Azerbaijan from 2004-10.
“Many people were manipulated and now they start to understand what happened with their participation,” he said. “I think the Azeri lobby was rather unique in having so many different contacts and capacity to mobilise their ‘political friends’.”
The investigation comes at a difficult time for Pace. Agramunt is expected to be voted out of the presidency in October, but continues to fight for his post. He says the case against him is “an entirely bizarre case and a regrettable spectacle”.
He was criticised for his slow response to the corruption allegations, but his position only came under threat after it emerged he had met the Syrian leader, Bashar al-Assad, on a Russian government trip, days before a deadly chemical attack on civilians in Idlib.
Tiny Kox, head of the Unified European Left Group, a socialist delegation at the parliament, insisted Agramunt’s future would not hamper the investigation.
“The vast majority of this assembly has lost confidence in the president; that is the problem of the assembly and the problem of the president and that will come to an end in the next … session in October,” Kox said.
Investigators needed time to do their work, he said. “We now have the tools to find out what really has happened.”
The spotlight on the assembly comes as it publishes a report on Tuesday detailing concerns about the “increasing number of allegations of violations of certain human rights and fundamental freedoms” in Azerbaijan. The report also raises concerns about allegations of executive control of the judiciary in the country.
The report, drafted by the Belgian liberal MP Alain Destexhe, draws milder conclusions than similar bodies. While the Pace report notes that “reform of the judiciary is a work in progress”, the council’s human rights commissioner states that arrests are used to “silence and punish” opponents of the regime. A 2016 US state department report strikes a more robust tone, describing the “crackdown on civil society”.
Destexhe’s call to avoid criticising the Azerbaijani authorities “harshly and publicly” is likely to disappoint critics, who argue some international observers have been weak in calling out human rights abuses.
Volontè acknowledges receiving money from Azerbaijan but insists it was for his foundation, and has vowed to fight the legal case against him.
• This article was amended on 5 September 2017 to include the group that Tiny Kox leads.