German police have raided the properties of Christian Democratic party MP Karin Strenz and former MP Eduard Lintner; the two are suspected of accepting bribes to lobby for Azerbaijan.
The raids on Thursday were part of an investigation by the Frankfurt Prosecutor’s Office and the Federal Criminal Police Office of Germany into an alleged large-scale campaign of bribery of German politicians by the Azerbaijani government.
Investigators searched 16 properties belonging to 52-years-old Strentz, including her offices and flat, as well as other flats, business premises, and offices owned by the MP in Berlin, Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, Bavaria and Belgium.
Earlier that day, the Bundestag voted to waive Strentz’s immunity and approved search and seizure orders.
Strentz is suspected of receiving at least ₼22,000 ($24,200) in exchange for lobbying for the Azerbaijani government. The money was allegedly sent through a lobbying firm owned by Lintner.
Both were members of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) at the time of the alleged crime, between 2008 and 2016.
The allegations against Lintner, a former MP from the Christian Democratic party’s sister party, the Christian Social Union in Bavaria and a former State Secretary of the Interior Ministry, are far more serious, Frankfurten Allgemeine reports.
From 2008 to 2016, Lintner is alleged to have received a total of around ₼4 million ($4.4 million) from the Azerbaijani Government through bank accounts in the Baltics owned by British shell companies. The companies have been attributed to the ‘Azerbaijani Laundromat’ scandal.
He allegedly received the money to buy favour with other MPs in PACE, after deducting his own remuneration. In return, these MPs are alleged to have made positive statements in the media about elections in Azerbaijan and deliberately spoken out against the existence of political prisoners in Azerbaijan.
Membership of PACE and the Council of Europe is conditional on respect for human rights and the rule of law.
On Thursday German police also searched private flats belonging to Alexander Gauland, an MP and one of the founders and leaders of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, in Potsdam and Frankfurt, after the Bundestag renounced his immunity.
The reason for the search, according to the police, was an investigation into a suspected tax offence. The prosecutor's office did not provide further information on Thursday with reference to tax secrecy.
German media have speculated that the searches were also a part of the same corruption investigation.
Süddeutsche Zeitung reported that the AfD had rejected the allegations. ‘We consider the investigation process and measures to be unjustified and disproportionate’, a spokesperson reportedly said.
Laws against bribing MPs were tightened in 2014, with punishments of between six months to five years imprisonment according to the German Criminal Code, also the right to stand for election can also be revoked.
Transparency International complaint
In March, Transparency Germany, Transparency International’s German branch, filed a criminal complaint against Strentz and Lintner asking the Public Prosecutor office to investigate whether the politicians had violated German anti-corruption laws.
Shortly after, the Bundestag fined Strentz around €20,000 for accepting a total of between €14,000 and €30,000 from lobbying firm Line M-Trade in 2014 and 2015. According to Der Spiegel, the agency, led by Lintner, was financed from Baku.
At the time, Strenz stated that she had provided consulting services for the company. ‘It was about promoting economic relationships with a view to the possible creation of new jobs’, she said.
Strentz was one of only a few senior politicians in the EU to repeatedly defend the Azerbaijani government. In June 2018, she received a life-long ban from entering the Council of Europe and PACE premises for a ‘serious violation of the ethical rules’ of PACE related to her connections to Azerbaijan.
In 2015, Strentz was the only German MP in the Council of Europe to vote against a demand to release political prisoners in Azerbaijan. Along with Leitner, she participated in an election observation mission during the 2015 parliamentary elections in Azerbaijan, but kept the money she had received from the Azerbaijani government a secret.
She said later that she was not aware that the money came from Azerbaijan.
In August, the Rostock and Munich public Prosecutor’s Offices dismissed the complaint by Transparency Germany.
‘We have found no evidence that there is a crime’, the then spokesperson for the General Prosecutor’s Office in Rostock said.
Lintner responded by calling the complaint ‘a PR comedy by Transparency’.
The Azerbaijani Laundromat scandal
The raids of the properties of German MPs is related to a scandal resulting from an investigation by the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) in September 2017.
The OCCRP revealed that Azerbaijani authorities laundered almost $3 billion in the UK between 2012–2014, which was used to bribe high-level EU and UN figures.
Following the investigation, the OCCRP’s website was blocked in Azerbaijan. The press service of the President of Azerbaijan has denied the accusations, blaming ‘George Soros and the Armenian lobby’ for the investigation.
The Azerbaijani Laundromat, as the investigation calls it, was a complex money-laundering scheme which channelled $2.9 billion between 2012–2014 with the help of four UK-registered shell companies.
According to the OCCRP, money was used to buy silence, with the transactions completed before Azerbaijani authorities jailed roughly 90 journalists, opposition politicians, and activists after 2104.
For example, one of the beneficiaries of the scheme was Luca Volontè, a senior Italian delegate at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. Volontè voted down a report in 2013 criticising Azerbaijan for its human rights record.
Although the primary source of the money was not clear in all cases, it reportedly came from companies connected to Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, state ministries, and IBAZ, Azerbaijan’s largest international bank. The Guardian called the evidence ‘overwhelming’.
In April 2018, PACE concluded that corruption allegations were true and declared a policy of zero tolerance of corruption to ‘restore its credibility’.
[Read more on OC Media: Azerbaijan Council of Europe corruption allegations ‘indisputable’]