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Azerbaijan’s U.S. Lobbying Firm’s List of Impressive Accomplishments

By Harout Sassounian
FLArmenians Commentator

Several weeks ago, I wrote about the four lobbying and PR firms hired by Azerbaijan in the United States. One of these companies is the Tool Shed Group.

This week, I would like to present a sample of the impressive activities organized by the Tool Shed Group on behalf of the Consulate General of Azerbaijan which is getting a great bargain by paying only $9,000 a month for all of these pro-Azeri efforts, almost none of which could have happened without the Tool Shed Group.

Most readers are unaware that American lobbying and PR firms hired by foreign entities are legally required not only to register their clients with the Justice Department under the Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA), but also file the detailed list of activities on their behalf.

In order to know what efforts have been made by the Tool Shed Group on behalf of the Consulate of Azerbaijan, I have checked the website of the Justice Department where the Tool Shed Group has listed by date all of their activities for Azerbaijan’s Consulate in Los Angeles.

Tool Shed’s list of activities starts on April 1, 2009, but mysteriously ends on March 31, 2011. This must surely be a violation of the Justice Department’s requirement which has to be brought into the attention of the U.S. government. Nevertheless, the two-year report provides a detailed glimpse which I have summarized below as it is a dozen pages long:

1. Outreach to Universities:

Arranged meetings for Consul General Elman Abdullayev with the following University officials: Jolene Kester, California State University, Northridge, CA; the University of New Mexico; Geoff Cowan and Adam Clayton, USC; Chapman University, Orange, CA; Pepperdine University, Malibu, CA; Larry Greenfield, Vice President of the Claremont Institute, Los Angeles, CA; Jack Lewis, Associate Dean, USC Marshall School of Business, Los Angeles, CA; Gail Lapidus, Stanford University, Stanford, CA; David Lundberg, UCLA NanoSystems Institute; University of California, Irvine; and University of Las Vegas, Nevada; Lectures by the Consul General at UCLA; San Francisco State University; San Jose State University, San Jose, CA; USC; Scripps College, Claremont, CA; University of California, Santa Barbara, CA; California State University, Fullerton, CA; Arizona State University, Phoenix, AZ; University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ; and Stanford University, Stanford, CA; spoke at a conference on religious pluralism at USC; and conference call with USC Center for Public Diplomacy to discuss a lecture by the Consul General.

2. U.S. Politicians:

Consul General met with Darrell Steinberg, President Pro Tem, California State Senate, Sacramento, CA; Karen Bass, Speaker, California State Assembly, Sacramento, CA; Annette Porini, Chief of Staff, State Senator Joe Simitian, Sacramento, CA; Felipe Fuentes, Assemblyman, California State Assembly, Sacramento, CA; Councilor Chris Calvert, City of Santa Fe, New Mexico; Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico, Santa Fe, New Mexico; Speaker Ben Lujan, New Mexico State Legislature, Santa Fe, New Mexico; Mayor Bob Foster, Long Beach, CA; Cong. Adam Schiff, Glendale, CA; Congresswoman Diane Watson; Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchins, Santa Ana, CA; Orange County Board of Supervisors; Mike Schneider, President Pro Tem, Nevada State Senate, Las Vegas, Nevada; Mayor Oscar Goodman, City of Las Vegas, Nevada; Asked Cong. Michael McMahon (NY) to join the Azerbaijani Caucus, Los Angeles, CA; Mayor Chuck Reed, City of San Jose, CA; Meeting with California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to present a gift from Azerbaijan to the Governor, Los Angeles, CA; Mayor Coss, City of Santa Fe, New Mexico; Cong. Dana Rohrabacher, Huntington Beach, CA; and City Council Member Jan Perry, Los Angeles, CA.

3. Jewish and Israeli Representatives:

Consul General of Azerbaijan met with Consul General Jacob Dayan of Israel, Los Angeles, CA; John Fishel, Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles; Rabbi Abraham Cooper, Museum of Tolerance, Los Angeles, CA; Lecture at Temple Judea, Tarzana, CA; American Jewish Committee, San Francisco, CA; and met with Rabbi Leider and Prof. Reuven Firestone regarding a lecture by the Consul General at Temple Beth Am, Los Angeles, CA.

There are dozens of other meetings that Jason Katz, the owner of Tool Shed Group, had arranged for the Consul General of Azerbaijan. I must admit that for a paltry $9,000 a month Mr. Katz is underpaid for arranging such a wide array of access for Azerbaijan in several US States, something the Consul General of Azerbaijan could have never accomplished on his own.

The Armenian-American community makes up for its lack of lobbying and PR firms by the activism of its organizations and their members. However, a professional lobbying and PR firm can add a lot to the existing successes. Unfortunately, most Armenians do not have a proper appreciation for the work of lobbying and PR firms and therefore do not believe in funding such a valuable and much-needed effort!

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Aliyev Family’s Financial Role In Shipping Weapons to Terrorists

By Harut Sassounian
FLArmenians Guest Contributor

Last week I wrote about the sensational revelations by Bulgarian investigative journalist Dilyana Gaytandzhieva in Trud newspaper, who reported on leaked documents that Azerbaijan’s state-run Silk Way Airlines has shipped under diplomatic cover 350 planeloads of heavy weapons and ammunition to terrorist groups around the world during the last three years.

A report by Radio Free Europe (RFE) Azeri investigative reporter Khadija Ismayilova, who has been jailed for her disclosures of Azerbaijan government’s human rights abuses, has revealed in a 2010 report on Pres. Aliyev’s daughter, Arzu Aliyeva’s part ownership of a company that is linked to Silk Way Airlines. This fact explains how the airline managed to get all the diplomatic clearances to ship such large quantities of weapons to terrorists.

It turns out that Silk Way Airlines belongs to SW Holding, a group of companies that “enjoys a near-complete monopoly of airline service,” including mid-flight meals served by Sky Catering, and taxi service run by Airport Gate, both of which are owned by SW Holding. In addition, technical maintenance of the national carrier’s planes and helicopters are carried out by Silkway Technics, and “multiple other companies controlling everything from Traveler assistance to ticket sales to duty-free stores are all owned by SW Holding,” according to Ismayilova.

SW Holding also owns Silk Way Bank which is owned by Pres. Aliyev’s then 21-year old Arzu Aliyeva and Zarifa Hamzayeva, wife of president of Azerbaijan’s AZAL state airline company, according to RFE’s Azerbaijani Service. Silk Way Airlines is also a part owner of the Silk Way Bank.

Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev and his wife, Mehirban, who was recently named the country’s Vice President

Interestingly, Ismayilova reports that “the rise of SW Holding, which has seamlessly absorbed many of AZAL’s former businesses, has raised questions about dubious privatization practices in Aliyev’s Azerbaijan. It also serves to underscore how the political elite continues to use close friends and family members to preserve its hold on the country’s most valuable assets — despite Azerbaijani laws that list nepotism by state officials as an offense punishable by up to 12 years in jail.”

Pres. Ilham Aliyev is simply continuing the practice started by his father Heydar Aliyev, who after ruling Azerbaijan for two decades passed the Presidential baton to his son. In a constitutional referendum in 2009, term limits on the President were abolished making Ilham Aliyev President for Life! Not to take any chances, he recently appointed his wife, Mehriban Aliyeva, as Vice President, to become his possible successor.

As I had reported earlier, based on an article in The Washington Post,” Pres. Aliyev’s preteen son, Heydar, was the legal owner of nine luxury mansions in Dubai purchased for $44 million. President’s two daughters, Arzu and Leyla, also own property in Dubai. The three children together own property in Dubai worth $75 million. Obviously this is not money they earned nor did their parents! Pres. Aliyev’s annual salary is $230,000. Ismayilova estimates Pres. Alyev’s wealth to be “in tens of millions of dollars.” This is surely an underestimate, given the lack of concrete figures. However, just the fact that Aliyev’s three children own property in Dubai worth $75 million, Pres. Aliyev’s wealth could be safely estimated to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars if not in the billions of dollars! Contrary to Azerbaijani law, neither Pres. Aliyev nor his wife has declared their net worth.

Under Azerbaijani law, public officials are prohibited from owning businesses, while family members are exempt from this restriction, a loophole exploited by the Aliyevs to hide their earnings in their children’s holdings. Just Arzu Aliyeva’s part ownership of the Silk Way Bank is worth over $12 million. According to RFE, “presidential secretary Azer Gasimov confirmed that Arzu Aliyeva was one of the owners of the Silk Way Bank.”

Gulu Khalilov, the spokesman for the State Committee on Privatization of State Property, told RFE that he had no information on the privatization of AZAL, the state airline company, including its holdings, like AZAL Bank. RFE was told that none of the legal procedures for privatization were followed.

“In the meantime, SW Holding has slowly but steadily acquired nearly all of AZAL’s former companies, including the insurance firm AZAL Sigorta, which is now co-owned by SW Holding and the two daughters of Jahangir Asgarov, the president of AZAL and the husband of Zarifa Hamzayeva, the current co-owner of Silk Way Bank,” according to Ismayilova. “SW Holding has also been the sole contractor on a number of high-profile AZAL projects, including airport-construction deals in Lankaran, Ganja, and Zagatala worth a total of $150 million.”

Pres. Aliyev and his family must be held responsible as part owners of a state-run airline that ships sophisticated weapons to terrorists around the world!

U.S., Europe Should Investigate Azerbaijan Shipments of Weapons to Terrorists

By Harut Sassounian
FLArmenians Guest Contributor

A stunning investigation by Bulgarian reporter Dilyana Gaytandzhieva revealed that Azerbaijan’s state-run Silk Way Airlines has shipped under diplomatic cover 350 planeloads of heavy weapons and ammunition to terrorist groups around the world in the last three years! Azerbaijan asked the Foreign Ministries of various countries to issue a diplomatic exemption for these flights, allowing civilian planes to carry weapons which would normally be prohibited by the International Air Transport Association.

The reporter’s information is based on a large number of emails sent to her by an anonymous source: “The leaked files include correspondence between the Bulgarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Embassy of Azerbaijan to Bulgaria with attached documents for weapons deals and diplomatic clearance for overflight and/or landing in Bulgaria and many other European countries,” in addition to Syria, Iraq, the United States, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Turkey, and Israel, to name a few.

According to documents obtained by Gaytandzhieva, “Silk Way Airlines offered diplomatic flights to private companies and arms manufacturers from the US, the Balkans, and Israel, as well as to the militaries of Saudi Arabia, UAE, and US Special Operations Command (USSOCOM), and the military forces of Germany and Denmark in Afghanistan and of Sweden in Iraq. Diplomatic flights are exempt of checks, air bills, and taxes, meaning that Silk Way airplanes freely transported hundreds of tons of weapons to different locations around the world without regulation.”

The leaked documents also reveal that American weapons manufacturers had shipped over $1 billion of weapons through Silk Way Airlines. These were non-US standard weapons which means that they were not intended for use by U.S. forces. When Silk Way Airlines did not have enough available planes, Azerbaijan’s Air Force jets would transport the military shipments, Gaytandzhieva reported.

According to the U.S. federal contracts registry, in December 2014, the U.S. Special Operations Command signed a $26.7 million contract with the American company Purple Shovel. Bulgaria was listed as the country of origin for the shipped weapons and Azerbaijan’s Defense Ministry as the consignee. Another US company, Orbital ATK, received a contract for $250 million of non-US standard weapons.

Amazingly, the daring Bulgarian reporter went to Aleppo, Syria, in December of last year where she “found and filmed 9 underground warehouses full of heavy weapons with Bulgaria as their country of origin. They were used by Al Nusra Front (Al Qaeda affiliate in Syria designated as a terrorist organization by the UN).”

Gaytandzhieva discovered that just in April and May of 2017, Azerbaijan’s Air Force jets transported 282 tons of grenades on 10 diplomatic flights.

Another major purchaser of non-US standard weapons is Saudi Arabia which cannot use these weapons for its own defense as they are not compatible with its arsenal of western weapons. In 2016 and 2017, there were 23 diplomatic flights carrying weapons from Bulgaria, Serbia and Azerbaijan to Jeddah and Riyadh. These weapons were transported to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia through Silk Way Airlines and ended up in the hands of militants in Syria and Yemen that Saudi Arabia officially admits supporting, according to Gaytandzhieva.

On April 28 and May 12 of this year, Silk Way Airlines carried out two diplomatic flights from Baku to Burgas-Jeddah-Brazzaville (Republic of Congo). The military cargo on board both flights was paid for by Saudi Arabia. The aircraft was loaded with mortars and anti-tank grenades. These very same weapons were discovered by the Iraqi army a month ago in an Islamic State warehouse in Mosul. It is not surprising that Islamic State terrorists have displayed these weapons in their propaganda videos, according to Gaytandzhieva.

The same situation existed with the shipment of Coyote machine guns which appeared on propaganda videos posted online by militant groups in Syria. These weapons were transported on a diplomatic flight via Turkey and Saudi Arabia a few months earlier. There are many other examples of such shipments that ended up in the hands of terrorists, including some shipments sponsored by United Arab Emirates.

In February and March 2017, Saudi Arabia received 350 tons of weapons on Silk Way Airlines’ diplomatic flights originating from Baku. The cargo included 27,350 pieces of 128-mm rockets and 10,000 pieces of 122 mm. Grad rockets.

Some of these shipments were paid in cash which may account for the huge amount of wealth accumulated by Pres. Aliyev and his family.

Just as concerning are the shipments of large quantities (around 200 tons) of white phosphorus which could be deadly. Ironically, Azerbaijan, which possesses white phosphorus, accuses Armenia of using it in the Artsakh conflict.

This is not just another article which should be read and forgotten! The U.S. Congress and European governments should hold hearings and investigate these huge shipments of weapons, most of which are destined for terrorists in the Middle East and elsewhere.