By Harut Sassounian
Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (D-FL) is the latest transmitter of Azeri propaganda. He issued a statement on February 25, 2019, which he entered in the Congressional Record, accusing Armenians of killing 613 Azeri men, women, and children on Feb. 26, 1992, in the Khojaly village of Azerbaijan during the height of the Artsakh (Karabagh) war. Human Rights Watch placed the number of Azeri dead at 161. Nevertheless, even the single loss of life is regrettable be it Azeri or Armenian. Rep. Hastings, a member of Azerbaijan Congressional Caucus, called the alleged killings “the Khojaly Massacre.”
These killings are controversial with Armenians and Azeris blaming each other for the deaths. In recent years, the government of Azerbaijan has made these killings a cause celebre, organizing observances in various countries and accusing Armenians not only of committing a massacre, but a genocide. These propaganda observances are funded by what is known as “caviar diplomacy,” meaning that Azerbaijan bribes government officials around the world to block decisions critical of Azerbaijan or adopt resolutions in its favor.
It is ironic that while Azerbaijan describes the alleged killing of 613 Azeris a genocide, it shamelessly denies the actual genocide of 1.5 million Armenians from 1915 to 1923.
On March 3, 1997, the Armenian Foreign Ministry circulated a statement to members of the United Nations General Assembly and Security Council, rejecting the statement issued by Azerbaijan on February 22, 1997 on “the Khojalu event.” Armenia quoted the words of the then President of Azerbaijan Ayaz Mutalibov who had stated that the Azerbaijani National Front “actively obstructed and actually prevented the exodus of the local [Azeri] population through the mountain passages specifically left open by Karabakh Armenians to facilitate the flight of the civilian population.” Mutalibov had made that statement in the days following “the Khojalu event” in an interview with Czech journalist Dana Mazalova published in the April 2, 1992 issue of the Russian newspaper Nizavisimaya Gazeta.
By organizing such propaganda observances, Azerbaijan’s officials have found a convenient way of countering the mass murder of Armenians in the Azeri towns of Sumgait (Feb. 28, 1988), Gyanja (November 1988), and Baku (January 1990) as well as the Armenian genocide by Ottoman Turkey.
Azerbaijan could not have found a more infamous member of U.S. Congress to carry out its propaganda war against Armenia. Prior to becoming a member of Congress, Hastings served as a United States District or Federal Judge from 1979 to 1989, at which time he was impeached and removed from office!
According to Wikipedia, “In 1981, [Judge] Hastings was charged with accepting a $150,000 bribe in exchange for a lenient sentence and a return of seized assets for 21 counts of racketeering by Frank and Thomas Romano, and of perjury in his testimony about the case. In 1983, he was acquitted by a jury after his alleged co-conspirator, William Borders, refused to testify in court, resulting in a jail sentence for Borders.”
“In 1988, the Democratic-controlled United States House of Representatives took up the case, and Hastings was impeached for bribery and perjury by a vote of 413–3. He was then convicted on October 20, 1989, by the United States Senate, becoming the sixth federal judge in the history of the United States to be removed from office by the Senate. The Senate, in two hours of roll calls, voted on 11 of the 17 articles of impeachment. It convicted Hastings of eight of the 11 articles. The vote on the first article was 69 for and 26 opposed….”
Rep. Hastings was disgraced for the second time when a staff member of the Helsinki Commission for which he was the Chairman, accused him of inappropriate sexual behavior. The Roll Call newspaper reported on December 8, 2017 that the U.S. Treasury Department secretly paid the staffer $220,000 to settle an alleged sexual harassment case against Rep. Hastings.
Winsome Packer, the staff member of the congressional commission, stated in a written document that Congressman Hastings touched her, made unwanted sexual advances, and threatened her job. In her lawsuit, Packer stated “that Hastings repeatedly asked to stay at her apartment or to visit her hotel room. Packer also said he frequently hugged her, and once asked her what kind of underwear she was wearing,” according to Roll Call. Congressman Hastings denied the accusation.
Finally, it appears that Rep. Hastings has maintained extensive contacts with the BGR Group, a major U.S. firm that is paid $50,000 a month to lobby for Azerbaijan in Washington.
Under the federal FARA (Foreign Agents Registration Act) laws, every lobbying firm has to register with the U.S. Department of Justice, disclosing the contract signed with the foreign entity. More importantly, the lobbying firm’s employees are required to report to the Justice Department every contact they make with outsiders on behalf of their clients, whether by email, phone call, or personal meeting.
For example, during the six-month period of December 1, 2017 to May 30, 2018, BGR reported contacting congressional offices hundreds of times. Each time the subject matter was listed as “U.S.-Azerbaijan Relations.” Cleverly, BGR had hidden the name of the Congressman or Senator, mentioning only his or her staff member’s name.
Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA) conducted a lengthy investigation to identify the names of the Congress members for whom these staff members worked. The ANCA investigation disclosed that on Nov. 17, 2017, Feb. 27, March 5, March 12, April 30, May 22, May 23, and May 30, 2018 BGR lobbyists emailed Tom Carnes, a staff member of Rep. Hastings. BGR also had a meeting with Tom Carnes on May 30, 2018. In addition, on May 22, 2018, lobbyists from BGR e-mailed Susannah Jackson of Rep. Hastings office. In addition, on Nov. 2, 2017, Rob Mangas, Tim Hutchinson, K. Laurie McKay, Killoran Long, and Albert Wynn on behalf of a lobbying firm for Turkey, Greenberg Traurig, had discussions with Lale Morrison from the Office of Rep. Alcee Hastings regarding U.S.-Turkish relations. Finally, on Oct. 27, 2017, Lydia Borland on behalf of another lobbying firm for Turkey, LB International Solutions, LLC, met with Lale Morrison from the Office of Rep. Hastings regarding U.S.-Turkey relations.
Azerbaijan has tried to cover up its crimes against Armenians and human rights violations of its deprived citizens by bribing foreign officials around the world and blaming others for its own wrongdoing.
Harut Sassounian is the Publisher of the California Courier, one of the oldest English-language Armenian weekly newspapers in America.
By Harut Sassounian
Last year, I wrote an article reporting that the Silk Way Airlines of Azerbaijan made 350 secret flights to transport hundreds of tons of weapons from Bulgaria to ISIS terrorists in Syria and other Middle Eastern countries between 2014 and 2017. We now have a new surprising revelation that Silk Way received $419.5 million of loans from the U.S. Export-Import Bank (EXIM) to buy three 747-8 cargo planes from Boeing to continue its sinister operations.
The disclosure was made by a reporter for the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) by filing a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with the U.S. government in 2016. It is noteworthy that Silk Way, “owned by a company with past ties to Azerbaijan’s Aliyev family, won some lucrative contracts from the U.S. military,” according to FOIA documents. In fact, “Silk Way was given contracts worth more than $400 million with the U.S. Defense Department’s Transportation Command for more than decade,” according to Devansh Mehta of OCCRP. Silk Way transported “ammunition and other non-lethal materials” to Afghanistan as of 2005. “In addition to its relationship with the U.S. government, Silk Way Airlines has also worked as a subcontractor for the Canadian Department of National Defense, the German armed forces, and the French army,” Mehta revealed.
In April 2017, Silk Way increased its purchases from Boeing, signing a $1 billion deal for 10 new 737 MAX passenger planes, according to reporter Mehta. However, it is not known how the new acquisition was financed. Last October, Silk Way announced plans to buy two more 747-8 cargo planes.
Mehta disclosed that “the airline is owned by Silk Way Group, which, at least at one point, was closely associated with Azerbaijan’s ruling Aliyev family (which has used its planes for private trips) and has benefited from benevolent state deals. Information obtained through FOIA shows that Silk Way Airlines took steps to conceal its owners’ identity, perhaps to improve its chances of winning the valuable U.S. loan guarantees and military contracts.”
Mehta added that “Azerbaijan ranks 122nd out of 180 countries in Transparency International’s corruption perception index, while President Ilham Aliyev’s family owns luxury properties around the world worth over $140 million. The Panama Papers and other leaks have implicated the country’s first family as being involved in nearly all sectors of the Azerbaijani economy, from luxury hotels to mining to banking.”
According to the terms of the Export-Import Bank’s $419.5 million loan to Silk Way, in case of default the loss would be repaid by the state-owned International Bank of Azerbaijan (IBA). The problem is that IBA has been “implicated in the Azerbaijani Laundromat, a massive scheme that pumped nearly $3 billion out of the country through various shell companies,” Mehta wrote. Furthermore, IBA is not in a position to guarantee the Silk Way loan, as the IBA itself declared bankruptcy in 2015, unable to pay its $3.3 billion debt!
Nate Schenkkan, project director of the Nations in Transit report at Freedom House, a US-based nonprofit that monitors democracy and human rights around the world, questioned the wisdom of EXIM Bank’s loan to Silk Way: “In Azerbaijan, where one family dominates economically and politically, and is then using state institutions to back its economic projects, there’s an obvious conflict of interest.”
Arzu Aliyeva, Pres. Aliyev’s 21-year-old daughter in 2010, was one of the three owners of Silk Way Bank, the financial arm of Silk Way Holding. Since 2017, her name is no longer mentioned as an owner. “Silk Way Holding, also referred to as Silk Way Group (SW Group) on its website, is a conglomerate that has currently listed 11 companies in its portfolio, including the airline,” according to Mehta. Silk Way Holding dominated Azerbaijan’s aviation sector after the state carrier AZAL airlines was privatized in a highly secretive manner without any bids and tenders. Mehta wrote that “a similar privatization of the telecom sector ended up with the [Aliyev] family earning about $1 billion in bribes in cash and share value, according to an earlier OCCRP story. The investigation also found that the money was funneled to the first family through various secret offshore companies. These companies have enabled the Aliyevs to control stakes in gold mines, telecommunications and construction businesses in Azerbaijan.”
According to a filing in 2006, Silk Way Airlines was owned by IHC (International Handling Company), an offshore entity based in the British Virgin Islands. In a 2017 filing, Silk Way Airlines stated that 40% of the company was owned by IHC, while 60% was owned by SW Holding, “effectively controlled” by Zaur Akhundov, an Azerbaijani citizen. Mehta stated that “IHC is linked to the Aliyev family through its director Jaouad Dbila who reportedly served as a proxy for the first family’s business interests in the past.”
In 2011, a Russian-born manager, Grigory Yurkov, was given power of attorney for both Silk Way Holding and IHC, according to Luxembourg’s official gazette. This appointment was used as a means to conceal the true owners of IHC.
Meanwhile, Zaur Akhundov had mysteriously become the 100% owner of the entire Silk Way Group in 2014. By that time, the firm and its many holdings were already worth billions of dollars, Mehta declared, based on the company’s loan guarantee application. Akhundov, 50, had held several official positions in Azerbaijan. “It is unclear how Akhundov became the owner of a billion-dollar conglomerate with more than 10 aircrafts, an insurance company, a construction company and an aircraft maintenance company, to name a few of the enterprises in the Silk Way Group,” Mehta wondered.
According Schenkkan of Freedom House, “Azerbaijan can be described as a centralized, vertical pyramid where the benefits go to one family that collects rents throughout the economy. This includes all sorts of transactions, not only official state transactions that might involve taxes and public funds, but also things that involve what we normally consider the private sector: import-export, consumer goods, transport—any area of the economy, the family has a stake in it and receives a cut on what takes place.”
The U.S. Congress should hold a hearing to investigate the appropriateness of EXIM Bank’s $419.5 million loan guarantee to Silk Way Airlines, its arms shipments to terrorist groups in the Middle East, and its hidden ownership by the ruling Aliyev family. After all, why should Azerbaijan, a country with billions of petrodollars, be given a U.S. loan?
By Mireille Samra
Special Guest Contributor
After packing my five very heavy suit cases, I felt prepared to enter my direct flight to Washington D.C. Why might a South Florida native fly to Washington D.C. other then touring all the national monuments and museums? The simplest answer is to learn. My name is Mireille Samra and I am currently enrolled in the Armenian Assembly of America’s Terjenian-Thomas Summer Internship Program in Washington, D.C. Through the internship with the Assembly, I was placed on Capitol Hill, in the Office of Congressman Gus Bilirakis (R-FL), Vice Chairman of the Armenian Caucus in Congress.
As an intern with the Armenian Assembly this summer, I have gained several new professional and personal connections. I was able to meet the President of Armenia twice in one day, along with the honorable First Lady of Armenia, on their first official visit to the U.S. So far, the 2018 class of Assembly interns have met with several community, political, and industry leaders. Early on, we met with the Director of the Armenian National Institute (ANI), Dr. Ruben Adalian. ANI provides historical information concerning the Armenian Genocide. In addition, the Assembly program provides us with direct meetings with elected officials, such as Congresswoman Jackie Speier (D-CA), Congressman Bilirakis, and Senator Ed Markey (D-MA), to name a few.
Currently, I have only been in D.C. for about one month. In that short amount of time, I have been learning things I could have never expected to learn, from how the metro (subway) system works, and the fact that finding parking in Washington, D.C. is like winning the lottery! Growing up, I’ve been known for always taking opportunities and not thinking much about them. Truthfully, this internship has taught me a lot. A typical workweek is Monday through Friday, 9:00am to 6:00pm, most days. Working on Capitol Hill, the people you meet are endless. Just last week I was giving a tour of the Capitol when the Queen of Jordan Rania Al-Abdullah walked by a few feet away from me! Something that keeps the internship on the Hill very interesting is that no two days are ever the same. For any Armenian American that is passionate about working hard in a big city and learning, the summer internship with the Armenian Assembly of America is a must before graduating.
Mireille Samra is a resident of Boca Raton, Florida and an active member of the South Florida Armenian American community. She graduated from Spanish River High School and currently studies Criminal Justice at Lynn University in Boca Raton.