Wednesday 16 January 2019

Josephine and the dictator

GOD bless Jedward. For they knew not what they were doing.

The Eurovision song contest last May was held in Azerbaijan. The oil-rich central Asian state has a massive image problem. Widespread torture and repression tends to do that. Poor old Jedward copped some flak for justifying the brutal autocratic regime of President Ilham Aliyev by simply turning up in his country.

To be fair to Jedward, they probably thought they were in Bray. At least nobody from the Irish establishment would be seen dead in the place... would they?

Azerbaijan is not a terribly nice place. Unless you are a crony of its dictator-cum-president Ilham Aliyev, who has been in charge of the highly corrupt country since 2003, when he inherited the presidency from his daddy, Heydar Aliyev, who had taken control of the Central Asian country a decade earlier as the Soviet Union crumbled. Aliyev Snr was quite the boyo, having been sacked by Gorbachev for corruption in the Eighties.

Aliyev Jnr even features in Sacha Baron Cohen's movie Borat, where his photograph was used as the backdrop for a Kazakh national anthem.

The obscenely wealthy Aliyev Jnr's near feudal empire has been utterly hammered by various monitoring groups and NGOs.

Here's what the latest Human Rights Watch report had to say about Aliyev's regime: "Azerbaijan's human rights record remained poor in 2010. The government continued to use criminal defamation and other charges to intimidate and punish journalists expressing dissenting opinions.

"The parliamentary elections of November 7 failed to meet international standards," it added.

The elections of 2010 saw Aliyev's party and loyal independents romp home with about a billion per cent of the popular vote. The opposition parties didn't manage to win a single seat.

In 2008, Aliyev was re-elected president with 87 per cent of the vote, as the opposition parties boycotted the election.

"Other serious problems persisted, including restrictions on freedoms of religion, assembly, association and torture," the report continues.

It's all about keeping power. If "old" Fianna Fail was a country, it'd be Azerbaijan. Minus the torture, obviously.

In 2010, the Azerbaijan Committee against Torture, an independent prison monitoring group, received more than 150 complaints alleging torture and ill-treatment in custody. Police disciplined several officers, but failed to criminally prosecute any. At least one prisoner reportedly died in custody in 2010 after alleged ill-treatment.

Amnesty International isn't a fan of Aliyev's rule either. "Peaceful protests were banned and violently dispersed. Opposition activists were imprisoned. Protests and expression of dissent were repressed and freedom of expression, assembly and association were restricted," it notes in its latest report on the country.

Azerbaijan is also about as dodgy as a purple polyester suit. It was ranked 143 out of 183 countries on Transparency International's corruption list. That's the bad end of the table.

US television network CNBC conducted an investigation into the Aliyev family wealth in February, revealing a huge portfolio of assets including properties held outside the country in places such as Dubai. The family is also linked to overwhelming interests in banking and mobile phones in the region.

The bottom line is that Azerbaijan is toxic and its strongman leader even more so. All in all, he's probably not the kind of guy you'd bring home to meet your mum. Although, he'd probably bring a very, very expensive box of chocolates. Or somebody's foot.

So what exactly was Ireland's top tax official doing meeting him last April?

Revenue Commissioners' chairman Josephine Feehily jetted out to Azerbaijan for the "Head of Customs Conference of the WCO Europe region", which was held in Baku.

Since the start of 2011, Feehily's appointments diary, which is sitting on my desk, shows engagements in Abuja, Nigeria, Baku, Krakow, Malta, Copenhagen, Talinn and Oslo. The bill for her travel is €26,000 since January 2011.

Josephine is a big cheese in the World Customs Organisation. The Revenue sent me a six-page statement on Friday, much of it explaining the work that the WCO does from Azerbaijan to Abuja.

She attended the Baku backslap "in her capacity as Director General of Irish Customs and Chairperson of the WCO Council," according to the Revenue.

On the morning of April 13, along with WCO Secretary General Kunio Mikuria, Josephine trooped in to meet with this ruthless dictator. They were pencilled in to meet for an hour. The photograph -- Josephine is the woman -- shows a jolly old time being had by all.

What was discussed? Was there chit-chat about Jedward's poor showing in the Eurovision? The alleged torture of political dissidents? Or even of local musicians?

(In April, it was reported that Jamal Ali, 24-year-old frontman of band Bulustan, had poked fun at Aliyev and his late mother during an opposition rally in Baku. Following a scuffle ,he was hauled away by the Azeri special police and held for 10 days. It was alleged that his captors had kicked the shite out of him.)

Or maybe they talked about tax and Ireland's €3.65m worth of exports to the nation on the shores of the Caspian Sea.

"WCO Policy and European regional matters were discussed together with matters related to the 60th anniversary of the WCO," according to the Revenue. Must have been a blast.

"The meeting with President Aliyev was not private. It is recorded on the WCO website. The president invited Ms Feehily and the Secretary General of the WCO and the meeting also included the Director General of Azerbaijan Customs," says Revenue.

"It was entirely appropriate to accept an invitation to meet the president of a country with which Ireland has diplomatic relations," a spokesman added.

The chairman of the Revenue Commissioners should have ignored Aliyev. She should have gone sightseeing instead. Feehily's decision to meet up with Aliyev was a poor one. Poorer still to be photographed with the dictator. Unlike Jedward, when a top mandarin comes to pay their respects, it provides political capital for a repressive regime. Let's hope that the World Customs Organisation has nothing planned for Syria or North Korea in the coming months. Civil servants lack the survival instincts of politicians. They shouldn't be let out alone.

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