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What the Pandora Papers Mean in Fight Against Corruption

FILE - Azerbaijani investigative reporter Khadija Ismayilova, center, speaks to journalists in Baku, Azerbaijan, May 25, 2016.
FILE - Azerbaijani investigative reporter Khadija Ismayilova, center, speaks to journalists in Baku, Azerbaijan, May 25, 2016.

Editor's note: Paragraph 3 of this article has been updated to clarify details of the journalist's reporting on the Pandora Papers.

The release of the Pandora Papers in October garnered worldwide attention, with the leaked documents revealing the hidden wealth of some of the most powerful people in the world.

Reporting by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists revealed how the files exposed the hidden offshore finances of 35 current and former world leaders, including Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev. The Azeri leader has denied any wrongdoing, telling the Italian newspaper la Repubblica that only "five percent of (the reporting) could be true, the rest is a lie."

While not part of the main Pandora Papers reporting project, since the release of the documents, investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova has been reporting on findings related to Azerbaijan.

The award-winning journalist, who worked for the Azeri Service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, is known for her coverage on corruption. In 2014, Azeri authorities arrested her on charges that rights groups believe were in retaliation for her reporting, and she spent more than 530 days in prison.

Ismayilova believes reporting on the leaked documents is important in the global fight against corruption. In an interview with VOA's Azeri Service, however, she expressed her frustration that Azeri authorities had not yet acted on allegations of corruption uncovered by even earlier reporting.

Gunay Salimzade, press secretary for Azerbaijan's prosecutor general, told VOA that Azerbaijan takes corruption allegations seriously. "The fight against corruption in our country is being conducted in all directions in accordance with a strong political will," Salimzade said.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What impact has the Pandora Papers had in exposing global corruption?

Ismayilova: This is the largest leak from offshore jurisdictions. These kinds of leaks allow journalists to gain access to documents from jurisdictions that are otherwise closed for public eyes. Secrecy in business is something that feeds corruption, that feeds crimes.

As we see from these leaks, secrecy in business has been used by corrupt officials on a large scale. (For example), the Azerbaijani ruling regime, like lots of Azerbaijani officials, has been involved in business activities and spent millions and even hundreds of millions of dollars to buy property to start companies abroad. (Editor's note: In October, VOA reported that the leaks show the Aliyevs and their associates traded property in Britain worth $544 million over 15 years.)

(Some of) those companies have been used for corrupt activities in Azerbaijan and other countries.

This (investigative reporting) will not stop corruption immediately, but it will help uncover more corrupt facts.

Constant and continuous work on these leaks, on these databases, helps us connect the dots. There were, for example, companies that have been using money-laundering schemes, and we didn't know anything about those companies.

It basically gives us a lot of work, but it also makes it easier to uncover corruption. So this helps journalists, and this helps societies to get informed.

What steps can be taken to ensure transparency, accountability, and tighter control over financial transactions and money laundering?

Ismayilova: We have uncovered many facts about corruption at the highest level in Azerbaijan. Unfortunately, we haven't seen law enforcement act on any of those facts.

The problem is that the government is not able to act against corruption.

There is a myth in Azerbaijan that the president doesn't know anything about what is going on, so it's not him; it's the other people in the elite that are corrupt.

The president makes speeches saying that he will fight corruption, and then people start saying, "Oh, the president is good. His surrounding is bad."

But that myth is broken by this journalist investigation because (it) shows that the president's family is the ultimate beneficiary … they gain much more than any other official from this corruption.

The government declares that it fights corruption, but no practical, effective step has been taken.

From 2006, we have had a law that all government officials should declare their wealth. And 15 years have passed ... nobody has ever declared their wealth under that law because there is no form. Fifteen years, they could not prepare the template.

In 2012, Azerbaijan stepped back from transparency, hiding the ownership of the companies, making it more difficult for investigators to find out who owns companies, including those benefiting from public procurement contracts. They are benefiting from the budget, but we don't know who owns them.

It is quite a frustrating process when you uncover the corruption facts and then nothing happens.

But the global process is going on, and it's very important. It makes it more difficult for the countries, for the corrupt officials from countries like Azerbaijan, to transfer their funds, to invest.

Some countries decide that they have to be more transparent. The United Kingdom, (has taken) some steps on sanctioning, or even taking over property bought with corrupt or criminal money. Some Azerbaijani oligarchs have lost properties (there) because of that process.

We have heard about the initiative by Tom Malinowski (a U.S. Representative for New Jersey) and other representatives that suggests sanctioning people worldwide.

How does Azerbaijani society feel about the fight against corruption and the responsibility of officials?

Ismayilova: Society in Azerbaijan is full of fear. There is a lot of fear in society because of political oppression. And they do not believe in the justice system. There were a couple of initiatives where citizens or political groups applied to a court, demanding an investigation into corruption revealed by international journalist organizations.

Well, no steps have been taken. And, unfortunately, there is very little room for international litigation of domestic corruption.

People are not allowed to speak their minds openly in the street. People do speak their mind (on Facebook), but then they get arrested.

So there is a lot of fear in society, and people are not feeling free to protest, to organize, to demand.

Someday maybe there will be more freedom and more opening to that. This society is a little bit not active, but they are aware. And that's very important because some 10 years ago, even awareness was a luxury.

Tapdig Farhadoglu contributed to this report. This story originated in VOA's Azeri Service.