Azerbaijan's ruling elite ran a secret USD 2.9 billion slush fund to pay off European politicians and launder money, according to an investigation by a group of European newspapers published on Tuesday. The fund operated for two years from 2012 to 2014 through bank accounts of four shell companies registered in Britain, according to the investigation by papers including The Guardian and France's Le Monde and published by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project. Nicknamed the "Azerbaijan Laundromat", the origin of the fund is unclear "but there is ample evidence of its connection to the family of President Ilham Aliyev", the report said. The authorities in Azerbaijan could not be reached for comment today. The Guardian said some of the money went to politicians and journalists as part of a "caviar diplomacy" lobbying effort to deflect criticism at a time when the energy-rich former Soviet state was being accused of arresting rights activists and journalists and of vote-rigging. "This intensive lobbying operation was so successful that Council of Europe members voted against a 2013 report critical of Azerbaijan," the British newspaper said. Banking records leaked to Danish newspaper Berlingske which sparked the investigation show multiple payments to several former members of the Council's parliamentary assembly, The Guardian said. The Council of Europe, Europe's top rights watchdog, is investigating alleged corruption over the vote, the BBC has reported. One of Europe's leading banks, Denmark's Danske Bank, processed the payments via its Estonia office. "At the time our systems and procedures in Estonia were insufficient to ensure that we could not be used for money laundering.
We have taken the measures necessary to remedy this," Danske Bank said in March following reports of possible money laundering involving transactions by its Estonian branch in 2011-14, according to the Guardian. It said it had terminated relationships with a number of customers. "We do not want in any way to be used for money laundering or other criminal activity." The four British-registered firms used in the operation have been dissolved, The Guardian said. The authorities in oil-rich Azerbaijan have faced strong international criticism over claims they routinely harass and jail Aliyev's opponents on trumped up charges. Officials deny this. Azerbaijan ranked 162 out of 180 countries in the 2017 World Press Freedom Index released by Reporters Without Borders. Aliyev took over in 2003 after the death of his father Heydar Aliyev, a former KGB officer and communist-era leader who had ruled Azerbaijan with an iron fist since 1993.