Hungary appears to have sold Azeri axe murderer for $7 million

Documents uncovered this week suggest that the Orbán government’s motivation for handing back to Azerbaijan Ramil Safarov, the Azeri axe murder convicted of killing an Armenian army lieutenant in Hungary, may have been financial gain. In 2012, Hungary earned global scorn for transferring the murderer to a country where he was welcomed as a hero. Here in Ottawa, Canada, the Armenian-Canadian community protested in front of the Embassy of Hungary. At the time, Hungary tried to explain away its actions by claiming that it fully expected the murderer to continue serving his prison sentence, considering that he had been sentenced to life by a Hungarian court. Of course, this did not happen–Ramil Safarov was not only pardoned, but was also promoted to the rank of major in Azerbaijan’s military immediately after his release from Hungary. The government of Viktor Orbán claimed in 2012 that it had been misled and expressed “disappointment.”

In light of a report in the anti-corruption Átlátszó website, we may have confirmation that the Hungarian government knew exactly what it was doing, and its actions were not solely related to a desire to strengthen political and economic ties with Azeri President Ilham Aliyev’s dictatorship.

The scandal, which extends far beyond Hungary, involves a complex money laundering scheme tied to Azerbaijan and first uncovered by journalists at Denmark’s Berlingske publication. Using a network of British businesses, Azerbaijan’s ruling political elite maintained a secret slush fund worth 2.9 billion dollars. The slush fund was used to buy luxury goods, buy off politicians and journalists in Europe and engage in money laundering. An estimated 16,000 transactions were made from the secret fund. Ilham Aliyev’s dictatorship aimed to reward journalists and politicians abroad who spoke favourably of his regime and who denied the severe human rights and rule of law violations.

In 2012, at precisely the same time that Hungary released Safarov, more than $7 million was deposited into a bank account opened at Hungary’s MKB Bank, under the name of the son of an Azeri politician. The account was linked to an offshore company that folded in 2015 and which had been closely tied to Azerbaijan’s government. The money that arrived in Hungary was transferred by a firm called Metastar Invest LLP to a Hungarian bank account linked to Velasco International Inc.

Mr. Orbán and President Aliyev sign a strategic partnership in Budapest in 2014. Photo: MTI.

The transfer of $7 million into the mysterious MKB Bank account coincided with an improvement in diplomatic relations between Hungary and Azerbaijan. In 2014, Viktor Orbán met with President Aliyev in Budapest, where the two leaders signed a strategic partnership. A mere four months later, Hungarian Minister of Foreign Affairs Péter Szijjártó met with Azeri Minister of Youth and Sports, Azad Ragimov, in Budapest. Most recently in July 2017, Mr. Szijjártó met with Elmar Mammadyarov, Azerbaijan’s foreign minister in Budapest.

It was Metastar Invest LLP that prosecutors in Italy charge sent payments to Luca Volonte, the Vice President of the European People’s Party. Mr. Volonte was not only a friend of Azerbaijan, but also of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, referring to criticism of the Orbán regime as nothing more than a “witch hunt.”

Velasco International Inc, which maintained the Hungarian bank account, had deep connections to Hungary and to Azerbaijan. Velasco is registered in the British Virgin Islands, and one of its shareholders is Nothingham Holding Ltd., an offshore firm tied to the Bahamas. Reportedly, it was the son of the Azeri deputy prime minister,  Orkhan Ejjubov, that played a key role in getting Nothingham Holding Ltd to buy shares in Velasco. A member of the infuential Ejjubov family served as the director of a company based in Baku called ILREM MMCA, which reportedly conducted business with Velasco. This Azeri company, however, was co-owned by a firm registered in Budapest called CEU-REM Zrt., since renamed to Remint Zrt.  In this endless web, Remint’s subsidiary is a Hungarian pharmaceutical firm called Papaver Gyógyszeralapanyag-gyártó Zrt. According to Átlátszó, a member of the firm’s board is former Hungarian intelligence agent and national safety expert tied to the Orbán government, László Földi.

According to Átlátszó, a firm called Laveco associated with László Váradi, a prominent consultant in the world of offshore company creation, served as a mediator in the establishment of Nothingham Holding Ltd. Átlátszó notes that Laveco conducts its “official” banking at MKB Bank–a financial institution first re-nationalized by the Orbán government, then sold to business interests attached to the Governor of the Hungarian National Bank and former Fidesz minister György Matolcsy, and then more recently sold yet again to the Fidesz mayor and billionaire plumber Lőrinc Mészáros. It is, however, important to note that at the time when the Azeri monies were being deposited in MKB Bank following Safarov’s release, MKB Bank had yet to be bought up by the Hungarian state and was owned by German business interests.

In this complex and murky world, the name of a Hungarian-Romanian, László György Kiss, also surfaces. Mr. Kiss led Laveco’s Bucharest office and in connection to what appears to be an unrelated incident, he was convicted of money laundering. To add a layer of complexity: Hungarian banker Sándor Csányi’s marketing company in Budapest reportedly used offshore companies to buy a Romanian marketing firm. Mr. Csányi was represented by Viktor Orbán’s chief adviser, András Tombor. At the time, one of the offshore firms used in the transaction was none other than Nothingham Holding.

Átlátszó points to another connection to the Orbán government. Nothingham Holding is the primary shareholder in Trewfield Corporation, tied to Hungarian entrepreneur Gábor Kovács. Mr. Kovács has a long history of business transactions with the Hungarian state, under multiple governments, and is also a friend of János Lázár, the Minister of the Prime Minister’s Office.

The web of deceit surrounding millions of dollars landing in a mysterious Hungarian bank account is murky and deep. It will be up to sites like Átlátszó to continue uncovering pieces of the puzzle and up to the Hungarian media to explain this to the public in a comprehensible manner. That is no easy task.

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