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Slaves to Progress: The Minister

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The other SerbAz is registered in the Netherlands as SerbAz Property under a limited partnership, a corporate structure that allows absolute anonymity.

Both of these corporate paper trails were dead ends, but OCCRP reporters found another clue. According to a tip from an insider, another Azerbaijani company, Creacon Construction, took over the building work from SerbAz after the workers were discovered and returned home.

In 2012, Azerbaijan restricted access to corporate information, making company ownership structures a secret.

But before the company registry was taken down, Azerbaijani journalists managed to scrape part of the database. The records show that one of Creacon’s two shareholders was ItalDizain Group.

ItalDizain is well-known in Azerbaijan as an importer of luxury brands. It has also grown to become a major holding company that includes telecommunications, real estate, and upscale boutiques that sell everything from Cartier watches to Baccarat tableware.

A lucky break helped reporters complete the connection back to SerbAz. The Internet Archive, a non-profit library of millions of websites, had preserved earlier versions of ItalDizain’s site that contained a chart of its corporate structure showing SerbAz as its subsidiary as of January 2009, the same year the SerbAz workers’ brutal treatment was discovered.

There is other evidence SerbAz is a subsidiary of ItalDizain Group. For example, employment advertisements at the time describe the company as a subsidiary. In the “About Us” section of ItalDizain’s website, SerbAz is also identified as a subsidiary. Finally, sources confirmed the relationship.

Having established that ItalDizain was the ultimate beneficiary of the workers’ labor, reporters set out to learn who was behind it. Here, once again, the scraped corporate records showed the way.

They indicated that the luxury conglomerate is wholly owned by a Luxembourg company called Argulux. Argulux, in turn, is owned by Zulfiya Rahimova, the wife of Youth and Sports Minister Azad Rahimov, and Elchin Zeynalov, who appears to be his associate.

RAHIMOV AND ITALDIZAIN

There is evidence that Rahimov’s connection to ItalDizain goes beyond his wife’s ownership of the company.

ItalDiazain was incorporated in Baku in 1996. Between 1998 and his appointment to the Ministry in 2006, Rahimov was its director. The company’s shareholders are unknown, but a leaked U.S. diplomatic cable from 2006 describes him as the company’s co-owner.

Since January 2009, ItalDizain has operated under a new Azerbaijani corporate entity, ID Group. This is the company traced by reporters and co-owned by Rahimov’s wife and his associate, Elchin Zeynalov.

What Did the Azerbaijanis Know?

The connection of Rahimova, Zeynalov or any other senior Azerbaijani to SerbAz’s abuses has never before been brought to light. When the workers were discovered, the Azerbaijani government blamed their treatment on the Balkan men who managed SerbAz, interacted with the workers, and had presented themselves as the company’s owners.

As the workers’ experience shows, these men from their own part of the world really were in charge of their day-to-day mistreatment. The only criminal trial resulting from the case led to four convictions of Bosnian SerbAz employees on human trafficking charges.

Bosnian prosecutors later indicted 13 SerbAz representatives — the men who had recruited the workers in their home countries and ruled their lives in Baku — for human trafficking. Late last year, four of the indicted men admitted their guilt and one was sentenced to a year and nine months in prison. The others, including the Vučenović brothers, were found not guilty. The prosecutor has appealed.

But the trail of accountability ended there, partly because no serious investigation was ever undertaken in Azerbaijan, creating the impression that SerbAz was a rogue foreign contractor for which the government bore no responsibility.

But a raft of additional evidence, including photographs taken at the time, statements by multiple workers, and information from insiders about closed-door meetings, shows that powerful Azerbaijanis not only owned the company, but were also heavily involved in its operations.

Meydan

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