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Slaves to Progress: The Worker

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“We were in a really tough situation,” Seudin Zoletić said. “Without money. Without food. Without anything.”

Years have passed, but the 46-year-old is still haunted by his nightmarish ordeal as a forced laborer in Azerbaijan. “It marked my life forever,” he said.

Zoletić now lives in his hometown of Živinice, a working-class city in northeastern Bosnia and Herzegovina. The tall, gentle man met an OCCRP reporter three times over the course of several months to tell his story.

As he smoked cigarette after cigarette in a smoky local cafe, pop music blaring in the background, Zoletić recalled his months trapped at a work site in a far-away country. He described his failed fight for justice against that country’s regime. And he expressed his hope that, this year, in the hands of a European court, he would find it at last.

Zoletić kept returning to the subject of his family: two promising sons he calls his “golden boys” and an ailing wife to whom he is devoted. It was to support them that he accepted what sounded like an attractive offer in the summer of 2009 to work on a construction site in Azerbaijan’s capital, Baku. The people who hired him promised good pay, excellent conditions, and decent accommodation.

Zoletić was one of over 700 working-class men from Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, and North Macedonia who accepted similar offers in search of a better life. Between 2006 and 2009, they built some of the most prominent buildings in Baku, including a grand event space called the Buta Palace and a massive exposition center. At least three of the multi-million-dollar projects were financed by the government.

But most of the workers were treated as little more than modern slaves. Along with hundreds of others, Zoletić lived in cramped conditions, with little food, working grueling, 12-hour days. His passport was confiscated. Some workers were beaten. One died in Zoletić’s arms. And their promised wages were severely reduced or not paid at all.

Zoletić was a candid and powerful witness to his fellow workers’ plight, but this story is not based on his experience alone. Reporters interviewed eight Bosnian men who were trapped in Azerbaijan and reviewed hundreds of pages of court records, testimonies, reports, and other materials to corroborate and complete their accounts.

Zoletić had no idea who was behind SerbAz, the company that hired him. Now, an investigation by OCCRP reveals that there are strong reasons to suspect the firm was jointly owned by the wife and close associate of Azad Rahimov, Azerbaijan’s Minister of Youth and Sports. Rahimov’s ministry appointed SerbAz to fulfill some of the construction projects, worth 54 million manat (US$65.8 million).

If true, the new evidence uncovered by OCCRP implicates the well-connected insider in one of the largest cases of labor exploitation ever to take place in modern Europe.It also raises questions about Azerbaijan’s first family, which has maintained a tight grip on power since 2003. Rahimov is known to be a close associate of the country’s president, Ilham Aliyev, and one of the private facilities where the workers labored, an upscale shopping mall, now belongs to the Aliyev family.

Azad Rahimov, his wife Zulfiya, and her business partner did not respond to requests for comment for this story. The company that now owns the mall denied engaging SerbAz for the work and provided no further information, citing confidential commercial contracts.

Zoletić’s efforts to find justice in Azerbaijan have failed. A legal challenge to his treatment was repeatedly rejected by the country’s pliant courts, and a prominent activist who took it up was driven out of the country. His last hope is the European Court of Human Rights, which is expected to rule on the workers’ case this year.

While many of the other workers are reluctant to talk about their days in Azerbaijan, Zoletić said it was important for him to do so: “If more people know about it, it will be harder for it to happen again.”

“I never imagined that life could be so cruel, to inflict such injustice, such evil on people,” he said. “In the 21st century.”

Meydan

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