Azerbaijani private cargo airline, Silk Way Airlines, has strongly refuted claims in several online articles that it made numerous secret flights to transport hundreds of tonnes of weapons from Bulgaria to ISIS terrorists in Syria and other Middle Eastern countries between 2014 and 2017.
Silk Way Airlines is based at Heydar Aliyev International Airport in Baku, Azerbaijan and operates full freighter services linking Europe and Asia, the U.S. and Africa, as well as services for
government and non-governmental organisations.
The report of the flights written by Devansh Mehta for the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), said that “Silk Way was given contracts worth more than US$400 million with the U.S. Defense Department’s Transportation Command for more than a decade” and the airline transported “ammunition and other non-lethal materials” to Afghanistan as of 2005.
“In addition to its relationship with the U.S. government, Silk Way Airlines has also worked as a subcontractor for the Canadian Department of National Defense, the German armed forces, and the French army,” Mehta revealed.
The report also noted that Silk Way received US$419.5 million of loans from the U.S. Export-Import Bank (EXIM) to buy three Boeing 747-8 freighters to continue its operations.
Silk Way claims to be victim of a bad campaign
In a reaction, Silk Way stated that the online accusations were void of any merit and "are a result of an organised campaign of misinformation penned by geopolitically motivated authors perpetrated to be in direct collaboration with Armenian connections."
The airline claims that it "dutifully followed all applicable protocols and methods under national and international aviation regulations and legal provisions concerning the transportation of goods by air, including International Air Transport Association (IATA) and International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) standards."
The so-called ‘secret flights,‘ referred to in the online articles, were operated in full compliance with all established procedures and were ordered by the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD), while all consignors and consignees were designated by the mentioned authority. Thereby, the statements questioning the nature of these flights and their consignors and consignees lack all legal or substantive elements, Silk Way said in a statement.
The misinformation campaign, according to Silk Way, also engaged in a libelous character assault on Silk Way Group President, Zaur Akhundov and questioned the financing of Silk Way’s fleet expansion. In its rebuttal, the airline countered that "Akhundov was critical to the founding of Silk Way, has been a leader of the Silk Way team from the beginning, and brings decades of valuable experience in developing the aviation industry in Azerbaijan."
Confusion about the airline financing
As for the aircraft financing, OCCRP's Mehta said in his report that "According to the terms of the Export-Import Bank’s US$419.5 million loan to Silk Way, in case of default, the loss would be repaid by the state-owned International Bank of Azerbaijan (IBA).
"The problem is that IBA has been “implicated in the Azerbaijani Laundromat, a massive scheme that pumped nearly US$3 billion out of the country through various shell companies,” Mehta wrote. Furthermore, IBA is not in a position to guarantee the Silk Way loan, as the IBA itself declared bankruptcy in 2015, unable to pay its $3.3 billion debt.
Countering Mehta's claims, Silk Way noted it had a "trusted partnership with many well-known international financing institutions, including notably, the Export-Import (Ex-Im) Bank of the United States."
The regime profits from all transactions
"Before Silk Way legally obtained loans at the prevailing market rate which were backed by the Ex-Im Bank, the airline successfully passed all steps of compliance procedure, including due diligence reviews by the U.S. government," it added.
But according to Nate Schenkkan, project director of the Nations in Transit report at Freedom House, a U.S.-based nonprofit that monitors democracy and human rights around the world, “Azerbaijan can be described as a centralised, vertical pyramid where the benefits go to one family that collects rents throughout the economy.
"This includes all sorts of transactions, not only official state transactions that might involve taxes and public funds, but also things that involve what we normally consider the private sector: import-export, consumer goods, transport - any area of the economy, the family has a stake in it and receives a cut on what takes place.”
Nol van Fenema