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Thursday, October 13, 2005

Top Azerbaijani Oil Official Denies Meeting Bribe Culprit

GAZAKH, Azerbaijan, Oct 11 (AFP) - The head of Azerbaijan's state oil company denied Tuesday ever meeting a Czech national charged in the United States with participating in a scheme to bribe senior Azerbaijani government officials in oil privatization deals. "I never saw and am not acquainted with Viktor Kozeny," Natik Aliyev, the president of Azerbaijan's government-owned oil company SOCAR, told journalists while on a regional tour with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev. Kozeny and two US citizens, Frederic Bourke and David Pinkerton, face a 27-count indictment handed down by a federal grand jury in Manhattan last week. The indictment alleges that the three men were involved in making corrupt promises and payments totaling millions of dollars to top Azerbaijani officials with influence over the privatization of state-run firms. In particular, they allegedly paid huge bribes to ensure that their investment consortium would gain a controlling interest in SOCAR, in order to reap profits for its ultimate re-sale in the market. Names of Azerbaijani officials implicated in the case have not been released. However both Natik Aliyev and President Aliyev, who are not related, were top officials at SOCAR at the time when the bribes are alleged to have been paid. Natik Aliyev was quick to distance himself from any shady privatization deals in his Tuesday comments. "In 1994 the president (of Azerbaijan) announced that oil belongs to the people, then it was announced that SOCAR can only be privatized by presidential decree," Aliyev said. "Such decrees are not being prepared and I don't think SOCAR should be private... I don't believe SOCAR will be privatized in the next five years," Aliyev added. Western oil companies have invested billions of dollars into the development of offshore oil fields in Azerbaijan -- the seventh most corrupt nation on Earth, according to the non-governmental watchdog organization Transparency International. SOCAR is part of a BP-led consortium building the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline that is to deliver Caspian Sea oil west through Turkey.

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