The Azerbaijani government has suspended the operation of a gold mine near the village of Soyudlu, where locals protested a month ago claiming that the mine was poisoning them and their crops.
On July 13, Azerbaijani Prime Minister Ali Asadov chaired a meeting of the commission studying the ecological situation in the village, which is situated in the western Gadabay district. The commission was created on June 21, a day after a huge protest took place in the village against the environmental and public health hazards posed by the work of the nearby Gadabay (Gedabek) gold mine, which is operated by the UK-registered Anglo Asian Mining company. The protest was brutally suppressed by police, and the village has been under tight police lockdown ever since.
Villagers have for years complained that seepage of cyanide and other forms of toxic waste from a reservoir at the mine (known as a tailings dam) is causing health problems among locals, including cancer, as well as damaging crops. The June protest was triggered by plans to build a second reservoir for holding waste which locals contend would only exacerbate the problem.
At the commission meeting, Asadov instructed the ecology and emergency ministers to "investigate and rectify" the wrongdoings allegedly committed by the company in the area, which he said included "carrying out construction works in the waste reservoir three times in different years without coordinating with the relevant authorities, not conducting an expert review of project documents for the construction of the waste water reservoir, [and] not conducting an assessment of the stability of the reservoir."
Given the "dangers that emerged in the village against nature and public health," Asadov decided to "temporarily'' suspend the operation of the Gadabay mine.
It was also reported that the commission had chosen an unnamed "international company" and invited it to the village to conduct an ecological and geological audit. Anglo Asian Mining will be able to resume operating the mine "if it conducts its future work in accordance with the recommendations" of the audit, Asadov was quoted as saying.
The decision came a day after President Ilham Aliyev ordered an investigation into the activities of Anglo Asian Mining and the Ecology Ministry's oversight of these activities.
"Of course, they [Anglo Asian Mining] didn't come here for charity but to earn money. But this does not mean our nature should be destroyed along the way. It does not mean people's pastures and grazing areas should be occupied. It does not mean they should build a second wastewater lake without obtaining permission from anyone. Who gave them permission?" Aliyev asked. "It seems they either colluded with the Ministry of Ecology and Natural Resources or did it alone. So, it should be thoroughly investigated. All instructions have been given to the prosecutor's office and other relevant agencies."
Prime Minister Asadov did not address the possibility of Anglo Asian Mining facing legal consequences.
Four days later, on July 17, the British company released a statement after a long silence, refuting the government's allegations. The company said that the ministry and other state bodies carried out monitoring in their existing wastewater facility in the past, and that no contamination had been found.
"Accordingly, the sudden unrest over the location of the second tailings dam was unexpected," it continued. "Nevertheless, the Company, in collaboration with the Government, has agreed to a re-evaluation of the technical and environmental aspects of its second tailings dam, including the proposed location and other related matters."
On July 18, the state commission released its findings, according to which "the enterprise operating in the area violated the safety, environmental and sanitary rules, and the approval of the relevant executive bodies was not obtained in the process of operation and construction."
Friends in high places
According to its website, all of Anglo Asian Mining's operations are in Azerbaijan. It is the country's largest gold and copper producer and holds the rights to eight deposits across the country, though it does not currently have access to two of them, which are located in Armenian-administered Nagorno-Karabakh.
Its relationship with Azerbaijan started in 1997, when a previous incarnation of the company, Delaware-registered RV Investment Group Services LLC, signed an agreement with Baku granting it mining rights to nine deposits across the country.
(Three of the deposits were at the time under Armenian occupation following the First Karabakh War of 1991-94. The company gained access to one of them, Vejnali, after Azerbaijan's victory in the 2020 Second Karbakh War but is still carrying out technical assessments and has not yet started mining there.)
In 2014 Anglo Asian Mining received a $3 million credit line from Baku-based Pasha Bank, which is owned by President Aliyev’s daughters Arzu and Leyla Aliyeva, together with their grandfather Arif Pashayev, Aliyev’s father-in-law.
(In 2016 the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) published an article detailing Arzu and Leyla Aliyeva's extensive involvement in gold mining in Azerbaijan.)
In September 2021 Anglo Asian signed a further agreement with the Azerbaijani government under which it gained three new concessions (one of which is in Nagorno-Karabakh and currently inaccessible) and relinquished its right to one deposit, situated on the Armenian border, citing security risks.
Anglo Asian's executive director and top shareholder (27.8 percent) is Reza Vaziri, a U.S. citizen originally from Iran. The second-largest shareholder (9.4 percent) is former Governor John Sununu of New Hampshire, who served as U.S. President George H. W. Bush's chief of staff. Sununu’s son Michael is also on the board. Another son, Chris, is the current governor of New Hampshire.
In the meantime, police oversee all movement into and out of the village of Soyudlu, and only residents are allowed in. One reporter from the independent news outlet Abzas Media said he managed to sneak in and reported that there is heavy police presence inside the village as well. Residents are afraid to move about freely, he said.
On July 15, activist Maharram Akbarov was placed under month-long administrative detention over graffiti he painted in Baku streets protesting the Soyudlu lockdown. Previously, two other Baku-based activists were arrested administratively after they wrote Facebook posts criticizing the excessive police violence in the Soyudlu protest crackdown. And one former MP who represented the area was placed under four-month pre-trial detention on charges of blackmail though his public expressions of solidarity with the people of Soyudlu are widely believed to be the real reason for his detention.
Heydar Isayev is a journalist from Baku.