The Prince, the brutal dictator and a friendship he just won't give up

Duke of York continues to request briefings on Azerbaijan despite losing his trade role

His lavish spending of taxpayers' money on private jets, not to mention his numerous uncomfortable friendships with questionable world leaders and a convicted paedophile, forced Prince Andrew to step down as the UK's Special Representative for Trade and Investment, amid claims that he had become an embarrassment to the Government.

But now, more than a year later, the Duke continues to take an interest in the affairs of Azerbaijan, where he is friends with President Ilham Aliyev, regarded as one of the most brutal and corrupt rulers in the world. He has held talks at Buckingham Palace with the UK's Ambassador to Azerbaijan, Peter Bateman. It is understood that the Prince requested he be kept informed about developments in the country, and Mr Bateman asked for a meeting with him when the ambassador was in Britain last week.

As is customary, the nature of the discussions will not be made public, but a Palace spokesperson confirmed that, while the Duke no longer has an official role in promoting British business, he is "of course, still interested in British business; especially small and medium-sized enterprises, science and technology and research and development."

Critics of the Azerbaijani regime, of which there are many, hope that matters besides business were discussed. "We can only hope that Prince Andrew, who no longer has an official role in promoting trade, is instead using these 'private' talks at Buckingham Palace to persuade the ambassador to raise serious concerns about the numerous human rights abuses in Azerbaijan," said Natalia Nozadze, Azerbaijan Researcher for Amnesty International.

"These include the routine use of excessive and brutal force by police, restrictions on public protest and the censorship imposed on bloggers and journalists who are beaten and imprisoned for criticising the government," she said.

Prince Andrew has visited President Aliyev eight times in the last five years. According to Buckingham Palace sources, all of his dealings in recent years with Azerbaijan and with other states questionable human rights records have been on behalf of the UK government, which has requested that he go there. But two of his visits to Azerbaijan have been designated as "entirely private".

In March last year, a former ambassador wrote to three government departments demanding that Prince Andrew be stripped of his role, citing among other things a "worrying" private meeting with Libyan tyrant Colonel Gaddafi in 2008.

He also entertained the son-in-law of the ousted Tunisian president, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, at Buckingham Palace. The lavish nature of such trips has also been fiercely criticised. One of his visits to Azerbaijan involved the hiring of a private jet, at the cost of £60,000 to the taxpayer.

News reports in Azerbaijan have long speculated that the Duke has his own business interests in the region, including a golf resort on the Caspian Sea, a claim that Buckingham Palace denies. A Foreign Office spokesperson said: "It is not uncommon for our heads of mission to meet with members of the royal family."

It is not the first time the Prince has met Mr Bateman, and the meeting was published in Court Circular.

The Palace said that while the Duke no longer has an official title, he has not lost interest in the country, in which he showed particular interest duing his time as trade ambassador. He also continues to play in "an informal role in boosting trade between the two countries."

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