Did a libidinous Lib Dem ask lobbyists to pay his lover's way?

Russian aide accused of spying says MP asked Azerbaijani group to fund her visa

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Indy Politics

An MP accused of employing a Russian spy as his House of Commons researcher solicited money from an Azerbaijani lobbying group to help pay her visa fees, she has claimed.

Mike Hancock, who was having an affair with Ekaterina Zatuliveter, asked for the money from The European Azerbaijan Society in 2009. TEAS is a lobby group which is controlled by the sons of a powerful Azerbaijani minister.

Azerbaijan has become an increasingly autocratic regime. Amnesty recently accused the government of being behind a "systematic campaign of harassment" against pro-reform activists.

According to papers filed by Ms Zatuliveter at the Special Immigration Appeals Commission and seen by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which alerted The Independent, Mr Hancock asked TEAS in 2009 to pay her for her work. Mr Hancock has not denied the claim but he refuted a suggestion Ms Zatuliveter was lobbying for TEAS while simultaneously acting as his researcher.

Ms Zatuliveter is fighting deportation after being accused of having had an affair with Mr Hancock, the Liberal Democrat MP for Portsmouth South, and using her position as a House of Commons researcher to pass secrets to the Russians. She also admits affairs with a Nato worker and a senior UN official.

Ms Zatuliveter's statement, made in her appeal against deportation for suspected espionage on behalf of Russia, says she had spent £2,000 on legal fees relating to her visa and was running into financial problems. She said: "Mike suggested to the European Azerbaijan Society that they might pay me for the lobbying and consultancy work that I had done for them as his parliamentary researcher over a number of months. They very kindly made a payment of £3,000 to me on 22 June."

A month before the payment, Mr Hancock hosted a discussion for TEAS at Portcullis House on the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict in the Nagorno-Karabakh region. He was also a speaker at a TEAS reception in September 2009. More recently he accepted £1,500 from the Association for Civil Society Development in Azerbaijan to attend a conference.

The Bureau asked Mr Hancock, who was a member of the Defence Select Committee at the time of the payment but has since resigned, whether he had asked TEAS to pay Ms Zatuliveter.

A spokesman for the MP replied: "Mike is aware that Ms Zatuliveter assisted on a project for the European Azerbaijan Society. She got in contact with the society while working in Parliament. Any work she did was in her spare time. He was never informed of how much Ms Zatuliveter was paid for the work."

Ms Zatuliveter told the Commission her work for TEAS included organising a photographic exhibition in Parliament on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Neither the work for TEAS or the payment appears in the Commons register of interests of members' secretaries and research assistants for 2009-10.

A spokesman for TEAS said: "It is a matter of public record that Ms Zatuliveter assisted us with a photographic exhibition, for which her fee was £3,000. She offered her assistance in a private capacity."


Azerbaijan: A country with an image problem

The government of Ilham Aliyev would like people to believe that his oil-rich Caspian nation is a prosperous oasis of happy citizens amid a troubled region. The government has invested millions in an attempt to whitewash Azerbaijan's image in the West.

But while few dare to criticise President Aliyev, there is deep anger in private at a government where corruption seems rife and most of the vast oil wealth remains at the top level of society.

In 2010, it was alleged that £30m of property had been bought in Dubai in the name of Mr Aliyev's then-11-year-old son. A spokesman for the President refused to comment on the claims.

In the most recent rankings by Reporters Without Borders, Azerbaijan ranked 152nd, out of 178 countries, for press freedom. On Saturday, journalist Rafiq Tagi was stabbed by an unknown assailant. The journalist was previously jailed for an article in which he allegedly insulted the Prophet Mohamed.

Shaun Walker