19 April 2016
by Richard Baker

Azerbaijani embassy denies black market trade in booze and cigarettes

The duty-free rules governing embassies is under the spotlight after questions were raised about the Azerbaijan embassy in Canberra.

The 2014 end of year party at the Azerbaijan embassy in Canberra must have been epic if its official requests to import duty-free booze and cigarettes were any guide.

Leaked documents show Azerbaijan Ambassador Rovshan Jamshidov​ and financial attache Araz Khasiyev used their diplomatic status to get Australian government approval to import duty free 2000 litres of beer, 1100 litres of wine, 520 litres of spirits and 40,000 cigarettes from two suppliers.

While the amounts might seem excessive for an embassy which represents an overwhelmingly Islamic nation and is staffed by five diplomats, they were within Australia's generous rules for the representatives of foreign governments.

Unlike most of us who are only entitled to a handful of bottles at airport duty-free shops, embassies and high commissions in Australia can obtain excise-free a maximum of 260 litres of spirits, 1000 litres of beer and 20,000 cigarettes every six months if the products are used in an official capacity.

Individual diplomats can receive half this amount every six months for personal use.

The leaking of the Azerbaijan embassy's alcohol and tobacco orders comes while the behaviour of foreign diplomats is in the spotlight over revelations about the refusal by staff at the Royal Saudi embassy to pay fines for traffic offences such as drink driving, speeding and failing to stop for police.

The Saudi officials have claimed the convention on diplomatic immunity protects them from paying traffic fines. Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is taking a different view and pressing for the fines to be paid.

Fairfax Media can reveal the Azerbaijan embassy's alcohol and tobacco import requests also attracted the attention of DFAT and Customs.

The Australian Border Force, which is now responsible for Customs, told Fairfax Media that it had assessed allegations it had received some products were sold on the black market, and decided not to take the matter any further.

It is understood that although the size of the proposed Azerbaijan embassy imports raised eyebrows, they were still within Australia's limits and there was insufficient evidence to proceed.

There are no allegations of any wrong-doing against Mr Jamshidov or Mr Khasiyev.

Mr Khasiyev told Fairfax Media that just because approval had been sought to import large amounts of alcohol and tobacco, it did not necessarily mean purchases of that size had been made.

"Do you think I could drink that much and do my job," he said.

Mr Khasiyev said he had not heard of any black market trade in duty free alcohol and cigarettes involving Canberra's diplomatic community.

It is a different story in London, where a court heard in 2014 that the Gambian embassy had been "turned into a tobacconists" with customers lining up outside.

The court heard that Gambian officials had been selling huge amounts of rolling tobacco bought duty free using their diplomatic status in a scam that deprived the British treasury of £5 million ($9 million).