Azerbaijan cracks down on pro-democracy advocates and NGOs

Photo Credit: Nicolas Raymond via Flickr Creative Commons

The Republic of Azerbaijan is an oil-rich ex-Soviet nation located in a strategic part of the globe, sandwiched between Russia and Iran. Human rights advocates warn the situation there is deteriorating after a summer of arrests and beatings of prominent activists and independent journalists. A few have been released recently, but many remain jailed, including Dr. Leyla Yunus — who was just nominated for the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize. Now authorities in Azerbaijan are making it increasingly difficult for NGOs to work in the country. MJ del Valle reports from Baku.

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Now that Europe is trying to reduce its dependency on Russian gas, hydrocarbon-rich Azerbaijan is gaining attention. But the ex-Soviet Republic has a very poor democratic record. Election observers say there hasn’t been a single transparent election in the country since it gained independence in 1991.

In this context, a number of NGOs and think tanks work in the country promoting democratic values. Most are funded by foreign entities. But recently the government amended the law that covers foreign funding for NGOs, adding layers of administrative red-tape and placing the groups outside of compliance. Suddenly, NGOs working in the country find themselves the subjects of criminal investigations, and human rights groups are crying foul.

“Some government representatives don’t understand perception of civil society and role of civil society, and what is happening around our country influences our state officials and sometimes they see NGOs as opposite to them, and sometimes as a source of revolution in the country, sometimes they compare the situation with Ukraine or Middle East,” said Mireli Huseynov, head of the NGO Democracy Learning Public Association. He says he fears he could be arrested any moment, like dozens of other democracy activists.

During the last few months, human rights activists and pro-democracy organizations have been the target of a large scale crackdown on civil society. U.S.-based IREX is one of them.

“IREX has done a lot of things in Azerbaijan in terms of education first of all, IREX Education Program Department has sent hundreds of bachelor, graduate students to the US to study that then came back to contribute to the country,” according to Ulviyya Asadzade, who attended college on IREX scholarships. Until recently she was a media specialist with IREX. “We trained a lot of citizen journalists, we supported… we taught them multimedia film making, information technology, we brought internet to remote village where people did not have any access to the internet.”

After working in Azerbaijan for 17 years, the future of US-based IREX in the country is in limbo. The organization’s office was raided in September and their computers and documents confiscated. Their bank account HAD BEEN frozen in July. Their staff says they are under a criminal investigation by the Prosecutor’s Office, and they don’t know why. The Azeri authorities won’t comment on the IREX case specifically, but say that many NGOs were operating in violation of the law. Until a court rules, IREX can’t access funds sent from Washington to pay office rent and continue their work.

Despite the fact that the country is now chairing the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe, groups like Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and Freedom House roundly criticize Azerbaijan’s human rights record. It’s within this political climate that IREX runs development programs on media and education.

Asadzade says that the concept of media ethics is a new in the country, “like professional values that are promoted in journalism in the West, like objectivity, like staying loyal to the truth to the audience… all professional values. You know that Azerbaijan has been part of the Soviet Union for seventy years and journalism was used as propaganda rather than a professional source.”

IREX is not alone. Transparency International, Oxfam and the National Democratic Institute have all had their bank account blocked in the past few months. The same thing happened to former Harvard research fellow Leyla Aliyeva. Her think tank, the Center for National and International Studies, works on issues like democracy promotion and European integration.

“We stopped our activities, we cannot legally operate so we have to close our office we cannot pay the rent, we cannot go to meetings of researchers we cannot publish our book,” said Aliyeva, adding that the whole staff is affected. “People will be left without jobs, I received my last salary in June, now I don’t have source for existence.”

According to Mohammad Guluzade, an independent consultant specializing in NGO law and a member of the Monitoring Commission on the Impact of the recent Amendments on NGO’s, a fix is on the way. Guluzade says the President has ordered the government to draft new NGO rules.

“The problem here is that NGOs would not register the grants,” Guluzade says. “When the government realised there are increasing facts of intentional cases of non registration of grants they have introduced a new penalty in the code of administrative offences, which prohibits operations of non registered grants.”

A November 1st deadline for drafts of rewritten rules to easing the registrations on grants has come and gone, and now there’s no word on when they are expected. In the meantime, the Azeri parliament has approved more,  even tougher conditions for foreign NGOs.   President Ilham Aliyev is expected to sign these additional rules. Once he does, it will be increasingly difficult for foreign NGOs to operate in Azerbaijan.

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