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Draft bill could restrict NGO activity in Azerbaijan

Azerbaijan's parliament building. A new draft bill currently before parliament could prevent Azeri non-governmental organizations from receiving donations.
Azerbaijan's parliament building. A new draft bill currently before parliament could prevent Azeri non-governmental organizations from receiving donations.

Marco Fieber/Flickr

UPDATE: Urgent action needed to stop new legislation threatening survival of independent NGOs in Azerbaijan (IRFS, 18 February 2013)

(IRFS/IFEX) - 6 February 2013 - The Institute for Reporters' Freedom and Safety (IRFS) strongly condemns a recent wave of crackdowns on dissent and calls on the government to end the media and NGO witch hunt. Less than a year before Azerbaijanis are to elect a new president, groups that have played key roles in the promotion of fair and transparent elections could be paralyzed by a new draft bill before parliament that would further restrict nongovernmental organizations.

IRFS is deeply troubled by the authorities' prospect of amending the current legislation in order to further restrict the activities of NGOs. According to proposed amendments, if NGOs receive any kind of donation above 200 AZN (in cash or through wire transfers) without a proper agreement, they may face huge fines and confiscation of property. Simply put, if approved, the new legislation would allow the government to easily close down unwelcome NGOs in the matter of a few days.

The move follows a series of harsh punishments handed down for dissent. Journalists, activists and the leader of a political movement have been arrested. Furthermore, huge fines have been imposed on peaceful protestors in Baku, and protestors in Ismayilli have been arrested and intimidated.

IRFS also states that Azerbaijan's authorities illegally curtail citizens' rights to freedom of association and assembly, contrary to the country's obligations undertaken before the Council of Europe, the OSCE and the United Nations.

As such, IRFS is deeply concerned over a recent negative trend of hotels and conference centers refusing space for NGOs to conduct their events.

For instance, not long ago, the Park Inn Hotel broke its commitment to rent its premises to the Election Monitoring and Democracy Studies Center shortly before the agreed date. On February 6, 2013, the a/m hotel created artificial obstacles for events organised by two other civil society organizations — IRFS and the National and International Studies Center.

IRFS fears the crackdown will further intensify as the country prepares for the presidential elections in October.

“The government is conducting a carefully coordinated witch hunt aimed at silencing its critics,” said Emin Huseynov, IRFS Chair. “Apparently, the authorities want to do away with organizations that [monitor] human rights violations”.

IRFS calls on the Azerbaijani government to stop putting pressure on NGOs, and ensure citizens' rights to freedom of association and assembly.

IRFS calls on international organizations, namely the Council of Europe and the OSCE to take more aggressive stances and to exert pressure on Azerbaijani authorities to uphold the principles of freedom and democracy.

IRFS condemns police brutality on reporters and human rights defenders and calls on the authorities to immediately identify those persons within their ranks who
are responsible.

"We encourage authorities, beginning with President Aliyev, to express revulsion and anger at the violent and destructive behavior of police in their handling of journalists and for hindering objective coverage of protests, and to take whatever action they can to prevent such brutality," says the IRFS Chair.

IRFS considers that journalists' safety has become a burning issue ahead of the 2013 presidential elections. Ironically, just two months ago at a workshop on the safety of reporters organized by the OSCE, high-ranking government officials assured that journalists wearing illuminated press jackets would not encounter police violence. Contrary to their commitment, Azerbaijani police have demonstrated increased violence against journalists in the past two months, for example, by beating Farahim Ilgaroglu, a newspaper correspondent for Yeni Musavat.

IRFS declares that interference in the professional activities of journalists is a violation of the right to access information, which is protected under Article 50 of the Azerbaijani Constitution (freedom of information) and Article 10 of the European Convention (freedom of expression).

In addition, impeding the professional activities of a journalist creates liability under Article 163 of the Constitution.

IRFS demands that the police conduct disciplinary investigations and punish those responsible. IRFS calls on the Minister of the Interior and the Chief of National Police to take the necessary measures to prevent similar events in the future. IRFS calls on the Azerbaijani government to put in place laws to ensure the safety of journalists.

IRFS notes that threats and attacks are never investigated and culprits and hardly ever brought to book.

IRFS condemns the use of violence to restrict freedom of expression and calls for the authorities to end this vicious cycle by immediately and impartially investigating all attacks against journalists and bringing those responsible to justice.

IRFS also calls upon international organizations, especially the OSCE, to stay focused on attacks against journalists while performing professional duties and demand the Azerbaijani government to find and punish those who are responsible for these attacks.

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