Dangerous little steps a.k.a. how the regime discreetly stifles the nascent civil society in Azerbaijan
This blog has seen many articles about Azerbaijan lately, but unfortunately we have still not run out of topics. Yet again, the Azerbaijani authorities did not fail to provide a pretext. On 15 February 2013 the Azerbaijani Parliament adopted a series of amendments to various laws. According to the Institute for the Reporters’ Freedom and Safety, an Azerbaijani NGO concerned with the freedom of expression, the amendments are likely to impede the operations of independent NGOs. Further still, in certain cases they may threaten the existence of those NGOs. The Aliyev’s regime is patient as it step by step dismantles the residue of human rights protections and freedoms. Among the publicised events such as arrests of human rights defenders, opposition leaders or journalists in Azerbaijan, it is still necessary to be attentive to those seemingly small steps the regime takes, which may also have a grave impact on the functioning of the civil society in the country.
Roughly two weeks ago, the Azerbaijani Parliament introduced amendments to the Code of Adminitrative Offences accommodating the changes to the Law on NGOs, Law on grants and Law on the freedom of religion. The major alterations include: (1) introducing a requirement of a contract for each grant; (2) restricting grant payment methods to bank transfers, and (3) increasing fines for offences against the Law on grants and differentiating fines between various subject – natural persons, officials and legal entities.
The amendments require that each grant is confirmed by a contract. The failure to produce such a contract may cost various subjects different amounts of money, but legal entities are subject to the highest fines. The amendments read, for example: “receiving aid in a form of financial means and (or) in other material form by … non-governmental organizations … without having a grant contract (decision) is punished for officials in the amount from two thousand and five hundred to five thousand manat, for legal entities in the amount from eight thousand to fifteen thousand manat with confiscation of means and goods which were directly the object of an administrative offence.” Furthermore, the amendments limit the ways in which NGOs can receive money solely to bank transfers. Giving or receiving money in cash is punishable with fines amounting to, for legal entities, 7000 AZN. The exemption from this rule concerns donations below 200 AZN given to or received by NGOs whose main purpose is charity. Finally, the fines for violations of the Law on grants were increased substantially. For example, the violation consisting in a “failure of legal entities receiving grants to submit copies of contracts and decisions on receiving grants for registration to the relevant body of executive powers within the deadlines…” is punishable with a fine amounting to, for legal entities, 7000 AZN.
The official goal of the amendments is to increase the transparency and accountability of NGO activities. However, even a slight change of focus may reveal that their goal could in fact be to keep close tabs on the civil society (especially its funding), hinder the activities of independent or unregistered NGOs and, eventually lead to their complete liquidation as they give way under the burden of various fines. In any case, the aim of these amendments should be seen in the light of Azerbaijani administration’s practice which has proven particularly legalistic, rigid and essentially unfavourable towards independent, critical forces, including NGOs.
In their statement of 12 February 2013, Azerbaijani NGOs indicate a series of problems which the amendments may bring about. They see a general danger of many NGOs becoming debtors unable to pay various administrative fines and notice that the inability of NGOs to receive donation above 200 AZN in cash may restrict the “business-based and community-based activities of NGOs.” However, it is the unregistered NGOs that will, in their view, pay the highest price for changes. As they write in their statement: “non-registered NGOs and their alliances don’t have bank accounts due to lack of legal status and they are functioning only with one-side-approved contracts. In case the amendments are ratified, such NGOs won’t be able to accept donations in accordance with the requirements of the law. Thus, any NGO the activity of which is regarded unwanted by the government will get closed.” Azerbaijani NGOs warn that, if ratified, the amendment will lessen their role in controlling the authorities and impacting decision-making. They also stress that the amendments of this kind should have been discussed with the participation of the civil society.
The voices of NGOs were not heard and the Parliament adopted the amendments which harm Azerbaijani civil society. This is particularly stricking considering the fact that the functioning of the civil society was one of the foci of the last human rights dialogue between the EU and Azerbaijan in November 2012. The amendments are now waiting for presidential signature. President Aliyev has 56 days to sign the new law or refuse to give his consent to yet another assault on the Azerbaijani civil society.
Joanna Smętek, “Europe of Human Rights”