Independent civil society facing increasing pressure in Azerbaijan

This year, in the run-up to and aftermath of Azerbaijan’s October presidential election, the Azerbaijani authorities have been busy working to silence criticism and dissent, imposing severe restrictions on the ability of journalists, bloggers, human rights defenders, civic and political activists, and ordinary citizens to exercise their rights to freedom of expression, assembly, and association.

As part of this crackdown, Azerbaijan’s few remaining critical NGOs have been under increasing attack, in particular NGOs working on issues related to democracy and human rights. Two human rights defenders, Bakhtiyar Mammadov and Gurban Mammadov, are among Azerbaijan’s 143 political prisoners, and another, Ogtay Gulaliyev, faces jail time if convicted of the politically motivated charges of hooliganism that stand against him.

Since the beginning of the year, Azerbaijan’s parliament has been tinkering with legislation affecting the climate for NGOs. In February, parliament adopted a series of amendments to the NGO law and the law on grants, limiting the ability of NGOs to accept donations, restricting their operations, and making it easy for the authorities to shut down undesired groups. Regressive amendments to the law on freedom of assembly sharply increased the fines for organising or participating in unsanctioned protests – particularly if the organiser is an entity, such as an NGO.

NGO registration remains politicised, with democracy and human rights NGOs facing disproportionate difficulties in registering. The Human Rights Club (the HRC) is one of the estimated 1,000 NGOs that have been unable to register with the state. Despite the fact that the HRC has been seeking registration for the past three years, it has been refused three times, most recently on 19 February, in a decision of the Baku Administrative-Economic Court.

In the aftermath of the 9 October presidential election, the authorities seem poised on the brink of an even worse crackdown. The Election Monitoring and Democracy Studies Centre, Azerbaijan’s largest and most experienced domestic monitoring organisation, is being criminally investigated in connection with its funding from foreign donors. Just last week, it was announced that parliament was considering draft amendments that would make it even more difficult for foreign NGOs to register and operate in Azerbaijan.

The HRC, in part thanks to support from Open Society Foundations, is working to address these and other human rights issues through the use of innovative and creative tactics, such as the Art for Democracy campaign, which seeks to use art to promote democratic development and respect for human rights in Azerbaijan. Art for Democracy gives a platform to Azerbaijan’s alternative artists of all genres, campaigns on cases of violations of artists’ rights, and involves artists themselves in human rights activism.

Groups like the HRC and the Art for Democracy campaign need greater support and protection from the international community, before they, too, are silenced. One immediate, concrete way could be through making a donation to Art for Democracy’s on-going Indiegogo campaign.

But ultimately, bodies such as the Council of Europe (COE) and the European Union (EU) must increase pressure on the Azerbaijani government to uphold its international commitments, in particular in light of recently strengthened Azerbaijan-EU relations, and Azerbaijan’s upcoming position of leadership as Chairman of the COE Committee of Ministers from May to November 2014. Each missed opportunity to encourage real human rights reform only serves to further bolster an increasingly undemocratic regime.

 

For more information, visit Art for Democracy’s Facebook page

Art for Democracy is running a crowdfunding campaign through Indiegogo until 23 December, seeking support for the development of a creative new website that will promote democracy and human rights in Azerbaijan through art.

Check out Art for Democracy’s democracy-themed videos on its YouTube channel

Listen to alternative Azerbaijani music via Art for Democracy’s SoundCloud stream

 

Rasul Jafarov and Rebecca Vincent, exclusively for Civic Solidarity Platform

Rasul Jafarov is Chairman of the Human Rights Club and Coordinator of the Art for Democracy campaign

Rebecca Vincent is Advocacy Director of the Human Rights Club and the Art for Democracy campaign

Photo by Abbas Atilay

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