(New York) – The Azerbaijan government’s offensive against human rights defenders and nongovernmental organizations should lead to its suspension from an international transparency initiative, Human Rights Watch said today. Azerbaijan is a founding member of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), a prominent international coalition that promotes government openness in natural resource management, and sits on its governing board.
The Azerbaijani government’s escalating enforcement of restrictive new laws regulating nongovernmental organizations and other tactics threatens the survival of independent groups, Human Rights Watch said. That includes groups that focus on issues of direct concern to EITI.
“Azerbaijan’s government is squeezing activist groups to the breaking point while claiming to international audiences that it’s a leader on open civic participation and good governance,” said Lisa Misol, senior business and human rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Azerbaijan is blatantly violating EITI rules, and EITI cannot afford to be complicit in this hypocrisy.”
The government has made it so difficult to operate that a majority of independent organizations involved in EITI have suspended their activities and some may soon be forced to close. Their leaders fear they may be next to face arrest, following the recent arrest of three of the country’s top human rights defenders. Attacks on independent groups seriously compromise the EITI process in Azerbaijan, Human Rights Watch said.
EITI brings together countries, companies, and nongovernmental groups to collect and publish data on government revenues from oil, gas, and mining. The effort aims to encourage better governance of resource-rich countries by fostering open public debate about how those revenues are used.
Free and active civil society participation is a cornerstone of EITI. Rules for candidates and participating countries unequivocally require respect for fundamental freedoms, though in practice these requirements have been applied unevenly.
Azerbaijan’s government, which has long had a poor human rights record, began a relentless crackdown on government critics and independent groups in the months before presidential elections in 2013 and since then has escalated the pressure. Authorities have arrested and imprisoned at least 40 journalists, civil and political activists, and human rights defenders in the last two years on various trumped-up charges, including hooliganism, tax evasion, drug possession, and even treason. Among the government’s targets have been some of its most vocal critics.
For some time independent groups working on revenue transparency issues in Azerbaijan have faced restrictions that impede their work. However, in recent months their situation has worsened dramatically, as the government has frozen their bank accounts or refused to register their grants, leaving the groups unable to draw on funds.
Many of those affected play a key role in the EITI process in Azerbaijan. In July 2014, a national coalition of organizations that support EITI issued a statement of concern denouncing the “continuous pressures and restrictions” that have forced the coalition and a majority of its members to suspend activities. The authorities have also blocked funding for several groups that sit on the official steering committee that oversees the EITI process in Azerbaijan.
Blocking the funding to these groups is part of a broader effort by the government, beginning in May, to clamp down on a wide range of independent groups. The government has frozen their bank accounts arbitrarily and without recourse, and refused them the authorization to receive new grants from foreign donor organizations that is required under legislative amendments that entered into force in February. Authorities have also opened politically motivated investigations for alleged tax or other violations. More than 20 groups have been affected.
In the past two weeks alone, three of the country’s top human rights defenders have been arrested and others are in hiding.
“For years, EITI’s leadership failed to defend the principle of civic participation as the government of Azerbaijan ruthlessly harassed and jailed lawyers, journalists, and other critics and imposed ever-more restrictive rules on activist groups,” Misol said. “Now that the ax is falling on groups working within the EITI process, it is painfully obvious that transparency efforts can’t afford to ignore human rights.”
EITI Activists Targeted
Among the activists the government targeted through financial sanctions is Gubad Ibadoglu, who was elected to the international governing board of EITI and serves as coordinator of the civil society EITI coalition. On June 30, 2014, the government ordered a freeze on the bank accounts for his organization, the Economic Research Center.
Because the Economic Research Center handles the finances for Azerbaijan’s EITI civil society coalition, since late June the coalition also has been unable to access any funding to pay rent or for other expenditures. Neither the coalition nor the center has been able to register any new foreign grants with the Justice Ministry, as required by law.
Ibadoglu also sits on the official Azerbaijan EITI national steering group, which oversees the national EITI process. The government has targeted at least one more of the three other nongovernmental groups that are on this committee. On July 19 it ordered a freeze on the bank accounts of the Democratic Institutions and Human Rights Public Union and its director, Elchin Abdullayev. In addition, the Justice Ministry rejected the group’s application to register a foreign grant.
Other activists in Azerbaijan who have faced intense pressure are substantively engaged on EITI issues through their work.
Mirvari Gahramanli, a longtime anti-corruption and transparency activist and head of the Oil Workers Rights’ Protection Organization, also has been blocked from accessing both her personal and the group’s bank accounts. The group actively participates in the civil society EITI coalition and undertakes EITI-related projects.
Gahramanli learned about the freeze on July 9 when she went to withdraw funds from a foreign grant for a project on “Increasing Transparency in Extractive Industries.” Gahramanli had successfully registered the project, which began in November 2013, with the Justice Ministry and received the first tranche of the funds without difficulty. However, when she tried to withdraw funds on July 9, the bank provided her with a court order showing that the government had ordered the accounts frozen.
Zohrab Ismayil, the 2013 coordinator of the civil society EITI coalition, is deeply involved in issues concerning natural resource management as part of his organization’s broader work to advance economic rights. The group he heads, Public Association for Assistance to Free Economy (PAAFE), had previously completed a project, funded by a foreign donor, addressing the management of public finances in Azerbaijan. However, the Justice Ministry has delayed indefinitely a decision on the group’s application to register a new foreign grant for a project to document the violation of economic rights in Azerbaijan.
Then, in early July, Ismayil’s personal bank account, as well as his organization’s, were frozen. Then he was told the government would undertake a tax inspection of the group. That news causes particular concern because leaders of groups critical of the government recently have been jailed on trumped-up claims of tax improprieties.
According to court orders seen by Human Rights Watch, the authorities have cut off various independent organizations and their leaders from all bank operations because of an ongoing criminal investigation into several international agencies that help to finance independent domestic groups. Details of that criminal investigation have not been made available, even to the targeted funders.
One court order merely referred to a “violation of the law that was revealed in the actions of several local NGOs and foreign NGOs’ branches or delegations functioning in Azerbaijan.”
A majority of the independent groups in the 110-member civil society EITI coalition have been affected by the bank freezes. If the situation does not improve soon, dozens of these groups that participate directly or indirectly in the EITI process in Azerbaijan may be forced to close. At least half of the most active groups have suspended operations since July 2014 because they have been cut off from all funding.
Other groups involved in EITI have been the targets of public smear campaigns, or landlords have refused to rent them office space. Hotels and other sites have refused to rent event space to these groups, including for a seminar to commemorate the 10th anniversary of Azerbaijan’s participation in EITI.
Azerbaijan and EITI
The government of Azerbaijan represents itself as a model participant in EITI. After more than a decade in the initiative, the government regularly cites its “compliant” status in EITI as proof of its good government credentials. But the years since it won that recognition have been marked by a precipitous decline in Azerbaijan’s respect for a core tenet of EITI: the unfettered participation of civil society groups in the functioning of the initiative and in public debate on natural resource management issues.
Azerbaijan was the first country to be designated “compliant” with the initiative’s disclosure requirements, in 2009, and has retained that status despite actions that violate rules on civil society participation.
The government publicly boasts of “Azerbaijan’s demonstrated leadership in the implementation of EITI” and claims that “Azerbaijan’s membership in the EITI Board … corroborates the country’s leading role in implementation of EITI.”
A new EITI compliance check, using criteria updated in 2013, is scheduled for July 2015 but the board could demand an early review of Azerbaijan, suspend it for a “manifest breach” of civil society requirements, or take other measures to censure the government.
EITI’s Requirements to Include Independent Groups
EITI is designed as a “multi-stakeholder” initiative, led jointly by governments, companies, and civil society participants.
Free and active civil society participation is a cornerstone of the international initiative. It is reflected in part in the governance of EITI. At the international level, a board consisting of governments, companies, and representatives of civil society organizations oversees the initiative. The national-level EITI steering committees known as multi-stakeholder groups are mandated to follow the same three-part structure.
The rules for candidates and participating countries, known as the EITI Standard, incorporate numerous protections for independent groups. They unequivocally state, among other provisions, that “there must be no obstacles to civil society participation in the EITI process.”
An important feature is that many of the civil society requirements do not only apply to groups and individuals formally associated with the EITI process, such as members of the national multi-stakeholder group. Instead, the requirements to respect civil society’s role generally cover a wider set of interested civil society actors or “stakeholders.”
Those provisions outline several requirements, including for the government to provide “an enabling environment for civil society participation with regard to relevant laws, regulations, and administrative rules,” “refrain from actions which result in narrowing or restricting public debate in relation to implementation of the EITI,” and respect “the fundamental rights” of all civil society representatives “substantively engaged” in the initiative.
EITI’s leadership has been aware of the mounting concerns about the deteriorating climate for civil society in Azerbaijan, Human Rights Watch said. As repression in Azerbaijan has intensified, the EITI board and the members of a crisis response committee have taken note of the situation. The minutes of a May 2013 EITI board meeting show that, at the initiative of civil society members on the board, the EITI chair, Clare Short, wrote to President Ilham Aliev regarding legal amendments approved earlier that year “and their implications for civil society participation in EITI.” That letter has not been made public.
The records show that Azerbaijan’s representative on EITI’s governing board has staunchly defended the government’s actions. Responding to the concerns raised, he said the legal restrictions did not create any obstacles to civil society participation in EITI’s revenue disclosure process. He also promised that “the government would convey its views in a response to the EITI chair shortly.” More than a year later, there is no indication from subsequent records that any response was received.
EITI’s rules offer several options for board action. It can suspend or even expel any participating country if it is “manifestly clear” that its government has breached “a significant aspect of the EITI Principles and Requirements.” In cases of concern in which it considers that more information is needed, the board can ask the secretariat to prepare a report for its consideration. The rules also allow for it to demote a “compliant” country to “candidate” status and demand specific “corrective actions” by a set deadline.
In the case of Azerbaijan, which is represented on the board, the government representative would at a minimum have to recuse himself from such decisions. If the board suspends Azerbaijan’s membership, however, it can also suspend its participation on the board. Any suspension lasting longer than a year automatically leads to the removal of the government’s board representative from that body.
Together with suspending Azerbaijan from the initiative, EITI’s leaders should suspend the government’s representative from his post on its board, Human Rights Watch said.
The Wider Crackdown
Beginning in the period before the October 2013 presidential elections, the government of Azerbaijan has engaged in a systematic campaign to crush political opponents and activists who challenge it. As described in a September 2013 Human Rights Watch report, the government began a concerted effort to silence its critics. Restrictive laws approved in 2012 and 2013 gave the government new tools to rein in independent voices. The government also relied heavily on politically motivated arrests to punish its critics. In a June 2014 update, Human Rights Watch reported that 16 of the people it had earlier profiled had subsequently been convicted and sentenced to prison; four had been released; and 13 more had been arrested and remained behind bars.
The pressure has only intensified since President Aliev’s disputed electoral victory. In December 2013, the parliament approved a large and highly controversial package of amendments to several laws concerning independent groups, and the president signed them into law in February 2014.
These amendments have provided new grounds for authorities to threaten and penalize independent groups. The amendments introduced dozens of new requirements for the groups, including onerous reporting obligations, and imposed heavy sanctions for failure to comply to the government’s satisfaction. In addition, the government has used criminal law to control and punish independent groups in connection with international sources of funding.
The government’s broader assault on independent groups has taken a particular toll on human rights activists. In mid-2014 there has been a dramatic escalation of politically motivated arrests, targeting several of the country’s leading human rights defenders. On July 30, the authorities arrested the activist Leyla Yunus and her husband, Arif Yunus, a historian, on multiple charges, including treason. On August 2, Rasul Jafarov, another prominent human rights defender and government critic, was arrested on bogus charges of tax evasion, illegal entrepreneurship, and abuse of authority. Azerbaijani authorities arrested a human rights lawyer, Intigam Aliyev, on August 8 on charges identical to those brought against Jafarov.
The recent arrests have had a ripple effect, causing fear among other activists and weakening protections for all independent organizations. Human rights activists defend the freedoms of independent groups that are central to EITI’s concept of an “enabling environment,” and help defend these groups in court, if necessary.