Takehiko Nakao
President
Chairperson, Board of Directors
Asian Development Bank (ADB)
Headquarters: 6 ADB Avenue
Mandaluyong City 1550
Metro Manila
Philippines

Cc: Ms. Ma. Carmela Locsin, Director General, RSDD
Mr. Bart Edes, Director, Poverty Reduction, Social Development and Governance Division, RSDD

Re: Annual Meeting in Baku

Dear President Nakao,

We write to you ahead of the Asian Development Bank’s annual meeting in Baku, Azerbaijan, this May. We welcome the ADB’s recognition of the importance of participation and accountability for effective development. In light of the bank’s commitment to these important principles, we write to share with you deeply disturbing developments in Azerbaijan and to recommend key steps that the ADB should take ahead of the annual meeting in Baku to respond to these developments.

In less than two years, the government of Azerbaijan has drastically closed space for civil society in the country and escalated repression against its critics. In the past year alone, the authorities have arrested or convicted dozens of people on spurious charges, including leading civil society activists and journalists, frozen the bank accounts of independent nongovernmental groups and their leaders, denied them access to funds by refusing to register foreign grants, and adopted legislation that has almost entirely closed the space for the work of independent groups.

Throughout 2014, the authorities used a range of spurious charges—including narcotics and weapons possession, tax evasion, hooliganism, incitement, and treason—to convict or imprison at least 34 civil society leaders, journalists, and bloggers, prompting others to flee the country or go into hiding.[i]

In addition, following the prosecutor’s request, courts have frozen bank accounts of at least 50 organizations and in some cases accounts of staff, as part of ongoing criminal investigations against several foreign donors. Tax offices audited many of those groups, and the prosecutor’s office repeatedly interrogated their staff. Three of the most established large human rights groups have been forced to close, and numerous others had to halt operations as they could no longer make bank transactions. In December, police and prosecutors also raided the office of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in Baku, questioned employees, seized equipment and files, and sealed off the premises. It remains closed.

The authorities also initiated legislative changes further restricting work of independent groups. In November 2014 President Ilham Aliyev signed into law amendments requiring government licensing of all foreign donors and approval of each funded project by the relevant authorities, practically cutting off all funding opportunities for groups that work to hold the government accountable.

In light of the serious and escalating situation for civil society within the country, and the integral role that nongovernmental organizations and the media play in supporting participation in development and accountability, we urge you to:

  • Raise the ADB’s concerns about this situation with the government of Azerbaijan at its highest levels, emphasizing the important role that independent groups and the media play in development.
  • Take all necessary measures to ensure that all independent groups can participate in the ADB annual meetings, without fear of reprisals. Identify these necessary measures in close consultation with independent groups.

In addition to being an important meeting for the Bank, hosting the ADB’s annual meeting is viewed as a prestigious opportunity for countries. If you are not able to work with the government to ensure that independent groups can meaningfully and freely participate in the upcoming annual meetings without fear of reprisals, then the ADB should not hold its annual meeting in Baku.

We look forward to your response to this letter and welcome an opportunity to discuss these issues with you or your staff.

Sincerely,

Hugh Williamson
Director
Europe & Central Asia Division
Human Rights Watch

Jessica Evans
Senior Advocate on International Financial Institutions
Business and Human Rights Division
Human Rights Watch

 

[i] Among those imprisoned are several Azerbaijani nongovernmental organization leaders such as Leyla Yunus, director of the Institute for Peace and Democracy, and her husband, Arif Yunus, arrested in July and August, respectively, and charged with treason, tax evasion, and illegal entrepreneurship. Those held also include Rasul Jafarov, Human Rights Club director, and Intigam Aliyev, head of the Legal Education Society – both arrested in August and charged with tax evasion, illegal entrepreneurship, and abuse of authority. On December 5, the authorities arrested Khadija Ismayilova, Azerbaijan’s most high-profile investigative journalist, ordering her to be held for two months in pretrial custody, pending investigation on questionable charges of allegedly driving someone to attempt suicide.