(Washington, DC) – The Asian Development Bank (ADB) and its shareholder countries should urge the Azerbaijani government to end its crackdown on activists and independent groups during the bank’s upcoming meeting, Human Rights Watch said today. The Asian Development Bank, a multilateral finance institution based in Manila, will hold its 48th annual board of governors meeting in Baku, Azerbaijan’s capital, from May 2 to 5, 2015.

The bank has recognized that transparency, participation by people affected, and accountability are key for sustainable development. But the Baku meeting comes as the Azerbaijani government is carrying out an unprecedented crackdown on independent groups critical of the government.

“The ADB is holding its annual meeting in Baku in the midst of Azerbaijan’s ever-harsher crackdown on independent voices,” said Jessica Evans, senior international financial institutions researcher at Human Rights Watch. “To stay true to its principles, the bank leadership should press the government to lift all restrictions that inhibit the work of nongovernmental groups and the media, emphasizing that their free functioning is essential for sustainable development.”

In the last year, the Azerbaijani government has arrested dozens of independent activists and journalists on false criminal charges. In April, one leading activist and the country’s most prominent human rights lawyer were each convicted in separate cases on identical politically motivated charges related to financial crimes. The activist was sentenced to six-and-a-half years in prison and the lawyer to seven-and-a-half years.

The authorities have also imposed a new series of extremely restrictive laws on nongovernmental organizations, requiring government licensing of foreign donor organizations and government approval of each grant awarded. Authorities have also frozen bank accounts of over 50 groups, and in some cases accounts of their staff members. Many of these individuals and groups worked on government transparency and accountability, promoting public debate, media freedom, election monitoring, the rule of law, and other issues. The government has also targeted development organizations.

Human Rights Watch wrote to the bank president, Takehiko Nakao, in February recommending key steps the bank should take ahead of its Baku meeting to respond to these developments. “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,” Human Rights Watch said. With many activists in jail or in exile, few independent Azerbaijani groups will be able to participate in the meetings.

The bank should also establish guidelines for selecting host countries for its annual meetings, to ensure that meetings are held in countries committed to and upholding the bank’s principles, Human Rights Watch said.

Azerbaijan has been a bank member since 1999 and has received more than US$1.5 billion in its funds for investment in infrastructure. The bank says that 3,000 government officials, business leaders, investors, journalists, and representatives of civil society will attend the May 2015 meeting. The bank’s largest shareholders are Japan and the United States.

“As the largest shareholders in the ADB, Japan and the US have a particular responsibility not only to cite the bank’s principles, but to call for the immediate and unconditional release of activists and journalists behind bars on politically motivated charges,” Evans said. “The Azerbaijani government needs to be called out on its disingenuous claim that it seeks sustainable economic development, while at the same time it silences the very people who are best placed to hold the government to its word.”