Growing up in Soviet Azerbaijan, Zohrab Ismayil learned first-hand how people barely benefited from the country’s natural resource wealth.

Witnessing this inequality prompted Zohrab to join the fight for his country’s independence, which came in 1991 with the end of the Soviet Union.  

Zohrab became a journalist at Azadlig (Liberty) newspaper in 1993, investigating issues relating to oil and gas contracts, economic problems, and corruption. By the end of the 1990s however, the government, which had been growing more authoritarian, started attacking the media. To try to impact government policies, he founded a nongovernmental organization, Public Association for Assistance to Free Economy (PAAFE), in 2004 with a few colleagues.  

Azerbaijani activist Zohrab Ismayil.

© 2016 Private

The organization was dedicated to promoting transparency and accountability, sustainable economic development and citizen participation. It worked on such issues as the state budget and property rights, focusing on the need for transparency and accountability. In 2005 it joined the local coalition working to support the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), an international group that promotes transparency of natural resources revenue and public awareness of how governments manage their natural resources. The government was also growing uneasy about unwanted scrutiny and criticism that it had squandered revenues and failed to diversify the economy. This contributed to restrictions on nongovernmental groups over the years.

After 2012, organizing awareness-raising events became a significant challenge for many independent groups because of the government crackdown.  Then early in 2014 the government tried to eliminate independent organizations through even more restrictive legislation, hostile media smear campaigns, and prosecutions against groups and their leaders.

In July 2014, the authorities seized Zohrab’s personal bank account and the organization’s.  

Soon thereafter, Zohrab was called in by the prosecutor’s office as a witness in a criminal case against an international organization that funded many local groups. He went in without a lawyer, only to find out that the interrogation was directed at him and his organization. Feeling unsafe, he left the country in August 2014.

His hope to return quickly vanished when the police interrogated his nephew, and his lawyer told him a detention order for his immediate arrest had been issued. Since then, Zohrab has lived in exile, and the prosecutor’s office refuses to confirm in writing whether the investigation has been dropped.  His wife, Aynura Heydarova, is one of the 15 journalists for Meydan TV, an alternative media outlet, against whom authorities opened a criminal investigation. If she returns to Azerbaijan she could face politically motivated prosecution.

Zohrab’s organization had to suspend working in Azerbaijan. Its bank accounts were unfrozen in April, but immediately after, the tax authorities seized 11,097 manat from them for alleged tax arrears. The organization cannot use the remaining money in its accounts because the Justice Ministry refuses to renew its registration. The group cannot seek new funding in Azerbaijan because the crackdown drove out most donor organizations.

But Zohrab is determined to continue his work from abroad. He says that Western countries should not be fooled by the skillful “imitation” game that the government of Azerbaijan plays when it presents half-hearted measures as true change.

Recommendations

The Azerbaijan government should:

  • Remove legal and bureaucratic hurdles that undermine freedom of expression, assembly and association.
  • Allow independent groups to access and use their financial resources freely, including those provided from abroad and quash tax penalties imposed on nongovernmental organizations.
  • Allow independent groups to hold training sessions, meetings and events related to natural resource governance, in the capital and in the regions.

Since its independence from the Soviet Union, Azerbaijan is more authoritarian than it has been in 25 years. As the country’s oil revenues decline, the government crackdown on civil society organizations and activists has sharpened. On 26 October, the Board of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), an international initiative promoting good governance by resource-rich countries, will decide whether Azerbaijan should be further sanctioned for falling short of commitments it has made under the initiative. These profiles, a joint initiative with Publish What You Pay, highlight how the crackdown has affected activists, including those involved in the EITI. They underscore why strong action is urgently needed to protect activists in Azerbaijan.