News: Azerbaijan - Authorities raid civil society offices in continued crackdown on NGOS

Today, in an attempt to further gag independent civil society in Azerbaijan, the office of the Prosecutor General of the Republic of Azerbaijan sent a unit of investigators to raid the offices of the Economic Research Center. Based in Baku, this well-reputed think-tank has also been hosting the NGO Coalition for Improving Transparency in Extractive Industries, the civil society network involved in the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative. 

On the 13th of May 2015, the offices of the Economic Research Center were raided by a team of investigators from the Investigation Department for Serious Crimes, operating in the name of the Prosecutor General’s Office. Paperwork, including financial records (109 folders), as well as computers (11 computers and one notebook) belonging to the Economic Research Center (ERC) but also to the NGO Coalition for Improving Transparency in the Extractive Industries were seized by the investigators. “This action is an attempt to further muzzle our organisation and I fear that it will push even more members of our coalition into self-censorship”, said Gubad Ibadoghlu, senior researcher at the ERC. 

This raid came a day before the Economic Research Center was supposed to present its assessment of the progress made so far by Azerbaijan in implementing its 2014 Action Plan under its Open Government Partnership (OGP) commitment. The OGP is a multilateral initiative that promotes open government by securing commitments from governments to promote transparency, empower citizens and fight corruption. Government cooperation with civil society is key to the successful implementation of OGP principles. Today the OGP subcommittee found that concerns raised by PWYP, Article 19 and CIVICUS regarding the deterioration of civic space in Azerbaijan were credible and relevant to the Government’s participation in OGP and needed to be addressed.   

Worryingly, the attempt to further undermine the authority of the ERC as an independent civil society voice comes just a few weeks after the international Board of the EITI demoted Azerbaijan from its status as compliant country. This decision came as a response to the rapid deterioration of civic space in Azerbaijan, following the adoption, in February 2014, of restrictive legislation with adverse effects on civil society groups in the country.

The Economic Research Center had been among the most vocal organisations to denounce this crack down on civil society which seriously hampered its ability to take part in activities related to the governance of natural resources, and in particular to the implementation of the EITI. As a result of adopting such a critical stance, members of the Economic Research Center were called in by the Investigation Department for Serious Crimes for prolonged interrogations in August 2014 and financial documents for the current and past year were seized by the Prosecutor General in October 2014. One of the lead figures of the ERC, Gubad Ibadoghlu, also a member of the international Board of the EITI, was subject to several smear campaigns led by state owned media outlets. In addition, the financial means of the organisation were jeopardised as the Ministry of Justice refused to approve grant registrations submitted by the ERC and the organisation’s -and some of its staff’s- bank accounts were unilaterally frozen by the authorities, forcing the organisation to suspend its activities. 

“This clearly goes against the remedial actions the EITI board set out in April”, said Marinke van Riet, International Director of PWYP. “The EITI board requested the Azerbaijani government to relax the funding restrictions as well as stop the criminal investigations of key actors in the country in order for civil society to play its due role in the EITI. The fact that this has been violated one month after the decision was made shows an utter disdain for the principles in the initiative and calls for further international action.”

For any enquiries, please contact Asmara Klein ([email protected]; Tel. +44 7920183501) at the international PWYP Secretariat.

Notes

According to a Pennsylvania University research, the Economic Research Center ( ERC) occupied 133rd place among top world think tanks, including well-known think tanks from the USA under “ Top think tanks in the world” category.

To read about PWYP’s submission to the OGP go here.

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