Why Azerbaijan must implement the OGP recommendations

In 2014, the government of Azerbaijan introduced new legislation which has since made it impossible for many civil society organisations to do our job of representing the interests of our fellow citizens. For the past two and half years, myself, my colleagues at the Public Association for Assistance to Free Economy and countless other NGOs in Azerbaijan, have been unable to perform our duty of holding government bodies and state-owned companies to account. When it came into force, we put in our application for a registration certificate – as stipulated in the new legislation – it was rejected. We applied a further eight times, and we received eight more rejections. We applied to the court of appeal against the decision, and, again, we were met with rejection. Two and half years later, we have been left with no choice but to appeal to the European Court of Human Rights. As we wait for a decision, which could take up to five years, we remain unable to operate as a legal entity, to apply for grants or even open a bank account.

Our organisation, the Public Association for Assistance to Free Economy, aims to bring more economic freedom and good governance to Azerbaijan. We call on the government to make reports and data on the state budget, public investment, law enforcement expenditure and procurement contracts public. As it stands, a vast amount of information on such activities is barely made available to members of parliament and, when it is, details are minimal. In addition there are currently no external audits on the reports which means there are no means of assessing the impact of the projects. And without information available on the business owners who undertake such projects, there is no way of knowing who to hold accountable if and when instances of corruption are identified.

This work is not only our fundamental right, as civil society, but is also vital to ensure that Azerbaijan’s natural resource wealth is invested in alleviating its citizens out of poverty. These restrictions, coupled with constraints on our rights to freedom of expression, mean that my fellow citizens and I are increasingly without representatives to voice and defend our interests. And with less and less NGOs able to hold government and companies to account, the levels of corruption in our country, which are now being uncovered and reported internationally, are already getting worse.

There are still opportunities to bring back openness and governance to our country. An initiative that can convince our government to repeal this legislation is the Open Government Partnership. In May 2016, as a result of the government’s failure to sufficiently address the concerns raised by a number of international civil society organisations including Article 19, Publish What You Pay and CIVICUS, in regards to the administrative and procedural obstacles which the new legislation created for NGOs, the OGP revoked its membership, designating it an inactive member. On June 28th 2017 the OGP Steering Committee decided to further extend Azerbaijan’s inactive membership status by twelve months.

Currently, the OGP is calling for public commentary on its recommendations to the Azeri government and I would like to put forward the following recommendations.

Firstly, I support the OGP’s recommendation to simplify the process for establishing and registering NGOs. Doing this would be a positive step towards creating a much needed enabling environment for civil society in Azerbaijan. Our government must remove the restrictions on registering and establishing NGOs. Equally as important for an enabling environment is the OGP’s recommendation to simplify the regulations to accessing funding.

Secondly, the government of Azerbaijan must uphold our right to participate by first freeing the journalists and activists who are imprisoned for exercising their right to freedom of expression and participation. And by reinstating the independence of media by lifting bans on websites and other media outlets such as Radio Liberty and Meydan TV.

Last but not least, we must rejoin the EITI. Without membership in the EITI, there are no transparency and accountability standards for our government and companies to adhere to. And there is no platform for civil society to interact meaningfully with government and extractive companies on the management of our collective natural resources. The main EITI supporting countries must strongly encourage financial institutes to push for Azerbaijan to rejoin the EITI.
We must use this opportunity to restore civic space and participation in Azerbaijan.

Azerbaijan: Transparency Group Delays Reinstatement

Open Government Partnership Cites Restrictions on Independent Groups

(London, June 30, 2017) –The Steering Committee of the Open Government Partnership (OGP) – a voluntary initiative promoting government transparency and accountability – decided on June 28, 2017 to extend Azerbaijan’s “inactive” status in the initiative for another year. Publish What You Pay (PWYP), ARTICLE 19, CIVICUS, and Human Rights Watch said the decision was a positive step and an indication of the OGP’s strong commitment to protecting civic space as an essential part of promoting open government.

The OGP Steering Committee declared Azerbaijan’s membership inactive on May 4, 2016. It was the first time the committee had made a member country inactive.

The OGP Steering Committee acknowledged that the Azerbaijani government had made limited progress in reducing some of the regulatory impediments preventing civil society organizations from operating freely. But the committee again highlighted the serious problems in the authorities’ treatment of civil society and called on the government of Azerbaijan to undertake meaningful and substantive reforms to regain full membership. The decision gives Azerbaijan 12 months to work with the OGP Steering Committee and its Support Unit, local civil society, and external partners to address fundamental legislative and practical obstacles to civil society organizations’ participation generally and influence in Azerbaijan’s OGP Action Plan.

For years, Azerbaijan has systematically dismantled the country’s once vibrant civil society through the arrests and convictions of many activists, human rights defenders, and journalists on bogus politically motivated charges. As well as by adopting laws and regulations restricting the activities of independent groups and their ability to secure independent funding.

Some of the restrictions the government imposes are noted in the OGP Steering Committee decision. For example, government regulations require groups to register grants, and authorities have discretion to arbitrarily deny grant registration. The regulations also require a positive assessment from the Finance Ministry for each grant from a foreign donor, and require foreign donors to get permission from the government to make a grant. The government has frozen bank accounts of several human rights groups.

In addition, the authorities pursue politically motivated criminal prosecutions against activists. In recent weeks Azerbaijani authorities have also blocked websites of some media outlets critical of the government, including Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Voice of America, and Meydan Tv.

“We believe open government cannot be achieved without an active citizenry that is free to associate and has access to publicly available government data and information, the four organizations said. The OGP Steering Committee decision gives Azerbaijan a chance to renew its commitment to the principles of open and accountable government. Until and unless that happens, the OGP and the international community should continue to pressure Azerbaijan to release prisoners arrested on politically motivated charges, end the systematic harassment of government critics, and ensure that laws regulating civil society are brought in line with international standards.”

The OGP Steering Committee decision to declare Azerbaijan inactive followed a process set in motion by a policy the OGP adopted in 2014 to deal with concerns about restrictions on civic space in participating countries. Together with CIVICUS, and Article 19, PWYP decided to invoke the policy and submitted the first letter of concern in March 2015 to call out the Azerbaijani government’s crackdown on civil society, which started with the adoption of restrictive legislation regulating nongovernmental organizations and their funding.

The 2016 decision reflected the OGP Steering Committee’s recognition that government restrictions had seriously hampered Azerbaijani civil society from effectively promoting government transparency and accountability.

The 2016 decision gave the Azerbaijani government one year to implement reforms to restore an enabling environment for civil society. During that year, it received continuous support from the OGP Steering Committee and Support Unit but was excluded from high level meetings. By prolonging this period of “inactivity,” the OGP Steering Committee is giving Azerbaijan another year to implement meaningful reforms that will improve the operating environment for civil society organizations. However, Azerbaijan could be re-instated as a full member much earlier if it decides to make headway on OGP recommendations that will be elaborated in the coming month. In April the Azerbaijani government decided to leave the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), after the organization’s board suspended Azerbaijan for failing to ensure an enabling environment for civil society and reform the laws shackling the country’s non-governmental groups.
“We hope that OGP would remain a space for collaboration between civil society and the government” the groups said.

Contact:

In Copenhagen: Asmara Klein (Publish What You Pay), +4521228135 or aklein@publishwhatyoupay.org

In London: Katie Morris (Article 19), +44 20 7324 2500 or katie@article19.org

In Dublin: Cathal Gilbert (CIVICUS), +353838663212 or cathal.gilbert@civicus.org

In Tbilissi: Giorgi Gogia (Human Rights Watch), +99577.421235 or gogiag@hrw.org

ARTICLE 19 is an international non-governmental organization, working on freedom of expression and information at the international, regional and national levels.

CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation is an international alliance of civil society at the local, national, regional and international levels, dedicated to strengthening citizen action and civil society throughout the world.

Publish What You Pay (PWYP) is a global network of civil society organizations that are united in their call for an open and accountable extractive industry that contributes to improving the lives of women, men and youth in resource-rich countries.

Human Rights Watch is a global human rights organization that documents and exposes human rights abuses around the world.

Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) passes credibility test by placing accountability squarely at the heart of the initiative

Publish What You Pay (PWYP) welcomes the EITI Board’s decision this week in Bogota, Colombia, to confirm the implementation of its requirement on project-by-project reporting and its decision to suspend Azerbaijan for failing to demonstrate sufficient progress to protect civil society. With these two decisions, the EITI shows leadership on transparency and accountability in the extractives sector.

The EITI board has reaffirmed that project-level reporting is required in the EITI Standard and has set 2018 as the date by which project-level reporting will become mandatory. The EITI’s commitment to project-by-project reporting is an important step towards solidifying a global standard for payment reporting. Cielo Magno, Board member of the EITI, stated that “the Philippines are already disclosing project by project and will – as many other countries – continue to do so. This is an essential measure to ensure that local communities are able to hold governments and companies accountable for the revenues generated by extractive projects.” PWYP will work with its members around the world to help ensure swift implementation of this requirement in line with national laws and systems, as well as international norms.

At the same meeting, the EITI Board decided to suspend Azerbaijan for failing civil society. By suspending the country from the global initiative, the EITI Board upholds the principles enshrined in its Civil Society Protocol and the need to protect free, meaningful and effective civil society engagement on issues related to natural resource governance in Azerbaijan.

In October 2016, the EITI Board gave Azerbaijan a vote of confidence as it was encouraged by the country’s recent actions to comply with the EITI Standard. However, the EITI Board requested that the government of Azerbaijan address three specific pieces of legislation deemed to restrict freedom of association. In response, the government made a few amendments to reduce the administrative burden imposed on NGOs. But the EITI Board found that the repressive nature of the law remained unchanged, which prompted the decision to suspend the country until its next validation scheduled for July 2017.

Elisa Peter, Executive Director of PWYP, said “The EITI Board’s decision to suspend Azerbaijan provides an opportunity for the government to reform and embrace a meaningful multi-stakeholder dialogue, including civil society, on the country’s governance of the extractive sector”.

Publish What You Pay (PWYP) and other international bodies have repeatedly drawn attention to Azerbaijan’s shortcomings in protecting those who call out the country’s poor governance of its extractives sector. Protecting civic space is a cornerstone of the EITI. Our report ‘Against All Odds’, jointly produced with CIVICUS, has shed light of the growing backlash against activists around the world and the different types of threats they face.

The EITI needs to be part of the solution to this increasing threat to natural resource activists, if we are to truly reverse the resource curse. Working on the principle that governments, CSOs and companies all have a seat at the EITI table, the initiative has shown today that it honours its multi-stakeholder nature.

Azerbaijan’s reputation for transparency in the balance after crushing civil society

As Azerbaijan is scrambling for loans, international financial institutions are key to boosting energy sector accountability, experts say

Zohrab Ismayil, an exiled Azeri human rights activist, doesn’t know what would happen to him if the government found out where he lives. So he conducts his work underground. And when he travels, he posts pictures on social media to confuse the authorities.
“Even on social media the government is spying on activists and political parties,” he said. “And, personally, we guess that there is a special department under the Minister of Internal Affairs or the security services that conduct surveillance over social media and from time to time punish activists.”

These are the stakes of advocating for better governance in Azerbaijan, an energy-rich, former Soviet state that’s been ruled by the same family since 1993. In that time, the media have gone from largely independent to largely state-controlled. Civil society has flourished and contracted. When oil prices collapsed in 2014, the government went into crisis mode and lashed out at critical voices — prosecuting, imprisoning, or driving into exile prominent journalists and human rights defenders.

But that has not stopped foreign money flowing into Baku, the capital. Despite well-documented human rights violations, international financial institutions (IFIs) have invested billions of dollars in Azerbaijan and are poised to release billions more. Activists — and, more discreetly, even some World Bank employees — call these investments counterproductive. While IFIs say they want accountability and diversified, efficient economies, the reality is that they’re bankrolling an oil-reliant kleptocracy.

“This isn’t a sustainable development model,” said Elisa Peter, Executive Director of Publish What You Pay, which fights the “resource curse” by advocating for more openness in the extractive sector. The organisation’s coalition of civil society partners in Azerbaijan has been crippled by the government.

“The role of international financial institutions is to support development processes that benefit everyone,” Peter said. “Instead, they are enabling a system that allows elites to enrich themselves and to shut down independent voices in their countries.”

The TANAP Project

One of the most controversial of these investments is the Trans-Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline (TANAP) Project. TANAP is one leg of a larger transcontinental pipeline — the Southern Gas Corridor project — that will carry Azeri gas from the Caspian Sea to Italy. It’s easy to see why human rights might take a back seat to pumping 16 billion cubic meters of gas from Russia’s backyard into the heart of Western Europe.

In December, the WBG approved a $400 million loan to Azerbaijan. Cyril Muller, a World Bank vice president, said the $8.5 billion TANAP Project will “create economic opportunities for people in Azerbaijan.” But in fact oil revenues have never been used effectively, according to Gubad Ibadoglu, a prominent Azeri economist.

“The World Bank decision was a political decision,” said Ibadoglu, whose think tank, the Economic Research Center, came under the regime’s crosshairs and no longer operates.

The European Investment Bank (EIB), the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), and the Asian Development Bank (ADB) are also participating. Already some of these banks have disbursed hundreds of millions of dollars to expand the gas field over the objections of international watchdogs. While these IFIs could use their leverage to push for reforms, they have largely turned a blind eye to the problems.

The government made minor concessions in 2016 — releasing some political prisoners and unfreezing bank accounts — but the laws the government uses to crush civil society are still on the books. Ibadoglu fears the WBG loan will encourage the other IFIs to follow its lead, and once the deals are signed the government will return to its old bad behavior. “The World Bank decision complicated the situation,” he said. “It opened the door.”

Indeed, the day after WBG announced the loan approval, the Beijing-based AIIB approved a $600 million loan, citing the “energy security” of Turkey and Europe.

How the government froze civil society

In 2005, a former university rector approached two associates of Azerbaijan’s top power broker, Ramiz Mehdiyev, presidential chief of staff since 1995. The rector, Elshad Abdullayev, was there to purchase a seat in parliament. As they negotiated the price ($1 million), Mehdiyev’s henchmen were unaware Abdullayev was recording the conversation on video. The video caused a scandal, but only low level officials suffered blowback.

Meanwhile, the elite have maintained power by dominating private enterprise, from the oil industry to the media. Freedom House reported in 2016 that the Aliyev family’s hotel holdings alone are worth $10 billion. On Feb. 22, Aliyev appointed his wife as vice president.

In this oligarchic context, the government has grown increasingly intolerant of dissent, particularly any criticism of its dependence on oil revenue.

That’s why, in August 2014, the government froze Ibadoglu’s bank accounts as part of an investigation into “foreign agents” donating money to Azeri organizations. Unable to receive international transfers, Ibadoglu left the country to continue his work in the United States.

So the government went after his family and friends instead, hauling them into interrogation rooms. They also published “blackmail” against him. “They claimed that I have betrayed the country and that I didn’t defend the national interest,” he said.

Since moving home last year, Ibadoglu hasn’t been arrested and his bank accounts are unblocked. But he still can’t work. New regulations require government approval of grants, and a bogus tax evasion fine against him is accumulating 0.1 percent interest daily. It’s up to about $130,000.

For Ismayil, the exiled activist, the clampdown followed a similar pattern. His Public Association for Assistance to Free Economy (PAAFE) works with Publish What You Pay and is a civil society member of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), which promotes accountability and good governance in resource-rich countries.

That made Ismayil a target. The government froze his bank accounts, buried the PAAFE in bureaucracy and issued a warrant for his arrest, claiming he evaded taxes and conducted his organization illegally.

All eyes on EITI

Cases like Ismayil, Ibadoglu and scores of others have made Azerbaijan’s status in the EITI a cause célèbre for human rights defenders.

The EITI is a framework for what an accountable extractive sector should look like, with a board that assesses countries against that standard. For the 51 participating nations, gaining “compliant” status in the EITI is like earning a gold star: The international community likes to see it, and receiving investments becomes less politically fraught.

Azerbaijan was one of the early supporters of the EITI, setting themselves out as a model member. But one of the requirements of the EITI standard is to create an enabling environment for civil society organizations. After the crackdown of 2014, an international outcry led the EITI board to downgrade Azerbaijan from “compliant” to “candidate.”

When the EITI board next meets on March 8-9, it will discuss whether to suspend Azerbaijan’s membership entirely. The EBRD and EIB have not yet approved TANAP financing. It remains unclear however to what extent the outcomes of the EITI meeting will influence the EBRD and EIB financing decision. Back in September 2016, the EBRD made a link between its TANAP support and EITI status.

“Regardless of the EITI board’s decision, the international financial institutions should withhold financing until the Azeri government drops its hostility toward civil society,” said Peter. “Not only is it the right thing to do, sustainable growth and support for democratic principles are obligations of their mandate.”

Who’s paying for TANAP?

These international financial institutions are part of a consortium financing the Trans-Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline Project.

Asian Development Bank (gas field expansion) Approved $1 billion
Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank Approved $600 million
European Bank for Reconstruction and Development Pending $500 million
European Investment Bank Pending $1.3 billion
World Bank Group Approved $400 million

 

Sources: http://projects.worldbank.org/P157416/?lang=en&tab=financial
https://www.adb.org/projects/azerbaijan

EITI reaffirms its commitment to protecting independent voices at its Astana Board Meeting

On 25 and 26 October, the 35th EITI International Board meeting took place in Astana, Kazakhstan. During this meeting, key agenda topics included the protection of civil society organisations and activists by the EITI and the decision on whether or not to suspend Azerbaijan, after its EITI status was downgraded in April 2015 due to restrictive legislations on civil society activities. By the end of the two day meeting, the EITI Board decided to give Azerbaijan a renewed opportunity to show that the country remains committed to the transparency initiative.

The EITI Board recognised progress made in certain policies pertaining to civic space in Azerbaijan. A few days before the Board meeting, the President of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev, signed a decree to ease some of the restrictions imposed on civil society in the country. However, this recent progress has not been enough to keep the country from the threat of EITI suspension. The country still falls short of the EITI Standard, to which 51 countries have committed, especially the requirement on the protection of free and effective civil society participation.

The EITI Board is now asking the government of Azerbaijan to reform domestic laws and policies in order to ease the registration of civil society organisations and allow them to receive foreign funding before the next Board meeting in February 2017 in order to avoid suspension.

“PWYP hopes that genuine long term change in how Azerbaijan treats its independent civil society organisations will be reflected in laws that respect fundamental civil liberties, including freedom of association and expression. Genuine reforms will contribute to enabling a meaningful public debate around the governance of natural resources in the country,” says Elisa Peter, Executive Director of PWYP.

This development sets the stage for renewed engagement by local civil society organisations with the government and companies to implement the EITI standard in the country.

PWYP encourages the Azerbaijan government to continue working with civil society on the implementation of corrective measures as outlined by the EITI Board. In addition, we call for the following improvements:

  • Put an end to politically motivated legal proceedings against Non-Governmental Organisations’ (NGO) leaders, in particular criminal prosecution, tax inspections and tax penalties;
  • Enact amendments to the Code of Administrative Offenses, Law on Grant, Law on NGOs and other relevant laws to eliminate heavy penalties and obligations for NGOs and simplify regulations on access to funding;
  • Clarify the criteria used to turn down applications for registration by civil society organisations;
  • Revoke requirements for re-registration procedures, which have imposed undue administrative burden on NGOs

Azerbaijan has until the next EITI Board meeting in February 2017 to implement the corrective actions when progress against the EITI Standard will be assessed again.

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Astana, 26 October 2016
35th Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) Board Meeting

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Read more: PWYP, together with Human Rights Watch (HRW), recently highlighted how independent activists and groups that criticize the government have been subjected to smear campaigns, interrogations, politically motivated criminal investigations, and in some cases physical attacks.

Stop harassment of Civil Society in Azerbaijan

Twenty-five years since its independence from the Soviet Union, Azerbaijan is the most authoritarian it has ever been. As the country’s oil revenues decline, the government crackdown on civil society organisations and activists has sharpened. The targets are people who speak out about corruption, human rights violations, and economic inequality. They have been jailed, harassed, and forced into exile.

On 25 and 26 October, the Board of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), an international initiative that promotes good governance by resource-rich countries, will decide whether Azerbaijan should be further sanctioned for falling short of its commitments towards an open and accountable management of its natural resources. EITI brings together states, extractive companies, and civil society. In April 2015 the EITI board downgraded Azerbaijan’s status for its failure to maintain free and effective civil society participation in the initiative, and outlined concrete remedial actions required to address the concerns.

Azerbaijan was among the first countries to join the EITI in 2003, at a time when its work towards transparency looked promising. The initiative was going to strengthen government and company systems for natural resource governance, inform public debate, and promote understanding about Azerbaijan’s oil sector.

Since 2014 however, this process has been blighted by a sweeping crackdown on civil society. New legislation subjects independent groups to extensive government control, including over their registration, governance, funding, and banking operations.

Independent activists and groups that criticize the government have been subjected to smear campaigns, interrogations, politically motivated criminal investigations, and in some cases physical attacks. The authorities made it practically impossible for local groups to access independent funding. These have taken devastating toll on Azerbaijan’s independent groups and their leaders. Many have stopped operating, in some cases permanently, some have moved abroad, while others struggle to continue their important work.
Despite firm criticism by international bodies, including the Council of Europe, the Open Government Partnership and the EITI, the government of Azerbaijan has continued its efforts to silence critical voices in Azerbaijan.

The EITI Board should maintain its pressure on the Azerbaijani government to stop its crackdown on local civil society. Civil activists need space to function freely in order to promote a transparent and accountable government, without fear.

These profiles, a joint initiative with Human Rights Watch, highlights how the crackdown has affected the personal and professional lives of independent activists, including those involved in the EITI. They underscore why strong action is urgently needed to protect activists in Azerbaijan.

Read the profiles here:

  • Zohrab Ismayil – Defending Independent Voices
  • Elchin Abdullayev – Forced to Flee for Aiding Activists
  • Rasul Jafarov – Risks Re-Arrest to Push for Rights in Azerbaijan
  • Leyla Yunus — Inspired by Solidarity in the Face of Repression
  • Zohrab Ismayil

    Defending Independent Voices

    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 the newspaper Liberty (Azadliq) in 1993, investigating issues relating to oil and gas corruption. By the end of the 1990s however, the government, which had been growing more authoritarian, started attacking the media. To continue influencing government policies, he left journalism and founded a nongovernmental organization, Public Association for Assistance to Free Economy (PAAFE), in 2004 with a few colleagues.

    The group was dedicated to promoting sustainable economic development and greater citizen participation. It worked on such issues as budgets 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, an international group that promotes transparency of natural resources revenue and public awareness in how governments manage their natural resources. The government was also growing uneasy about unwanted scrutiny and criticisms about how it had wasted oil 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 had been issued for him. Since then, Zohrab has lived in exile, as has his wife, Aynura Heydarova, a former journalist at Meydan TV, an alternative media outlet that is also a government target. His wife is still under a travel ban and subject to a criminal investigation, and the government refuses to confirm in writing whether the investigation has been dropped.

    His organization still struggles to operate. Its bank accounts were released in April, but it was hit with a huge fine on the grounds that it had improperly registered its grant agreements. The Justice Ministry also refused to process the paperwork to approve extension of its grant registrations.

    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 civil society organisations to access and use their financial resources freely, including those provided from abroad and quash tax penalties imposed on nongovernmental organizations.
    • Allow civil society organisations to hold training sessions, meetings and events related to natural resource governance, in the capital and in the regions.

    Elchin Abdullayev

    Forced to Flee for Aiding Activists

    Elchin Abdullayev was an election observer in Baku in October 2003 when he was arrested for compiling evidence of election violations and openly protesting against them. He was thrown in jail and tortured so badly that he had to be hospitalized.

    This ordeal motivated him to work with various activist groups, including the Committee Against Torture in Azerbaijan. He also established his own Democratic Institutions and Human Rights union in 2007, to protect human rights and offer legal support to nongovernmental groups in Azerbaijan.

    Between 2006 and 2014, Elchin helped register over 100 organizations with Azerbaijan’s Justice Ministry, a burdensome and restrictive process. He also submitted multiple cases of human rights violations to the European Court on Human Rights (ECHR).

    But things took a turn for the worse in 2014, when the authorities initiated an investigation against foreign donors, which later expanded to include several dozen of their grantees, including Elchin’s organization. In August, feeling threatened with arrest, he decided to leave the country. On October 20, 2015 the Department for Investigation of Grave Crimes initiated a criminal investigation against Abdullayev personally, accusing him of amassing large amounts of money through illegal entrepreneurship and tax evasion. The authorities opened a criminal investigation into his organization too, and some of Abdullayev’s staff were forced to make statements against him to help the investigation. The authorities froze his personal and business bank accounts, forcing the organization to shut down its projects. The investigation was temporarily suspended when the authorities couldn’t locate him. But Abdullayev has never received an official confirmation that the investigation against him has ended.

    On October 20, 2015 the Department for Investigation of Grave Crimes initiated a criminal investigation, accusing Abdullayev of amassing large amounts of money through illegal entrepreneurship and tax evasion. The investigation was temporarily suspended when the government couldn’t locate him. But Abdullayev never received an official confirmation that the investigation against him had ended.

    He believes the real reason behind the investigation was his active involvement in civil society and in particular his influence within the coalition of nongovernmental groups for the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), an international initiative that promotes good governance of resource-rich countries by fostering open public debate about how oil, gas, and mining revenues are used. Abdullayev assistance was critical to many of the independent groups involved in the coalition that displeased the authorities by calling for accountability in Azerbaijan’s oil industry. The government has increasingly used prosecution to intimidate and silence human rights activists.

    Since leaving Azerbaijan, he has been living in Germany and continues his work by advising groups in Azerbaijan about how to register and how to file a case with the ECHR if their registration is rejected. Abdullayev hopes that the situation in Azerbaijan will improve so that he can return to continue his important work to protect civic space in Azerbaijan. But that won’t happen without pressure from key international bodies. In Abdullayev’s words, “International organizations are our only hope and we become hopeless when we don’t see support from them for our situation.”

    Recommendations

  • The government should restore an environment in which independent groups can speak out openly, including about government transparency and accountability.
  • The government should stop using prosecution to harass activists and nullify all criminal charges against them
  • Azerbaijan: Civic space in focus as country is listed as ‘inactive’ by OGP

    Publish What You Pay (PWYP), ARTICLE 19 and CIVICUS welcome yesterday’s unprecedented decision by the Steering Committee of the Open Government Partnership (OGP) to list Azerbaijan as ‘inactive’. Through this decision, the OGP – a voluntary initiative promoting government transparency and accountability – reaffirms how vital civil society is for an open government and the importance that OGP members attach to the protection of civic space.

    The decision represents the first time that the OGP Steering Committee, the highest decision making body of OGP, has taken action to address unresolved issues around civic space in one of its member countries. The decision was made under the framework of the OGP Response Policy – Policy on Upholding the Values and Principles of OGP, adopted in 2014.

    As an ‘inactive’ member of the OGP, Azerbaijan will continue to receive assistance from the OGP steering committee, but will be excluded from high-level events. Azerbaijan will have one year in which to implement reforms in order to create an enabling environment for civil society, as a result of which it will be able to participate as a full member again.

    “Over the past year, Azerbaijan has adopted increasingly restrictive legislation and policies to prevent civil society from operating. At the same time, it has continued its concerted crackdown on civil society, independent journalists and opposition, involving both judicial and informal harassment. It is currently impossible for genuine civil society to work with the government, and the OGP had no choice but to make this decision if it wanted to retain its credibility.

    We hope that the imposition of clear milestones for reform in Azerbaijan, and ongoing support from OGP to the government to implement these, will provide an opportunity to re-establish an enabling environment for civil society in the country where human rights can be fully realised,” said Thomas Hughes, Executive Director, ARTICLE 19.

    “In recent weeks, we have seen encouraging signs of positive engagement on the part of the authorities, who have freed several political prisoners, lifted the seizure of bank accounts for member organisations of the Increasing Transparency in Extractive Industry coalition and finally signed the OGP National Action Plan. While welcome, these changes do not address the profound restrictions that civil society in Azerbaijan continues to face. We therefore felt it was important to send a strong signal to the Government of Azerbaijan that more permanent reforms are needed, including with regards to conducting open and inclusive consultations on the OGP National Action Plan,” said Danny Sriskandarajah, Secretary General, CIVICUS.

    “An open government is an inclusive government and we hope that the Government of Azerbaijan sees the OGP decision as an opportunity to continue on a path towards an open civic space. This effort will also go a long way in the context of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), where a decision is expected soon regarding Azerbaijan’s progress in completing the corrective measures defined by the EITI International Board in April 2015. PWYP will work with partners in the country to ensure that both the EITI and OGP remain spaces of open collaboration between civil society actors and the government,” said Elisa Peter, Executive Director, PWYP.

    Background

    In March 2015, ARTICLE 19, CIVICUS and Publish What You Pay submitted a joint letter to the steering committee of the OGP, raising concerns about the deteriorating situation for civil society in Azerbaijan, and calling on them to ensure that civil society organisations can participate in and influence Azerbaijan’s OGP action plan. In its review of the submission, the OGP Criteria and Standards Subcommittee deemed the complaint substantial and made a series of recommendations to the Government of Azerbaijan, including the development of an OGP National Action Plan to the lack of civic space. The Government of Azerbaijan had until the 30th of January 2016 to complete the recommended steps but failed to do so. This failure prompted the Criteria and Standards Subcommittee to advise the OGP Steering Committee to list Azerbaijan as inactive in OGP at a meeting in Cape Town on 4th May 2016.

    The decision of the OGP Steering Committee provides that Azerbaijan’s progress in meaningfully addressing the original concerns will be re-assessed in twelve months’ time. However, Azerbaijan could be re-instated as a full member much earlier if it decided to make headway on the recommendations made by OGP.

    ARTICLE 19 is an international non-governmental organisation, working on freedom of expression and information at the international, regional and national levels.

    CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation is an international alliance of civil society at the local, national, regional and international levels, dedicated to strengthening citizen action and civil society throughout the world.

    Publish What You Pay (PWYP) is a global network of civil society organisations that are united in their call for an open and accountable extractive industry that contributes to improving the lives of women, men and youth in resource-rich countries.

    PWYP condemns beating of Ilgar Mammadov in Azerbaijan

    Publish What You Pay strongly condemns the beating and inhumane treatment of Ilgar Mammadov, member of the Advisory Council of the Natural Resource Governance Institute (NRGI). Mr Mammadov, who remains unlawfully imprisoned following a decision by the European Court of Human Rights, was allegedly beaten by high-level staff in the penitentiary facility on October 16, following a series of intimidations and threats.

    The unacceptable violent treatment of Mr Mammadov is part of a wider context of a complete crackdown on dissenting voices in Azerbaijan by the government. Whether engaged in politics, media or civil society, journalists and activists continue to face restrictions, harsh treatment, criminal prosecutions and prison sentences, which are completely at odds with the spirit and principles of the Open Government Partnership and the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) in which Azerbaijan participates.

    In April 2015, the EITI board made the decision to demote the country from ‘compliant’ to ‘candidate’, giving Azerbaijan until April 2016 to put in place a set of corrective actions as decided by the EITI Board. But despite a recent high level visit by the EITI Chair to the president of Azerbaijan the general crackdown on civil society has continued, including recent developments such as the case of Mammadov and the court sentence of famous anti-corruption investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova earlier this year. We urgently request the Government of Azerbaijan to immediately release Ilgar Mammadov as well as Khadija Ismayilova, and remind them to ensure that they meet the EITI Board’s recommendations by April 2016 if they want to continue to be part of the EITI.