Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Azeri NGOs' Fight for Recognition

Groups working on issues seen as sensitive are routinely denied official registration.
By Seymur Kazimov
  • Baku School of Journalism. (Photo: Ahmed Mukhtar)
    Baku School of Journalism. (Photo: Ahmed Mukhtar)
  • Ulvi Tahirov, deputy head of the Baku School of Journalism with Zeynal Mamedli, a professor. (Photo: Ahmed Mukhtar)
    Ulvi Tahirov, deputy head of the Baku School of Journalism with Zeynal Mamedli, a professor. (Photo: Ahmed Mukhtar)

Campaigners on issues like human rights, democracy and media freedom in Azerbaijan say the authorities deliberately refuse to grant legal registration to their organisations.

Rasul Jafarov has repeatedly applied for legal recognition for his Human Rights Club, and is certain it gets turned down for political reasons rather than because its paperwork is faulty.

“I think that although I submit the registration documents to the justice ministry, they are actually reviewed in the presidential administration,” he said. “We have applied three times, and each time we’ve been refused.”

The Human Rights Club coordinated the Sing for Democracy campaign, which raised global awareness of restrictions on basic freedoms in Azerbaijan ahead of the Eurovision Song Contest, hosted in Baku earlier this year. 

Mirali Huseynov, who heads the Democracy Learning think-tank, says that following a steady increase in the number of legally registered NGOs until 2006, the figure has since fallen.

A study carried out by Democracy Learning indicates that Azerbaijani NGOs working on environmental or other issues seen as apolitical are granted legal status in eight out of ten cases, whereas those trying to promote democracy and human rights are registered just 36 per cent of the time.

Elchin Abdullayev, an adviser at Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, an association that helps NGOs seeking registration, says groups working on democracy and rights issues find themselves facing more obstructions than others during the application process.

“The justice ministry raises the same old objections – it asks them to change their name, their objective, and so on,” he said.

Abdullayev added that courts in Azerbaijan regularly refuse to review lawsuits brought by NGOs seeking to contest a justice ministry rejection, so that they have no real form of redress.

When Jafarov’s group went to court to appeal against the justice ministry decision, a judge initially refused to hear the case but eventually did so, and ruled against the NGO. The case is now at the appeals stage.

The Baku School of Journalism has been refused registration eight times since it was set up in 2005.

“The reasons given for refusing us registration are not serious. They find a new reason every time. We correct errors, and they just find new ones,” the school’s deputy head Ulvi Tahirov said. “It takes another 30 days every time some issue has to be resolved – they are just dragging out the process. The government doesn’t register organisations that are not loyal to it.”

Tahirov said it used to be possible to submit documents online, but that system had now been abandoned. “It means they can remove any document [from the application file], insist that we forgot to hand it in and then refuse to register us,” he said.

NGOs without official registration struggle to obtain funding, and can also face difficulties in organising events and dealing with officials.

An official from the presidential administration, Vugar Salimov, refused to comment on issues raised in this article on the grounds that IWPR has not been granted registration. A second application for registration is currently in train.

Another presidential official, Ali Hasanov, met civil society representatives in early July and promised to take more of their suggestions into account when drawing up a strategy for how to deal with NGOs.

Rahim Rahimov, head of the registration department at the justice ministry, denied any suggestion that staff there deliberately refused to register certain NGOs.

“The information the public receives is untrue 95 per cent of the time,” he added.

Seymur Kazimov is a freelance journalist in Azerbaijan.