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Opposition Condemns Changes to Azeri Constitution

Amendments criticised as device to strengthen already overmighty presidency and limit people’s rights.
Opposition parties and media rights groups have lambasted the outcome of a referendum that looked set to endorse changes to Azerbaijan’s constitution and abolish limits on the number of terms a president may serve.

Voters on March 18 seemed to approve all 41 changes to 29 articles of the constitution by a wide margin. The constitution was adopted in 1995 and revised in 2002.

According to Central Election Commission data, after the votes of 54 per cent of constituencies had been counted, between 87 and 92 of voters had balloted in each in favour of the proposed changes, with a turnout of 71.8 per cent.

Elnur Aslanov, chief of information in the presidential cabinet, said the amendments would bring the constitution into line with the new standards the country had reached.

“A lot has changed both on the national scale and internationally since Azerbaijan’s constitution was adopted in 1995,” he said.

But opposition politicians said that the real aim of the changes was to allow President Ilham Aliev, already serving his second term, to run for an unlimited number of times.

“All the other amendments are a cover-up for this intention,” Isa Gambar, leader of the opposition Musavat party, said.

The Venice Commission of the Council of Europe, meanwhile, has taken a critical view of the changes.

An opinion adopted on March 16 described Azerbaijan as “a country where the President concentrates extensive powers in his hands”.

“As a rule, it can be said that the abolition of existing limits preventing the unlimited re-election of a President is a step back,” it added.

Gambar said some adopted changes were deliberately banal – serving only to disguise key changes concerning the presidency.

He was referring, among others, to an amendment concerning the degree of protection afforded to wild plants and wild animals.

“This is not a provision of constitutional significance,” Erkin Gadirli, an international law expert, agreed.

“Of course, they [flora and fauna] should be protected, but this is not an issue that needed to be solved through a referendum.”

Gadirli said such unimportant changes were meant to conceal the “obvious intention of the authorities to extend the current head of the state’s term of office”.

The idea to revise the constitution came from the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan party.

On December 26, 2008, two days after the constitutional court gave the go-ahead for a referendum on constitutional changes, parliament voted for the plebiscite to be held on March 18, 2009.

Seven separate groups advocated for the amendments in a campaign that started on February 18 and ended on the eve of voting day.

During this period, the “yes” campaigners were provided with free airtime on television to promote their cause.

In spite of the campaign, straw polls conducted by IWPR contributors in the week before the referendum revealed a poor level of public awareness.

Of 20 people questioned in each of the polls, at least three said they thought a parliamentary election was going to take place.

Others assumed the vote was about making Aliev president-for-life. Only two or three of each 20 knew more or less what was at stake.

The deputy chair of Yeni Azerbaijan, Ali Ahmedov, said the changes would strengthen the justice system and ensure better protection of human rights.

Referring to the opinion of the Venice commission, Elnur Aslanov, of the presidential administration, denied that scrapping limits on the number of presidential terms a person might serve contradicted European standards.

“According to the constitution, a presidential election takes place every five years, and any citizen is free to stand,” he said.

“No one is depriving anyone of the right to try to get elected, run and compete.”

The experts on the Venice commission, however, argued that limitations are necessary in practice.

“An incumbent president may easily use various plebiscitary means in order to strengthen his or her position and secure his or her re-election,” their opinion read

“The constitutional limitations on successive terms are therefore meant to limit the risk of negative consequences for democracy arising from the fact that a same person has the possibility of occupying the presidency for an excessive period of time.”

Media groups also voiced concern over the changes, saying some adopted amendments threaten the work of journalists.

The Champions of Freedom of Speech, an umbrella group of media organisations, said the changes introduced to article 32 would undermine freedom of speech.

According to the revised article, “no one shall be followed, filmed, photographed, recorded, or subjected to any other similar actions without his or her knowledge, or despite his or her disapproval”.

Its authors say the provision is needed to protect citizens from unlawful interference in their private and family lives.

Conversely, journalists view it as a potential pretext for restricting their professional activities.

Journalists also criticised an amendment to article 50, which now says anyone may seek refutation of information that he or she finds to be detrimental to his/her own rights or interests.

Reporters say these rights and interests may be selfish and at variance with the wider rights and interests of society.

They say it might sometimes be wrong to oblige a media outlet to publish a refutation.

A statement by the Media Rights Institute said a law cannot determine all cases in which a journalist can use a recording device, take photographs or make videotapes when collecting information – without then being accused of violating someone’s rights.

The director of the organisation, Rashid Hajili, predicted that “in the long run, this will significantly restrict journalists in collecting information of public interest”.

Lawyers, in their turn, have expressed concerns over amendments to article 125.

This now says that “legal proceedings should seek to establish the truth” – a form of wording that international law expert Erkin Gadirli says “sounds beautiful but is tricky”.

It’s not truth, but justice that a court should strive to establish, Gadirli maintains.

“How can we know what the truth is?” he asked.

“The constitution states that legal proceedings should be based on a principle of competitiveness, which means that justice is on the side of the party that has provided more persuasive evidence.”

The leader of Musavat, meanwhile, has castigated the amendments to article 146, regarding municipalities, now obliging them to submit reports to parliament.

He said this change was designed to curb their independence, adding that it had not been made clear why municipalities, being mini-legislatures, should submit reports in this way.

The opposition had called – in vain it turns out – on voters to boycott the referendum. “We believe this referendum serves to extend the life of the Aliev regime,” Gambar said.

“That is why Musavat and other opposition forces have been protesting against the amendments.”

Gambar claimed adoption of the changes would consign Azerbaijan to the category of backward and semi-totalitarian states, hampering its integration into European structures.

For its part, Yeni Musavat praised voters for what it said was a demonstration of a high level of activity on voting day.

Legal expert Erkin Gadirli said the current president would have no right to take advantage of changes scrapping limits to the number of presidential terms one man may serve.

The provision would apply only from the next presidential election onwards, he said.

“The current president took his oath with his hand on the constitution that bans a person from serving more than two consecutive terms,” he noted.

“That means the recent amendment does not extend to Ilham Aliev, and only the candidate elected in 2013 will be entitled to avail himself of it.”