Uproar Over Controversial NGO Laws

Fate of package of amendments lies in balance following heated protests from civil society groups.

Uproar Over Controversial NGO Laws

Fate of package of amendments lies in balance following heated protests from civil society groups.

Friday, 26 June, 2009

Azerbaijan’s parliament has delayed a vote on a package of controversial laws on NGOs, after civil society groups and opposition deputies gave the proposed additions and amendments a rough ride.

Critics maintain that the changes are intended to starve NGOs of the foreign aid they need and hamper the work of independent-minded groups.

The wave of protests in and outside parliament appears to have surprised the authorities. They have insisted the changes are intended to make NGO operations and finances more transparent and accountable.

The package, which was put onto the daily agenda of parliament, the Milli Majlis, last weekend, on June 19, drew criticism immediately from opposition deputies.

One deputy, Jamil Hasanli, said the amendments contravened existing law in Azerbaijan as well various international conventions that the country has signed.

“These proposed changes to NGO legislation will do a lot of harm to civil society, as well as to the international image of Azerbaijan,” Hasanli warned.

Another deputy, Panah Huseyn, attacked the plans in a similar fashion, making it clear he saw the amendments as an attack on civil society groups.

“One amendment stipulates that [new] NGOs will need to obtain confirmation from the authorities that they do not represent a danger to public order,” he noted.

“But since it is impossible to evaluate a NGO before it starts functioning, such a formula is absurd,” he added.

Another anti-democratic measure, according to him, is the demand that NGOs must possess branches in at least 30 per cent of the administrative districts of the country.

Huseyn said this obligation was designed to be unrealistic, and “an NGO is not a major political party”.

The same deputy questioned another amendment, obliging NGOs to obtain at least 50 per cent of their budget from local sources alone. “This would deprive most of the influential NGOs of the ability to access foreign donor aid,” he commented.

Huseyn said such changes were intended to hamper the operations of foreign-based NGOs with branches in Azerbaijan.

Government officials strongly disagree. Ayaz Guliyev, chair of the government council for support for non-governmental organisations, dismissed most of the criticisms as invalid.

He did not deny that some of the changes would create difficulties for some NGOs and their activities. He also conceded that certain proposals had caused “concern”.

“[But] the items concerning national safety, transparency and the security of Azerbaijan should be welcomed,” he concluded.

Aydin Mirzazade, a deputy from the ruling New Azerbaijan Party, supported the planned changes in their entirety. “First of all, they will promote transparency in the actions of non-governmental organisations,” he said.

“[Large sums are] allocated for various NGO activities without any clear idea about what this money [is] then being spent on; the changes will help eliminate such cases,” Mirzazade maintained.

For their part, most of the country’s independent-minded NGOs have said they see the changes as a full-frontal assault.

“If these additions and amendments to NGO legislation are put into action, it will completely destroy this section,” Gubad Ibadoglu, head of the Centre for Economic Research, predicted.

“At least 500 NGOs would have to stop functioning automatically.”

Ibadoglu singled out one proposed change, item number 16, which says no NGO may function without registration, for adverse comment.

“If they ignore this requirement, the management will face punishment and then the organisation itself will be eliminated by law,” he said.

Rovshan Agayev, assistant chair of another NGO, the Centre for Economic Initiative Support, said it was important to note that most independent NGOs in Azerbaijan relied on international donors for money.

The target of the legal amendments was these independent NGOs. “This way, the authorities want to remove all NGOs seen as holding opposition positions,” he said.

“It’s no secret that local donors will never dare finance projects that are out of favour with the authorities.

“The authorities aim to simply leave independent NGOs without any subsistence by blocking their access to international financing.”

The flurry of agitation outside parliament on the first day of the discussion appeared to catch the authorities by surprise.

Journalists trying to follow the debate found police security beefed up at the entrance to the building as well as inside. Even accredited parliamentary journalists could not get in.

Following the orders of the deputy chief of the Baku police, Major General Yashar Aliev, police let in almost no journalists, drawing them back to the defence ministry. Only after negotiations with General Aliev was part of the media finally allowed inside.

At the same time, an umbrella group for local NGOs, the Civil Society Defence Committee, attempted to picket the parliament – with mixed fortunes.

Police soon intervened to break up the action, as a result of which would-be participants had time only to hear half of the resolution then being read out by Ibadoglu.

Police did not even let him finish reading his text before pushing the demonstrators off in the direction of the ministry of national safety.

While Ibadoglu and another activist, Irada Jafarova, went to Milli Majlis in their capacity as representatives of NGOs to submit their resolution to parliament, the rest of the crowd tried to hold a sit-down action in the Avenue of Honour.

About a 100 civil society representatives sat on the ground with the human rights activists Novella Jafaroglu, Saadat Bananyarli and Saida Gojamanli.

Though police quickly moved them on, Ilgar Mammadov, of the defence committee, said they made their point.

He also said it would not be the last such activity that opponents of the changes took; on the contrary, they would go on protesting until parliament abandoned the planned changes.

In the meantime, in the Milli Majlis, the discussion about the legal changes was adjourned after it ran out of time. Speaker Ogtay Asadov adjourned the debate until June 30.

Elmira Suleymanova, the ombudsperson, in turn, addressed parliament, requesting a further delay to discussion of the bill until autumn.

However, Mammadov said he felt sure the adjournment of discussions on the grounds of a lack of time was “just a pretext”.

“The Milli Majlis did not vote for the planned amendments immediately because of our protests, and because of European Union pressure,” he said.

“That’s why they fixed the next discussion for June 30 – after the summer meeting of PACE,” he continued, referring to the June 22-26 meeting of the Parliament Assembly of the Council of Europe.

If the amendments were accepted after June 30 – and Azerbaijan was subsequently criticised by PACE or other international organisations – the authorities would at least have gained some extra time “to neutralise or at least to interpret the decision of international organisations in another way to the public”, Mammedov explained.

Samira Ahmedbeyli is an IWPR contributor.

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