Azerbaijan destroying civil society, protests TI as funding ban forces office closures

Azerbaijan destroying civil society, protests TI as funding ban forces office closures
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev (right), seen at a Davos World Economic Forum session in 2013 with ex-Georgian PM Bidzina Ivanishvili, has been accused of undermining and demolishing civil society in his country.
By bne IntelliNews August 11, 2017

Transparency International (TI) on August 10 accused Azerbaijan of paralysing its civil society after it was forced to close down its two regional offices in the country because of the government’s ban on non-governmental organisations (NGOs) receiving foreign grants.

“The blanket ban on foreign grants has brought the country’s civil society to a halt and has dealt a devastating blow to civic initiatives across the board,” said Rena Safaraliyeva, executive director of Transparency Azerbaijan, protesting that the international corruption watchdog is now left with only a scaled-back Baku office in the South Caucasian country.

The closure of TI’s regional centres follows the shuttering of scores of foreign organisations in Azerbaijan, including the country branch of the Washington, DC-headquartered National Democratic Institute (NDI) and even the local unit of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Meanwhile, one of the few news agencies critical of the government that is still allowed to operate in the country, Turan, reported on August 10 that it was being subjected to a fully-fledged tax audit for understating its 2014 profit by $10,000, an allegation it denies.

Transparency Azerbaijan opened its first free legal advice office in Baku, known as an Advocacy and Legal Advice Centre or ALAC, in 2005. It then opened four more centres by 2007, but had to close two after the OSCE scaled back in Azerbaijan at the end of 2013. The remaining three centres - the two ALACs and the centre in the capital - were funded by a new USAID project that started in September 2012. But, with the government refusing to approve an extension of funding that would come from outside the country, the last ALACs are having to close and the Baku centre will only continue in a restricted form. Since 2012 the government has applied restrictive laws that do not allow civil society organisations to accept money from international donors.

‘This should not happen’

In a press release, Berlin-based TI said: “This should not be allowed to happen. Transparency Azerbaijan is a non-partisan organisation, like all Transparency International chapters, with no political affiliations. Its role is to combat corruption and it provides a way for people to speak up. Its work also shows how civil society can help the stated aims of the government to combat corruption.”

The watchdog, founded in 1993, added: “The closing down of space for civil society to operate around the world hurts the most vulnerable in society. The government of Azerbaijan should make changes to legislation to facilitate approval of the grants to civil society, including Transparency Azerbaijan.”

On TI’s Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) 2016, released in January this year, Azerbaijan ranked 123rd out of 176 assessed countries. It was given a score of 30. The index’s scale runs from 0 (perceived to be highly corrupt) to 100 (perceived to be very clean). Also in January, Human Rights Watch (HRW) concluded that Azerbaijan's government continued its severe crackdown on dissent in 2016, leaving a "wide gap" in the country's once vibrant civil society.

The administration of President Ilham Aliyev has tried to contain the holding of the country’s government to account by jailing scores of journalists, critics and political opponents, driving many more into exile and threatening and harassing their relatives left behind in the country.

Too many violations to list

Baku's human rights violations are too many to list here, but some of the noteworthy recent incidents that have further affected its already poor reputation for human rights are the imprisonment of investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova, who was only released because human rights lawyer Amal Clooney took on her case, the detention, extradition, trial and sentencing of a Russian-Israeli blogger for travelling to the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh and expressing support for the region's independence and the spy-movie like kidnapping of an Azerbaijani journalist who was living in exile in Georgia but was grabbed and transported back to Azerbaijan.

News agency Turan's online reporting amounts to one of the few remaining critical voices amid the Azerbaijani press, following the ban on five critical outlets in May that included Radio Free Europe, three television channels, including Turan's, and opposition newspaper