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In recent months, there has been a rise in harassment of CSOs in Azerbaijan. Official intimidation tactics have included the levying of heavy fines on CSOs for petty administrative lapses; the issuing of warning letters to CSOs threatening to cancel their registration; the publication of defamatory articles against civil society members in the press; denial of permission to civil society groups to hold meetings in public spaces; and influencing of the Bar Association to cancel the licenses of human rights lawyers.
It appears that President Ilham Aliyev’s regime has become increasingly anxious after street protests, taking inspiration from the Arab Spring, were held in March and April 2011. 16 activists were convicted on the basis of questionable charges and unfair trials for their role in the demonstrations.
President Aliyev has been in power since 2003, and before him, his father was president from 1993 to 2003.
«The situation in Azerbaijan is fast spiralling out of control,» said Netsanet Belay, Policy and Research Director of CIVICUS. «We are seeing a full fledged crackdown on civil society activities in the country which warrants international pressure on the government to end these unjustifiable restrictions.»
Regulations passed by the Cabinet in 2011 along with a series of amendments in 2009 have created a disenabling environment for CSO activities in Azerbaijan. For example, the Ministry of Justice can initiate dissolution of a CSO after issuing two warning letters in a year. Financial grants have to be registered with the authorities within an unrealistic timeframe of one month. International CSOs are also required to respect «national moral values» and not be involved in political or religious propaganda in order to be granted permission to operate. Moreover, they can operate in Azerbaijan only if they have an agreement with the Ministry of Justice.
CSOs in Azerbaijan are facing increasing difficulties in conducting their legitimate activities. For example, in contrast to past practice, where CSOs could simply send a letter notifying local authorities prior to organising seminars, conferences or trainings, they are now required to get written permissions from higher level multiple agencies, which are often delayed or not forthcoming.
Civil society groups are in a situation of high vulnerability according to Leila Alieva, President of the Baku based Center for National and International Relations. «All sorts of procedural requirements are routinely invoked to harass organisations promoting human rights and democratic freedoms. Some have been warned against continuing their work while others have had their activities suspended with intolerance of dissent increasing day by day.»
As Azerbaijan enhances its trade relations with the international community and actively cooperates on «democratic, institutional and defence reforms» with the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), CIVICUS urges the government to guarantee an enabling environment for civil society in line with its obligations under international law. At a minimum the following conditions should be assured for all civil society actors: freedom of association; freedom of expression; the right to operate free from unwarranted state interference; the right to communicate and cooperate; and the right to seek and secure funding and the state’s duty to protect.