The Azerbaijani government has quietly stopped the operations of two international non-governmental organizations in what some local observers claim is a further attempt to clamp down on the country’s relatively weak civil society. The government counters that it is merely following the terms of its NGO registration requirements.
The Baku offices of the Washington, DC-based National Democratic Institute (NDI) and the Oslo-based Human Rights House Network (HRHN) last month both received written warnings from the Ministry of Justice that they could not operate in Azerbaijan without official registration or, in the case of HRHN, meeting existing registration requirements.
Under 2009 amendments to Azerbaijan’s law on NGOs, a bilateral agreement between an NGO’s country of origin and the Azerbaijani government about the NGO’s operations in Azerbaijan is required for the organization’s registration.
NDI, which has operated in Azerbaijan since the mid-1990s, did not have registration at the time of its closure in mid-March; the organization, one of the most active in the South Caucasus for election monitoring and the training of various political parties, has been denied registration at least three times since 2006, said an NDI source who asked not to be named.
The Human Rights House Network, a popular meeting place for youth and human rights activists and journalists, has been registered in Azerbaijan since 2007. Despite that registration, the government is now demanding a bilateral agreement with Norway about the organization’s operations. Senior management from the NGO planned to visit Baku on April 19 to discuss the registration dispute with Ministry of Justice officials.
Unlike HRHN, NDI has remained relatively tight-lipped with media about the closure of its office; representatives referred reporters inquiring about the dispute to the US embassy in Baku.
US embassy spokesperson Keith Bean confirmed to EurasiaNet.org that police shut down the NDI office in Baku, but said that negotiations are continuing with the government about reopening the office. NDI, however, has not yet renewed its application for registration with the Ministry of Justice, Bean said.
The NDI source told EurasiaNet.org that armed police came to the NGO’s Baku office shortly after the justice ministry on March 7 handed over an official notice about its registration status, and demanded that the staff shut down the office immediately. The office has since been closed and sealed, and the staff sent on leave, the source said.
Vugar Gojayev, the executive director of HRHN in Baku, described a similar procedure to EurasiaNet.org. “I received a phone call from the Baku city police department on March 28,” Gojayev said. “ [The police officer] warned me that the office is closed and we cannot go to the facility.”
A letter sent on March 16 by HRHN to the Ministry of Justice about the closure remains unanswered, Gojayev added.
Some local analysts have cited both the NDI and Human Rights House Network cases as further proof of the Azerbaijani government’s increasing intolerance for groups that might criticize or disagree with its policies – an intolerance fueled by the ongoing political turmoil in the Middle East and North Africa. The closures took place just over a month after the start of unauthorized street rallies by youth activists and opposition parties that have been met with the arrests of dozens of rally participants and suspected organizers.
On March 16, shortly after NDI and HRHN received their official warnings, the Cabinet of Ministers released new requirements for the operation of international NGOs.
These rules require that NGOs state the reason for their activities in Azerbaijan and show that their operations are in compliance with “the Azerbaijani people's national and spiritual values” – a requirement that remains undefined. Activities believed to disseminate “political and religious propaganda” are not allowed.
[EurasiaNet.org is financed by the US-based Open Society Foundations, which also provides funding for the Open Society Institute Assistance Foundation-Azerbaijan.]
At the time of the update, Mehman Soltanov, head of the Ministry of Justice’s Department for Registration of Legal Entities, dismissed allegations that politics motivated the ministry’s decision to change its NGO registration procedures.
“Organizations have to be properly registered in order to be able to continue their operations,” local media reported Soltanov as saying. “There is no need to politicize this issue.”
Further clarifications of the procedures were not immediately available. The Department of Registration of Legal Entities could not be reached by phone. Ministry spokesperson Fuad Qurbanov said that he has no information about the closure of the NDI office.
Some political analysts, however, scoff at the ministry’s reasoning.
“NDI was not registered for political reasons,” charged lawyer Alesker Mammadli, who works with media and non-governmental-organization registration issues. Among other local groups, NDI supported independent election monitoring by a local watchdog group, the Center for Election Monitoring and Democracy, that claimed massive violations of voting procedures in Azerbaijan’s November 2010 parliamentary elections.
“Both the denial of its registration and the shut-down of its office violate local legislation, the right of assembly confirmed by the constitution and international conventions,” Mammadli charged.
Similarly, he continued, in the case of HRHN, the ministry exceeded its legal authority. New regulations cannot be applied retroactively to HRHN’s existing registration as a NGO, he argued, terming “illegal” the justice ministry’s demand for a Norwegian-Azerbaijani government about HRHN’s work.
Arastun Orujlu, head of the East-West Studies Center, commented that the government’s moves are motivated by fear of change. “It is not the organizations the government wants out of the country, but the ideas and values they are disseminating here -- ideas of democracy, human rights, free and fair elections” Orujlu said.
In its 2010 Human Rights Report, the US Department of State described Azerbaijan’s NGO registration procedures as “vague, cumbersome, and nontransparent,” a process that leads to “long delays that effectively limited citizens' right to associate.”
Khadija Ismayilova is a freelance reporter in Baku and hosts a daily program on current affairs broadcast by the Azeri Service of RFE/RL.