On February 15, the parliament approved amendments to some bills regulating grants and donations, the activity of local non-governmental and representative offices of international organizations, political parties and religious organizations, as well as to the Code of Administrative Offences.
According to the amendments, either public organizations or political parties receiving donations in any form of a value greater than AZN 200 (approximately US$ 255) have to present a copy of a signed agreement on the donation to the Ministry of Justice for registration. In addition, the new amendments will ban all cash donations; donations must be transferred to a bank account and an additional report should be sent to the financial institutions. The new regulations will not be applied for grants allocated by the government.
NGOs could face large fines and confiscation of their property if they fail to send reports on donation amounts and donors to the relevant executive authorities. Amendments to the Code of Administrative Offences impose fines on leaders of organizations from AZN 1,500 (US$ 1,900) to AZN 2,500 (US$ 3,185), and on legal entities from AZN 5,000 (US$ 6,370) to AZN 7,000 (US$ 8,900) if they refuse to send a copy of the grant agreements to government institutions. Before the amendments, fines amounts were between AZN 1,500 and AZN 2,500.
If financial and other aid is received without the signing of an agreement, responsible persons will be fined between AZN 2,500 (US$ 3,185) and AZN 5,000 (US$ 6,370), and legal entities between AZN 8,000 (US$ 10,200) and AZN 15,000 (US$ 19,100) along with confiscation of their property. In addition, fines between AZN 1,500 and AZN 8,000 will be imposed accordingly to leaders of political parties and NGOs, and legal entities themselves if information about donations is not mirrored in their financial reports.
Presenting the amendments at a parliament session, MP Chingiz Ganizade said the measures aimed to increase the transparency of the non-governmental sector and religious organizations. “The government has to know where these funds are directed. We have international commitments to prevent financing of terrorism and money laundering. We want NGOs to be transparent. There is nothing to be prohibited. The issue is related to accountability and transparency,” Ganizade told journalists.
According to Ganizade, the amendments were elaborated based on experiences of the United Kingdom, Russia and the U.S. “These countries have taken such measures for a long time and relevant governmental agencies have control over funds coming to the country,” he said and mentioned the Beslan school terrorist attack as an example. “The investigation ... found that armed groups received financial support from abroad. We want NGOs and religious organizations to receive funds via bank accounts.” The amendments will prevent “financial assistance of foreign forces to religious organizations and communities ... which, in many cases, are used for dirty purposes,” – he said. Azadliq Radio quoted Ganizade presenting the amendments as a means for controlling funds from Iran.
Only three MPs objected to the amendments. One of them, Gudrat Hasanguliyev said that before fines are increased, there is a serious need to improve the NGO registration process by the Ministry of Justice. “Regarding the number of NGOs per 1,000 persons, Azerbaijan lags behind Georgia by three times, and South European countries by eight to nine times. I am against the amendments,” he stated. Another MP, Fazil Mustafa, said that many NGOs would not be able to pay fines because the amounts could be much higher than the received grants or donations: “The court system could face an increase of cases where NGOs will be unable to pay their fines and as another consequence, these amendments can lead to an increase in appeals from Azerbaijan to the European Court of Human Rights.”
In response to the amendments, about 60 NGOs issued a statement where they considered the recent actions a deliberate crackdown of the authorities on alternative voices in society. “Azerbaijani authorities have developed a sophisticated repressive system that tightens the political atmosphere and stifles the freedoms of association, assembly, and expression. Bans on the freedom of assembly, huge fines for organizers or participants of public gatherings, mass arrests, preventing NGOs from organizing events in both the regions and Baku are all part of the vicious cycle of pressure on civil society,” the statement reads.
Many NGOs, including international organizations, have recently reported on an informal ban imposed be the authorities against conducting workshops and meetings in the regions. The Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety (IRFS) reported that on February 12, two officers of the Center for Election Monitoring and Democracy Studies were detained in Khachmaz, northern Azerbaijan, when local police raided the venue of their workshop on citizen participation in public policy as part of an initiative funded by the European Union and USAID.
IRFS have called on “the political authorities” to refrain from putting the amendments into force and expressed their willingness to engage in constructive dialogue with the parliament and government in order to liberalize the legislation on freedoms of association, assembly and expression. They also called on international organizations and diplomatic missions operating in Azerbaijan to facilitate “citizen-government dialogue.”
“As the government’s crackdown on critical voices continues, fewer and fewer NGOs remain willing to work on issues related to democracy and human rights. These amendments could serve as the final nail in the coffin for independent civil society in Azerbaijan,” said Emin Huseynov, Director of IRFS.
Youth leader Bakhtiyar Hajiyev stated that legal ways to gather donations still exist and started a non-traditional protest. He and another youth leader, Emin Milli, announced they would sell their autographed photos in order to collect money. “Let’s unite, share our resources, become strong and develop!” Milli posted on his Facebook page promoting the sales.