After a week of intense lobbying and activism, opponents of controversial draft amendments that would restrict non-governmental organizations' activities in Azerbaijan scored a minor victory June 19, when parliament postponed a scheduled vote on them.
The amendments to the law on non-governmental organizations [NGOs] contained several provisions to restrict NGO activity. Experts fear the law would give the government the ability, in some cases, to force NGOs to close. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
The proposed amendments include a requirement that NGOs limit their foreign funding to 50 percent. They also would prohibit foreigners from creating NGOs and would provide harsh sanctions for non-compliance, including a five-year ban on NGO activity for those found in violation of the law.
"These laws would have a crippling effect on civil society by putting limits on their work and funding, and by opening the door to excessive government interference," said Rachel Denber, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Europe and Central Asia division.
On June 18, a group of approximately 300 NGO leaders and activists gathered in Baku to discuss the draft law at a forum organized by the Committee to Protect Civil Society, a coalition of local NGOs created to oppose the amendments. "This law is a death sentence to NGO law in Azerbaijan," said Penah Huseyin, an MP for the opposition Azerbaijan's People's Party.
Several leaders called for public protests in front of parliament. "Without the threat of mass street protests, the government will not listen," said opposition Musavat Party leader Isa Gamber. On June 19, only a handful of people gathered in front of the Milli Mejlis, or legislature. Police converged on the area and moved the few protesters who had gathered away from the parliament building.
Although a mass protest did not take shape, local NGO activists, international organizations and foreign diplomats did place enormous pressure on the government to pull -- or at least to delay -- voting on the bill. Many opponents criticized the lack of open debate about the amendments and the apparent rush job for scheduling a vote on the draft bill only 10 days after the amendments were submitted.
US Ambassador Anne Derse, the Council of Europe, and scores of international organizations warned the Azerbaijani government that the draft law would be a step backward in building a stable democracy. "We encourage broad and open debate before any changes are promulgated, including input from civil society leaders in Azerbaijan and consultation with the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe [which advises on constitutional law -- ed], to ensure the work of civil society and citizens' right to form and participate in the work of non-governmental organizations is not restricted," US Ambassador Derse said in a statement.
Parliament will next meet on June 30. Although the delay may buy opponents more time, "it is too early to be happy or excited," said Emin Huseynov, chairman of the Institute for Reporters' Safety and Freedom and a leading figure in the coalition.
"This is not the time to get soft," Huseynov cautioned. "I still worry [the parliament] will adopt something [on June 30]. "
In an interview with APA news service, Ali Hasanov, head of the presidential administration's Policy Analysis and Information Department, defended the amendments as necessary for public safety. "We respect . . . freedom of assembly. However, public security and in general the maintenance of security is a priority in all countries."
Critics maintain the terrorism and security rationale is a smoke screen. "There are beautiful, wonderful laws on terrorism, and if NGOs are involved in terrorism, they are already violating the law. The government doesn't need new laws to fight against [terrorism]," said Huseynov.
In the coming weeks, the Committee to Protect Civil Society will expand its efforts to block passage of the amendments. "We need to convince the government that the proposed amendments are fundamentally wrong and violate fundamental freedoms and human rights," commented Huseynov.
"At best, the drafts show disregard, or, at worst, contempt for European human rights standards, and should trigger a response by Azerbaijan's international partners," added HRW's Denber.
It is unlikely that local or international pressure will ease in the coming days and weeks. "We remain a united civil society and dedicated to ensuring that these amendments will not be passed," vowed Huseynov.
Jessica Powley Hayden is a freelance reporter based in Baku.