Recent legislative efforts in Azerbaijan to protect the privacy of President Ilham Aliyev and his family are coming at the expense of investors, both foreign and domestic.
The Azerbaijani parliament voted June 12 to restrict public access to information about the registration, ownership structure and shareholders of Azerbaijani corporations. In addition, legislators granted President Aliyev and his wife, First Lady Mehriban Aliyeva, lifetime immunity from criminal prosecution.
The immunity provision for the Aliyevs was not unexpected: the proposal had been under consideration for a year. But the corporate secrecy amendment was added to parliament’s agenda only after the conclusion of the May 22-26 Eurovision Song Contest.
The pop-music festival, which brought unprecedented international attention to Azerbaijan, was preceded by a series of articles by RFE/RL investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova, who highlighted alleged conflicts of interest involving mining rights granted to a gold-mining company owned by President Aliyev’s two daughters, Leyla and Arzu, and Eurovision construction work by a company linked to the two Aliyevas and First Lady Mehriban Aliyeva, the head of Eurovision’s organizing committee. [Editor’s Note: Islamyilova also contributes to EurasiaNet].
By law, officials’ relatives may own businesses, but members of parliament – the First Lady sits in the legislature for the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan Party – cannot.
In public statements, government officials have asserted that such investigative coverage violated the presidential family’s right to privacy. The articles followed earlier pieces that examined the Aliyeva daughters’ investments in telecommunications, airport operations and banking.
Under the terms of the secrecy amendment, obtaining information about such investments now could prove more difficult. The government will release information about the registrations of for-profit companies only upon request by a court, law-enforcement agency or Central Bank monitors investigating suspected money-laundering or the financing of terrorist groups.
Journalists and the general public would be denied such information if its distribution “contradicts the national interests of Azerbaijan in political, economic and monetary policy, the defense of public order, the health and moral values of the people and harms the commercial and other interests of individuals.”
In addition, corporate records will be provided only if the petitioner has the consent of those individuals named in the data.
Information about registered Azerbaijani companies’ ownership and shareholders previously had been publicly available on the Ministry of Taxes’ website. The ministry was required to provide registry details to citizens within a week of receipt of a written request.
All but four of the 103 members of parliament present voted in favor of the restrictions. Another two MPs did not vote; First Lady Aliyeva was not present.
President Aliyev is expected to sign the secrecy and immunity amendments into law this week.
Government officials have not commented on the amendments, but one senior Yeni Azerbaijani Party MP who backed the new restrictions claimed the measure does not limit Azerbaijanis’ right to information. In June 6 comments to the Azeri-language service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Ali Huseynly, chair of the parliament’s Committee on Legal Policy and State Building, claimed that the amendment “clarifies the frameworks for the right to receive information.” The lack of such “frameworks” often leads to “violations,” Huseynly added.
Parliamentarian Fazail Agamaly, a member of the pro-government Ana Vatan (Motherland) Party, asserted that “[j]ournalists should be satisfied with the information about a company provided by its owner.”
“Otherwise, the release of some information could create financial problems for businesses,” Agamaly reasoned.
Civil society and media-rights watchdogs counter that the secrecy amendment, indeed, is designed to prevent problems – namely, for Aliyev’s friends and family members.
Lawyer Intigam Aliyev [no relation to the presidential family], director of the Legal Education Society, a Baku non-governmental organization that monitors legislation implementation, asserted the amendment is “a response of corrupt authorities to a number of articles in local and foreign media about the large business assets of the ruling family in Azerbaijan and oligarchs.”
Opposition MP Igbal Aghazade, a member of the Umid (Hope) Party, who voted against the amendment, said the measure only “serves the idea of keeping information about the commercial interests of a group of high-ranking government officials a secret.”
Restricting the availability of company data from the public can harm the country’s ability to fight corruption, noted Media Rights Institute Director Rashid Hajily. In 2011, Azerbaijan ranked 143rd out of 183 countries in a corruption index compiled by the international watchdog group Transparency International.
"Citizens will be deprived of public [oversight] over officials’ links with businesses," Hajily said. "It creates a strong foundation for the proliferation of conflicts of interest.”
Meanwhile, activists who tried to highlight Azerbaijan’s spotty civil-rights record during the Eurovision contest say that they will fight back against the “business secrets” amendment. “We will campaign both locally and internationally, will demand in public debates the annulment of this legislation, will raise the issue at related international conferences and in interviews with foreign media,” pledged Rasul Jafarov, head of the Human Rights Club, a Baku-based non-governmental organization.
Shahin Abbasov is a freelance reporter based in Baku.
Sign up for Eurasianet's free weekly newsletter.