September 28, Ambassador Keith Harper delivered the Item 8 joint statement at the UN Human Rights Council.
The statement read on behalf of a group of 57 states (including Azerbaijan) invited member States "not to criminalize freedom of association; not to label nonviolent associations as 'subversive'; not to attack or imprison civil society actors for peaceful activities; not to undertake reprisals, such as harassing or jailing individuals for engagement with UN or other international human rights mechanisms; and not to hinder the work of civil society organizations through undue restrictions, such as on communication and financing, including funding from foreign sources."
"We call on governments not to promulgate restrictive legislation, administrative measures, policies, or criminal penalties aimed at interfering with the exercise of the right to freedom of association", said the statement.
In Azerbaijan, a number of legislative amendments adopted over the course of the last three years heavily restricts the work of independent civil societies.
The Law on Non-Governmental Organizations was adopted in 2000. Since its adoption, the law was amended several times. The changes adopted in 2009 and 2011 called for international criticism. In it's report in 2011, the Venice Commission concluded that "while legislation relating to NGOs legal status has been improved in some aspects over the years, the 2009 amendments and the 2011 Decree unfortunately overturn the previous efforts to meet with the requirements of international standards".
"The most problematic aspects of the new legislation were found to pertain to the registration of NGOs generally; the registration of branches and representatives of international NGOs speficially; the requirements relating to the content of the charters of NGOs; and the liability and dissolution of NGOs."
In February 2013, in addition to the Law on Grants and the Code of Administrative Offenses, new provision on Donations and Grants were introduced to the existing law on NGOs. Based on these amendments, any NGO receiving donations in the amount of 200AZN were now obliged to report to the Ministry of Justice. Any amount higher than the indicated 200AZN would lead to heavy penalties ranging from 1,500 AZN to 15,000 AZN in addition to possible property confiscation. The amednments also forbid organizations other than charities from taking donations in cash.
In December 2013 more amendments to the Law on NGOs, Law on Grants and Law on Registration and the Code of Administrative Offences were adopted by the parliament and entered into force in February 2014.
The Law on Grants prevented foreign donors from providing grants to local NGOs without “the opinion of the executive power of the Azerbaijan on the appropriateness of a particular project”.
The most recent changes to the Law on NGSs and the Law on Grants were adopted by the Parliament in October 2014 and signed by the President in November of 2014.
Azerbaijan MP and the vice-speaker Bahar Muradova said, “NGOs receiving grants from foreign donors dance to their tune” during the discussion of the law on NGOs in the parliament. Muradova, further accused foreign funded NGOs “foreign agents” and “Armenian spies”.
In a statement by the US Mission to the OSCE, Ambassador Daniel Baer said, "The United States joins others in noting with grave concern the adoption of recent amendments to several laws in Azerbaijan affecting NGO registration, fines, and funding. These amendments further restrict the space for a free and independent civil society and run counter to Azerbaijan's OSCE commitments [...] These troubling amendments come as pressure on civil societies and opposition activists continues".
The spokespersons of the EU High Representative Catherin Ashton and Commissioner Stefan Fule said, "The High Representative and the Commissioner are concerned by recent amendmnets to NGO legislation in Azerbaijan restricting the environment for an independent and critical civil society, especially in the field of human rights and democracy".
Following the legislation amendments, the government launched criminal investigation cases against a number of foreign and local NGOs under Article 308.1 (abuse of power) and 313 (service forgery) of Azerbaijan’s criminal code. These accusations were based on “irregularities found in the activities of a number of NGOs and their operating branches”.