Civil society on the path to silence

The Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum (SCF) was established in 2009. Initiated as part of the Eastern Partnership (EaP), the Forum brings together members of the civil society in all partner states- Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Belarus, Moldova, and Ukraine. Since 2011, National Platforms have been established in all six Partner countries. According to the SCF's website, Azebaijani National Platform consists of 45 members. The work of these members is organized within the 6 Working Groups existent at the Forum level:

- Democracy, human rights, governance and stability;

- Economic integration and convergence with EU policies;

- Environment, climate change and energy security;

- Contacts between people;

- Social and Labor policies and Social Dialogue

On August 12, 2014, the SCF published the following document presenting the names and cases of Azerbaijan's political prisoners. However there seemed to be a disagreement between the SCF and its Azerbaijani National Platform because shortly after the document went online, the National Platform requested the removal of the document. The request was signed by the heads of the 26 members noting their dismay and calling the SCF to consider the opinion of the platform first before publishing such a document.

Shortly after, the request to remove the document (originally the request was only circulated among the members of the platform ad the Forum), it made it onto the social networks in Azerbaijan, which led to mass criticism of the signatories to this request.

The members of the platform are objecting

A few days earlier, on August 9, prominent journalist, Khadija Ismayil, posted the following message on her Facebook page: "Vugar Bayramov, who runs the moderate GONGO (the Government Organized NGO; moderate GONGO means praising government, but not attacking government critics) is now organizing radical GONGOs to write letters to the Steering Committee of the Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum to prevent it from criticizing. On August 6th, EaP SCF issued a very strong statement criticizing the crackdown on civil society in Azerbaijan, the growing number of political prisoners and so on. Bayramov is the National Coordinator of the EU Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum in Azerbaijan. Recruitment of supporters to protest the critical statements issued by the SCF is going on an internal email group of the National Platform. EP Civil Society Forum should think why there are so many GONGO-s around its membership in order to ensure that GONGOs don't rule over the real civil society and in no way influence the Forum's  statements regarding the civil society crackdown in Azerbaijan.

A number of members of the National Platform raised their objections to criticism shortly after this. Avaz Hasanov, human rights defender and a member of the National Platform wrote the following on his Facebook page in response: “The Board of Directors at the Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum prepared a brochure listing political prisoners in Azerbaijan. The members of the Platform are concerned given this has never happened before- the Forum has never published a specific statement about a certain country without consulting with the in-country National Platform. Therefore, the members of the National Platform are discussing whether they should address the Forum and request publication of a new list after its content is discussed jointly between the representatives of the National Platform and the SCF. Meanwhile, the internal communication of the Platform [this was part of private correspondence as mentioned eralier], is passed on to Khadija Ismayil, who has been attacking human rights defenders [meaning individuals like Hasanov himself] with slander and insults. This way, Mrs. Ismayil has a new opportunity to crush an already weak civil society”.

In his post, Avaz Hasanov continues to justify the request to take down the document published by the Forum. “We have only demanded that the Forum informs us about the published documents on Azerbaijan before they are released. It is our right to demand this from an organization we are a member of. The forum, would not do such a thing to any other member organization. However for some reason they did it to Azerbaijan. And when you object to this, you get attacked by the facebook community” wrote Hasanov frustrated by the reaction on the social networks.

Another signatory to the request- Ramin Hacili shared a somewhat similar message.

Responding to Meydan TV, Vugar Bayramov, leader of the National Platform said the issues regarding the document are taken out of the context on purpose. “The problem isn’t just in forwarding [internal] e-mails to others [outside of the group]. Our request isn’t about objecting to any Azerbaijan- related announcements and documents. This is not our aim. Even if wanted to do this we would not have been able to". According to Bayramov, the Secretariat of the Forum confirmed that it had no consultation with the National Platform whilst publishing the document. It has prepared the brochure independently.

Bayramov adds, "the essence of our inquiry was simple, to consult with the National Platform when the Forum is considering publishing brochures about Azerbaijan. We consider it reasonable to request a consultation with us before the brochure goes online. Let there be brochures, we only request that our applicable working groups are involved in planning of these. Our involvement isn’t just important for only such thematic issues but also about general Azerbaijan related documents, so that we could share the responsibility. Just think of a following situation: tomorrow in Brussels a new regional map is prepared without our consultation and some of our [Azerbaijani] territories are shown as part of the Armenian territory. Who is going to carry the responsibility for this? Of course the list of such potential uncertainties can be extended”.

Another signatory to the document, the deputy chairman of Azerbaijan’s Popular Front Party Razi Nurullayev says he is against his name being put on the above-mentioned request. “I did not support that request and I still do not support it. I regret my name being mentioned there and I am doing everything that is possible to correct this mistake. I have already e-mailed the Forum to remove my name from the request. Because of this, there were those who scolded me."

Similarly, Ilgar Huseynli whose name appears to be on the list, said he did not sign the request.

Despite all of the attempts by the National Platform, the Forum did not remove the document from its website, and did not give in to the request.

So what is really happening within the National Platform?

The attacks of recent months against non-governmental organizations show there is a clear goal behind. And the path to achieving this goal goes through arrests, and on-going pressure to scare more organizations and force them to choose sides.

And some of the non-governmental organizations chose the path of partaking in the government games given their bank accounts have been frozen and their grant projects prevented from registration since April of this year.

Those heads of the non-governmental organizations not happy with the current circumstances [frozen bank accounts, unregistered grant programs] are ready to cooperate with the authorities For instance, one of the heads of the non-governmental organizations, which belongs to the National Platform says, all the members of the platform are called into questioning by the Ministry of National Security and the Prosecutor’s Office. They are being threatened. They [Ministry of Security and Prosecutor’s Office] promise they would stop the intimidation if the organizations cooperate with them.

“Vugar Bayramov has no other way out. He is under full surveillance of the Ministry of National Security. He is protecting himself even by going against his brother, Gubad Ibadoglu. There are serious allegations against Vugar  in the hands of the authorities. That is why he is under threat. You cannot imagine the tone in which they speak to us. They are saying, 'you don’t want to live? If you want then you must do what we say'. In order not to lose their property and whatever it is that they have and most importantly to avoid prison, the members of the Platform are ready to do whatever it takes. For instance, in return for full cooperation, Vugar Bayramov and Alimammad Nuriyev were promised mandates. So the sharing of the inquiry on the social media platforms is damaging their plans”, says an anonymous source.

As for the request, the heads of the non-governmental organizations say that some of the signatories on the list never even signed the document. But because of fear of what might happen if they do object, they are keeping it silent. “Currently there are 51 members at the Platform. The document is considered valid with a simple majority vote. In this case 26 people- 25 members and Vugar Bayramov signed the document. Some of the signatories like Samir Aliyev were deceived into signing the document. Razi Nurrulayev says he never signed it. Then it leaves the number of member signatures at 25, which means, this document (official inquiry) should have never been approved and adopted” says the source.

Other members of the platform like Novella Cafarova and Rena Safaraliyeva were too promised to re-instate their institutions in a month. They are some of the key actors within the platform so it is not surprising they are keen on the removal of the document added anonymous source. 

In his defense, Vugar Bayramov even tried accusing the Forum of biased information. “There were errors in the brochure too. For instance, its written there are 100 political prisoners in Azerbaijan. However, even they [the Forum] cannot explain where this figure is coming from. I do not have a list of political prisoners, because this is not my field. However, according to our human rights working group, even the most radical reports do not reflect this number”.

Leyla Aliyeva - new target

One of the opponents to what is going on in the Platform, is an outspoken critic of the government- the political expert Leyla Aliyeva. In an interview with yet another source at the National Platform, Meydan TV learned that the platform is preparing to launch a series of trumped-up charges against Aliyeva because of her cooperation with Armenians.

According to the source, the new members were strongly encouraged to get involved in the Platform in order to take full control of it: “They want the Platform under the Government’s full control. Therefore, it is not surprising to see Umid Rahimov, Aynur Jamalqizi and a correspondent of “Yeni Azerbaycan” as new members despite their close association with government supporter Ali Hasanov. Joining of Aynur Jamalqizi as a member means full control over the media. Previously, websites led by her deliberately campaigned against international organizations, and engaged in black PR against IREX’s Baku office." It is highly likely that the national platform will become a stage for anti- Western sentiments says the source.

Lawyers targeted too

According to a source close to the government, the lawyers are the main next target along with individuals like Mirvari Gahramanli, another outspoken critic and member of Azerbaijan's Oil Workers Rights Protection Organization. It is not surprising that Intigam Aliyev was sentenced as well given his prominent activity as a lawyer. There is a lawyer who is blackmailed with video footage. Next in line are defenders and lawyers like Namizad Safarov, Asabali Mustafayev and Khalid Baghirov, added the source.

Knots untied

“The purpose of the government's current policy is to totally shift foreign resources to themselves”, confirmed by another reliable source. “The goal is to redirect the money allocated by the international organizations to The Council of State Support to Non-Governmental Organizations under the President of the Republic of Azerbaijan which was established in 2007. [This is a government organization responsible for allocation resources to non-governmental organizations, however which only funds organization which it finds close to its purposes. Surely, none of the critical NGOs receive funding from here.] If this happens, it will enable the authorities to control all of the NGOs in the country. This will not only result in redirection of money to the government, but also an end to civil society. Judging by how far the authorities have come, they are certainly winners in this game. In any case, this process will be fully finalized in the course of the next 6 months. During this time, the representatives of the civil society will go bankrupt and will have to resign all together", confirms the source.

Given the difficulties currently faced, the likelihood of this analysis and projection to come true is very high.