Ahead of Presidential elections in 2013 Azerbaijani government proposes to toughen legislation on public protests 1

Young protesters being detained by police following
an unsanctioned protest in the centre of Baku on 20
October. The government is hoping that stiffer penalties
will make potential protestors think twice. (Picture courtesy of Youth Media Centre, Baku).

Following the “unauthorized actions” held in Baku on 20 October, lawmakers in Azerbaijan are contemplating tougher penalties which they claim will encourage a greater sense of responsibility by activists and protect human rights.

The parliamentary committees for “Legal Policy and State building”, and “Human Rights” held a joint session on Tuesday, 23 October, to discuss amending the legislation surrounding freedom of assembly in the country. Members of Parliament are concerned that these so-called “unauthorised actions” have been on the rise in recent years in Azerbaijan, and have a negative impact on Azerbaijan’s international image. This trend, the lawmakers argue, is likely a result of the fact that the penalties just are not a big enough deterrent for protesters.

The Chair of the Human Rights Committee, Rabiyat Aslanova, expressed that these proposed changes to the legislative framework are necessary to protect human rights in Azerbaijan.

Rafael Jabrailov, who sits on the Committee for Legal Policy and State Building, expressed that to curtail these kinds of actions, the current legal framework should be amended to enable administrative action to be taken against not just the organizers of these “illicit meetings” but also the participants. “Organisers cannot control everything and be responsible for [every] member,” he noted. Criminal acts, added Rovshan Rzayev, the deputy chairman of the Committee on Legal Policy and State Building, are facilitated by low fines. Jabrailov suggested that fines for participating in unsanctioned mobilizations be increased. Current fines for simple participation in a demonstration range between seven to thirteen Azerbaijani manat, about nine to fifteen US dollars, and 300 to 500 manat if these protests “cause significant damage to the freedom, rights and interests of others.” According to his proposed amendments, the fine for the latter offence would increase to between 5000 and 8000 manat if the meeting was not authorized by the appropriate authorities, approximately six to nine thousand US dollars. The fines would also increase if weapons or explosives are used during the demonstration as well as for “gross violations of social rules and disobeying lawful demands of the authorities.” The proposed amendments will be sent to parliament for further deliberation.

Earlier, Ali Hasanov, the head of the Social and Political Department of the Presidential Administration, called upon the youth of Azerbaijan “with common sense” to socialize their “irresponsible peers who do not obey the law enforcement bodies’ call in the spirit of observing legal requirements.” Hasanov appears to have brushed off the 20 October protest as that of the reckless passions of youth, noting that both youth activism and its subsequent suppression is a frequent occurrence the world over. “First of all,” noted the government official, “we assess this as [the] irresponsibility of these young people and those who incite them to do this. Such actions cannot shake [the] Azerbaijani state, hinder the activity of the police or disrupt the existing stability.” Not wanting to trivialise the consequences of these kinds of activities, Hasanov continued, “if it will continue to happen, we will once again suppress them.”

The amendments will certainly not be well received by civil society and the opposition in Azerbaijan who are decrying the arrests and fines imposed following the anti-corruption protest on 20 October in Baku and asking the international community to condemn the crackdown. Azad Ganjlik, an independent youth organization, released a statement early last week demanding the release of those arrested, including the chair of their organization, Ulvi Hasanli, who was sentenced to eight days in administrative detention. The youth group argues that the protesters acted within the framework of the law on freedom of assembly and condemn the arrest and detention of peaceful protesters. Moreover, Azad Ganjlik has presented the case that the Baku City Council’s decision to outlaw the demonstration was in fact illegal.

Election Monitoring and Democracy Studies Center Chairman Anar Mammadli said that “The draft law on additions and amendments to the law “On Freedom of Assembly”, Criminal Code, and Code of Administrative Offices, submitted to Azerbaijani Parliament by Rafael Jabrayilov, is directed at aggravating the legal regulation on restrictions to citizens’ right to freedom of assembly. Because, the draft law intends to make sharp increases in the amount of fines for citizens who have the right to hold quiet protest actions that are prohibited by the Azerbaijani government. This doesn’t comply with principles regarding the country’s obligations on restriction to freedom of assembly in front of Council of Europe and OSCE.”, – he said.

He also said that the current law “On Freedom of Assembly” doesn’t regulate Azerbaijani government’s duties regarding quiet protest actions; the regulations don’t comply with Council of Europe and OSCE standards. Besides, the law empowers the Azerbaijani government to set up prohibitions to freedom of assembly. Nevertheless, a group of citizens can hold quiet protests with or without advance notice, and the state cannot put restrictions on quiet protest actions if they are not aimed at violating social order, damage the environment and safety, commit violence, or incite religious, political or racial discrimination, and the protests are not held at the same place and time as other actions. Unfortunately, more legal bases are created to put restrictions to freedom of assembly, rather than taking Council of Europe and OSCE’s approaches to such kind of protest actions. In this regard the penalties mentioned in the proposed draft law cannot be considered fair, legitimate and proportional with the obligations of the state, he said.

Mammadli also said that at the moment, there is no public need to discuss such kind of draft law without the government doing anything to soften provisions of the law “On Freedom of Assembly” to lift obstacles to citizens who attempt to hold quiet protest actions. “This draft law also contradicts the Constitution of the Republic of Azerbaijan, the European Convention on Human Rights and Freedoms, the OSCE Copenhagen Document, and the Council of Europe’s basic principles on freedom of expression and freedom of association, which is are an integral part of freedom of assembly. In this regard, first of all, the draft law must be sent to Venice Commission of the Council of Europe, and Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights of OSCE to get feedback, and then must be included in the agenda Azerbaijani Parliament for discussion,” he said

Report prepared for CEW by Karina Gould