In the midst of the unprecedented repression against civil society in Azerbaijan, the founder of IRFS, Emin Huseynov was forced into hiding in August 2014. Since then, authorities have continuously targeted IRFS, one of the leading media rights organisation, and a watchdog for journalists safety, in Azerbaijan.
By a decision dated 17 October 2014 of the Tax Audit Department of the Ministry of Taxes, IRFS has been ordered to pay 143 556 manat (127 683 euro) as a financial sanction for what authorities claim to be a lack of paying adequate taxes and paying taxes too late. According to IRFS the claim is false and they believe it is politically motivated. They have therefore taken the case to court. Several international observers and representatives of the EU Delegation and German Embassy attended the hearing in the Baku Administrative-Economic Court on Thursday.
Retrieved disappeared information
Like in the criminal case against human rights defender Intigam Aliyev, the documents proving the registration of grant agreements have disappeared from the Ministry of Justice`s archives. As a result of a joint effort by several organisations these documents have now been retrieved from the Internet, and the authenticity has been confirmed by the Georgian organization National Bureau of Enforcement.
Fuad Agayen, the lawyer of IFRS asked the court to add this notarised evidence to the case materials. The court added the document, but the Ministry of Taxation refused to accept the evidence. This was followed by heavy debate and attempts at clarifications of which projects and transfers have been taxed and which have not been.
Taxed for projects that were not implemented
Then the court examined the document retrieved from the Internet. The IRFS’ lawyer noted that three of the grant agreements indicated on the Tax Ministry Audit Department’s inspection act have not been implemented. “These three agreements had been sent to the Ministry for registration after being signed, but the Ministry refused to register them and sent letters of denial. Therefore, no activities were implemented under these agreements. However, taxes have been calculated for them,” said Agayev. The IRFS lawyer showed the judge that the grant agreements indicated in the inspection act had been registered and that only after registration were those projects implemented.
Thus, IRFS not only proved that they abided by the law, moreover they should not have been asked to pay taxes for these projects at all. Moreover, these laws are also in violation of Azerbaijan’s obligations and commitments under European and international human rights law. The strict application of laws affecting non-governmental organisations (NGOs) adopted since 2009, excessively limit the right to freedom of association. The Venice Commission of the Council of Europe in 2011 and in December 2014 denounced these NGO laws: “Globally, the cumulative effect of those stringent requirements, in addition to the wide discretion given to the executive authorities regarding the registration, operation and funding of NGOs, is likely to have a chilling effect on the civil society, especially on those associations that are devoted to key issues such as human rights, democracy and the rule of law.”
In the courtroom, the discussion and disagreement about the tax and different projects continued. Finally, the judge Elchin Mammadov said that inquiries should be sent to the banks used by the organisation in order to learn under which documents money had been received.
Travel ban and pressure
As the reporters rights organisation battles in court against what they see as unfounded tax claims, the authorities are pressuring the staff of the organisation in different ways.
In November 2014, the blogger Mehman Huseynov, an IRFS employee, was stopped and interrogated at the Baku Airport and later released. He was arrested in relation to an on going investigation against him, for which he was issued a travel ban. Mehman Huseynov was in 2013 awarded the Press Prize Award from Fritt Ord Foundation and the Zeit Foundation. The travel ban was issued days before he was to travel to Oslo to receive his prize.
Employees of IRFS are not allowed to use the office anymore. The IFRS’ office has been ransacked, and equipment and crucial documents have been confiscated.
In court Thursday, the judge refused several times to satisfy the motion to release the confiscated documents of IFRS. These documents are likely to contain the original proof of the registration of the grants by the Ministry of Justice. This is the key element for the violation of the principle of the equality of arms and fair court proceedings, as the defence cannot then use the evidence for an effective defence. The judge refused again to release the documents on the grounds that it will interfere with the criminal investigation.
Charges against Emin Huseynov must be dropped
In parallel to the charges brought against IRFS, charges are also brought against its founder Emin Huseynov. As revealed on 11 February 2015 by the television show “Rundschau” on Swiss Radio Television, he has, since August 2014, been living at the Swiss Embassy in Baku.
Human Rights House Network members have repeatedly called for the charges against the detained human rights defenders, journalists and activists to be dropped immediately and unconditionally, including for Emin Huseynov.
“The charges brought against Emin Huseynov and IRFS are politically motivated,” HRHF’s Executive Director Maria Dahle said when reacting to the hearing. “They are the same as those against so many of our longstanding colleagues, aiming at shutting down independent civil society. Such charges must be dropped immediately and all diplomatic representations in Baku, including the European Union, have the responsibility to step up to protect prosecuted and harassed human rights defenders and their relatives.”
The court proceedings will continue on 21 April, at 15.00.
Institute for Reporters Freedom and Safety
The Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety (IRFS) is a non-government organisation founded in 2006 by Azerbaijani journalists Emin Huseynov and Sarvan Rizvanov to support journalists and freedom of the media in Azerbaijan. The organization builds relationships with international journalism organizations, provides legal assistance to injured journalists, and organises investigations into attacks on journalists. It closely monitors all violence against journalists and violations of journalists’ rights and prepares reports and public statements regarding freedom of the press in Azerbaijan.