The AFU project was launched in 2009 by the OL! (To Be!) youth movement as an alternative education institution and a platform for discussions aimed to educate Azerbaijani youth on human rights and democratic values, youth and public life, etc. through weekly interactive lectures and free debates. AFU reports that over 4,000 young people have attended almost 300 events organized by the university over four years, while the number of unique visitors on the university’s internet page has reached over 35,000. The institution has been supported by the U.S. and British embassies in Baku, USAID, National Endowment for Democracy and other Western organizations.
The prosecutor-general’s spokesman Eldar Sultanov denied the closure of the university, noting that an investigation regarding activists of the opposition Nida Citizen’s Movement found offenses in the activities of the two movements Nida and OL!, who are running the AFU project. In particular, he reported that OL! is not registered as an organization and has not submitted financial reports to governmental agencies about grants received from foreign organizations. “We seized documents from the organizations in order to find out what purposes funds from foreign organizations have been spent for,” Sultanov said. Seven members of the movement were arrested in March after organizing a series of protests over the noncombat deaths of conscripts in the Azerbaijani army.
In response, OL! has stated that in Azerbaijani legislation, there is neither a mechanism for registering movements, nor for banning non-profit organizations for not being registered. According to the statement, AFU has not received any grants since the law imposing administrative fines on grant-funded non-registered organizations came into force on March 11, 2013. “The new law cannot have ‘ex post facto’ effects. Thus, we reject the prosecutor’s statement and consider the closure of AFU’s office as groundless … We call on Chief Prosecutor’s Office to remove the seal from the office door and open the university to its audience,” the statement says.
Following news of the AFU closure, U.S. Ambassador to Azerbaijan Richard Morningstar met the group at a hotel on April 11 to give a previously scheduled speech. “I have been troubled by the government’s reaction to protests this year, including the arrest and interrogation of youth active in protests and in civil society movements. I was particularly disappointed to hear that authorities closed Free Thought University’s office just last night,” Ambassador Morningstar said, adding that as “a friend of Azerbaijan” he wanted to see “government engagement with citizens, especially its young citizens, to address their legitimate concerns.” Several unusually large street rallies have taken place in downtown Baku this year. Human rights groups have accused the government of stifling dissent and harassing journalists.
The authorities have also accused foreign organizations of supporting what they term “radical political opposition” groups seeking to foment a colour revolution in the country. Azerbaijani officials have accused the local office of the U.S.-based National Democratic Institute (NDI) of “distributing grants without a special registration” in its work with youth organizations and stated that US$ 1 million had been withdrawn without disclosure from the bank account of the NDI head in Baku, Alex Grigorievs. Grigorievs, who is currently in the U.S., denied the charges: “Suggestions that NDI is involved in any other activities are completely false,” he wrote on his Facebook page. NDI later issued a statement terming some media reports “fabrications and malicious propaganda” and denied the accusations as “completely baseless.” The NDI statement said the organization is transparent with Azerbaijani authorities and fully complies with local laws, including those applying to financial disclosure.
Shahin Hajiyev, an editor of the Turan news agency, characterized the situation in Azerbaijan as “deplorable … There was not such a situation before” in an interview to Voice of America, adding that a number of civil organizations are persecuted openly, evicted and have their offices shut down, while attacks against media have increased and journalists cannot work, especially outside Baku. “It shows that the authorities use as much repression as possible … previously attacks have been informal or behind closed doors; from Wikileaks we could learn that U.S. non-governmental organizations’ activities strongly provoked the Azerbaijani government, but now accusations of interference in the country’s internal affairs are brought against them openly. If it continues this way, new arrests, new restrictions are awaiting us in future,” according to Hajiyev.