European Court: Azerbaijan violated NGO’s freedom of association

21 November 2014

On 13 November 2014, the European Court of Human Rights ruled in Islam-Ittihad Association and others v Azerbaijan (No. 5548/05), finding that the dissolution by the State of the Islam-Ittihad Association violated the right to freedom of association under Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). The application was submitted by the Association itself, and by Azer Samadov and Ilgar Allahverdiyev, the Chairman of the Association and a member of its management board respectively. The applicants were represented by Prof. Bill Bowring, with the assistance of the European Human Rights Advocacy Centre (EHRAC), based at Middlesex University. €4,000 in non-pecuniary damages was awarded to Mr Azer Samadov, who will be responsible for making it available to the Association.

The Association was a non-profit-making NGO carrying out a number of projects aimed at promoting respect for human rights and building civil society. It also engaged in humanitarian activities, as well as promoting tolerance of different religions in Azerbaijan. It had been registered by Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Justice in 1995. Its activities included the repair and maintenance of abandoned mosques and other places of worship, and organising pilgrimages to Islamic shrines.

Following an inspection of the Association in 2002, the authorities issued a warning claiming that the Association’s work included “religious activity”, contravening the national Law on Non-Governmental Organisations, and ordered them to stop such activity, without specifying which of their activities counted as “religious activity”. Following a further two warnings, the Association was dissolved on 28 August 2003 by the Sabail District Court.

The case was submitted to the European Court in January 2005, on the basis of violations to the right to freedom of expression (Article 10), freedom of association (Article 11), and right to a fair trial, arguing that hearings before the domestic courts had been very short (Article 6).

The European Court decided the case on the grounds of Article 11 alone. It ruled that although three warnings had been issued by the Ministry of Justice to the Association ahead of its dissolution, instructing it to cease its “religious activities”, no clear definition was provided, either in the warning or in the domestic law, to explain what these were. The Court also stated that it was ‘struck by the fact that the domestic courts, instead of giving an interpretation of the term “religious activity” […], imposed the burden of proof on the Association, holding that it had failed to submit any reliable evidence proving that it had not engaged in any such activity.” Therefore, Azerbaijan was found to have violated the right to freedom of association.

The Court repeated its case-law on Article 11, observing that: “While in the context of Article 11 the Court has often referred to the essential role played by political parties in ensuring pluralism and democracy, associations formed for other purposes are also important to the proper functioning of democracy. For pluralism is also built on the genuine recognition, and respect for, diversity and the dynamics of cultural traditions, ethnic and cultural identities, religious beliefs, artistic, literary and socio-economic ideas and concepts. The harmonious interaction of persons and groups with varied identities is essential for achieving social cohesion. It is only natural that, where a civil society functions in a healthy manner, the participation of citizens in the democratic process is to a large extent achieved through belonging to associations in which they may integrate with each other and pursue common objectives collectively”.

Prof. Bill Bowring commented: “Although it has taken more than nine years for this important case to be decided by the European Court, the judgment and its message as to the true meaning of freedom of association comes at an opportune moment, when civil society is under enormous pressure from the government of Azerbaijan.”