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Proposed NGO Media Curbs In Azerbaijan Draw Fire

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev
BAKU (Reuters) -- Rights groups are warning that proposed restrictions on civil society in Azerbaijan will further curb democratic freedoms in the former Soviet republic.

Critics say draft amendments, due before parliament on June 30, reflect an increasingly authoritarian style by President Ilham Aliyev whose country is a supplier of oil and gas to the West in the strategically important South Caucasus.

The proposals include banning nongovernmental organisations from receiving more than 50 percent funding from abroad, require NGOs to register with the state, and prohibit activities of foreign NGOs unless based on a "relevant international agreement."

A newspaper or other publication found to have published a "biased article" three times within two years risks closure.

"If adopted, they will increase the government's control and scrutiny of the activities of journalists and human rights activists and will undermine their ability to monitor abuses and hold the authorities to account," Amnesty International said in a statement on June 28.

Human Rights Watch, Article 19, and International PEN have voiced concern over the amendments. The Council of Europe said they could lead to the closure of its political studies school in Baku.

The proposed steps follow a referendum in March that scrapped the two-term presidential limit, and a ban on foreign radio stations broadcasting on local frequencies from January 1.

Azerbaijan lies between Russia and Iran, straddling a region where Moscow and the West vie for control over energy supplies from Central Asia to Europe.

Rights groups and Aliyev's opponents accuse the West of muting its criticism of Azerbaijan's human rights record for fear of losing favour in the competition for oil and gas.

But low oil prices and the global crisis have slammed the brakes on rapid growth rates, against the backdrop of an intensifying diplomatic battle with neighbouring Armenia over Azerbaijan's breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region.