BAKU -- Azerbaijan's parliament, which is dominated by allies of President Ilham Aliyev, passed two laws this week that activists say are designed to increase government opacity and protect Aliyev's family in the wake of recent investigative reports of its widespread, lucrative, and questionable business dealings.
Lawmakers approved a bill that would grant wide-ranging immunity from arrest and prosecution to Aliyev and his wife for any crime committed during his presidency or while acting in his capacity as president.
Lawmaker Alasgar Mammadli tells RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service that the country's "political landscape makes such protections necessary."
More controversially, parliamentarians adopted amendments to a 2005 law on commercial information that bars government officials from distributing information about companies if doing so "contradicts the national interests of Azerbaijan in political, economic, and monetary policy, the defense of public order, the health and moral values of the people, or harms the commercial or other interests of individuals."
It also says that corporate information can only be revealed with the permission of all individuals named in the records.
Heretofore, data on corporate ownership and shareholders has been available on the website of the Tax Ministry, which was required by law to provide registry details to citizens within one week of receiving a written request.
Activists and journalists are alarmed and concerned that the new bill -- which must be signed by the president before becoming law -- will seriously restrict the public's ability to monitor corporate activity and uncover corrupt practices.
The new amendments were submitted by the parliamentary committee on legal policy and state building, and committee Chairman Ali Huseynli rejects the allegations, saying the measure merely clarifies the process for obtaining information.
"The amendments we are making to the law do not restrict obtaining information, as some in the media allege, unfortunately," Huseynli says. "On the contrary, they define a broader framework for providing information. It defines restrictions for bodies that refuse to provide information, not for those who seek to obtain it."
Deputy Fezail Agamali, head of the pro-government Ana Vatan party, also defended the initiative.
If a government decides to stop this access to information, this will have long-term effects, as it will not only allow corruption to flourish, but will also create new tensions among the population.
"Journalists should be satisfied with the information about a company provided by its owner," Agamali says. "Otherwise, the release of information could create financial problems for businesses."
Corruption is a serious problem in oil-rich Azerbaijan. The country ranked 143rd out of 183 countries in the latest corruption index by the NGO Transparency International. Rana Safaraliyeva, executive director of Transparency Azerbaijan, notes that Baku was praised in April for joining the U.S.-Brazilian Open Government Partnership and taking steps to improve openness -- including the Tax Ministry's website. But the new initiative is a step backward, she says.
"According to the proposed amendments, information about the founders and financial resources of legal entities, the amount of their charter capital, and other similar data will be accessible only to law-enforcement bodies," Safaraliyeva says.
'Violation Of Privacy'
Civil society activists believe the amendments were prompted by a spate of investigative reports exposing details of the business interests of Aliyev's family -- particularly his daughters, Leyla and Arzu Aliyeva. Reports by RFE/RL Azerbaijani Service correspondent Khadija Ismayilova
and others have used corporate records in Azerbaijan and other countries to link the Aliyev daughters to lucrative interests in telecommunications, mining, and construction.
In an interview with the newspaper "Bizim yol" in May, parliament deputy Huseynli said, "I think there was a violation of privacy" in some of the RFE/RL investigations, but added that "only the courts can decide this."
Lawyer Erkin Qadirli of the REAL Movement Assembly NGO believes the new law will not necessarily stop reports such as those produced by Ismayilova because much of her reporting was based on corporate records unearthed in Panama and other tax havens.
"Taking into consideration that the major part of our oligarchs [have their assets] based abroad, this means you can easily continue your investigations," Qadirli says. "You can obtain legal information in that country and spread it in Azerbaijan."
Allow Corruption To Flourish
Paul Christian Radu -- an editor with the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, for which RFE/RL's Ismayilova also writes -- disagrees. Access to such information, he says, is "the driving force for good development."
"If a government decides to stop this access to information, this will have long-term effects, as it will not only allow corruption to flourish, but will also create new tensions among the population," Radu says.
Civil society activists in Azerbaijan have vowed to fight the amendments and are urging Aliyev not to sign them. Rasul Jafarov, head of the Baku-based Human Rights Club, told eurasianet.org that his group will campaign locally and internationally against the measure."
Opposition lawmaker Iqbal Agazadeh of the Umid party -- one of only four deputies to vote against the measure -- told deputies during the parliamentary debate that the new measures are unconstitutional.
"You have confused everything in the law so as to make obtaining information impossible," Agazadeh said. "None of these amendments corresponds to the Azerbaijan Constitution or other laws."
RFE/RL correspondent Robert Coalson contributed to this story from Prague