In Azerbaijan the Virus is not only threatening public health, but also the freedom of opinion of internet users.

Starting on March 31, 2020, the Cabinet of Ministers of the Republic of Azerbaijan introduced a lockdown ((Dec. №120, 30.03.2020)) that became stricter on April 5 ((Dec. №124, 02.04.2020)) and was extended until May 4 ((Dec.№144, 18.04.2020)) .It was eased from April 27 ((Dec.№147, 24.04.2020)) , before being eased further eased and extended until May 31 ((Dec.№163, 01.05.2020)) .

Starting March 31 citizens can only leave their apartments for a limited time upon receiving special permission (by sending a free SMS with ID number) if there is an immediate threat to life and health, to purchase medication and products (initially for 2, then for 3 hours once a day), and to attend funerals. Individuals in certain occupations (doctors, certain government institutions, employees of industries permitted during special regime) may leave their apartments after registering with an e-government portal. Schools and universities, most shops and services (list extended from April 27), malls, parks, and other gathering places are closed. Travel between regions is also prohibited, except for emergency services and law enforcement.

The legal and administrative regulations governing the “special quarantine regime” merits particular attention. The CabMin (Cabinet of Ministers‘) decisions refer to article 25 of the law “on sanitary-epidemiological safety” ((№ 371, 10.12.1992)) according to which the government may “apply special labor, education, movement, transportation conditions and regimes in the relevant territories or facilities within their competence” and conduct “decontamination, disinfection, disinsection, deratization and decontamination” measures.

Some lawyers have argued that the range of lockdown measures rather required the declaration of the state of emergency (as was done in Georgia for example) under Article 112 of the Constitution. No explanation for shunning these procedures was offered, apart from some insinuations that the government may be planning some extraordinary elections or referendums this year, whereas according to Article 7-1 of the Electoral Code in times of states of emergency and 3 months following it no elections or referendums may be held.

A new crime was introduced ((Law №28-VIQD, 17.03.2020)) into the Criminal Code by Article 139-1 that punishes breaches of “sanitary-hygienic or quarantine regimes” that “create real danger” of spreading diseases (up to three years imprisonment) or result “in human death or other grave consequences” (up to five years imprisonment).

On the same date two more laws entered into force, the first one amending the law “on information, informatization and information protection” ((№ 30-VIQD)) , and the second one amending the Code of Administrative Offenses ((№ 27-VIQD)) . The laws establish the liability of internet users, and extend the liability of owners of internet resources, owners of domain names, as well as hosts and internet providers.

The first law creates liability of the mentioned subjects, including users of internet networks, for:

“false information threatening to cause damage to human life and health, significant property damage, mass violation of public safety, disruption of life support facilities, financial, transport, communications, industrial, energy and social infrastructure facilities or other socially dangerous consequences”.

The second law extends liability in Article 388-1 for “placement of information prohibited for dissemination on the internet, on information resources or on information-telecommunication networks, as well as non-prevention of placement of such information” not only to owners of the internet information resource and its domain name, but also to users of the information and telecommunication network. The possible punishment envisaged is that:

“individuals shall be fined in the amount of 500 to 1000 AZN, officials in the amount of 1000 to 1500 AZN, or administrative arrest for a period of up to 1 month shall be applied depending on the circumstances of the case, while legal entities shall be fined in the amount of 1500 to 2000 AZN”.
[1000 AZN = about 544 Euro.]

The laws do not specify whether the information was knowingly false, or whether the person disseminating it intended to cause harm. Moreover, it is not clear which information constitutes a “threat” (təhdid) of “socially dangerous consequences”. Neither the law specifies whether the harm should be real, imminent, probable or speculative. It suffices that in the judgement of authorities the prohibited information constitutes such a threat.

It is not a convincing argument that preventing the spread of infectious diseases requires that anyone who, e.g., posts information on social networks about the disease that turns out to be incorrect should be punishable by one month of arrest. In fact, the law does not even specify the range of “socially dangerous consequences”, which means that the restriction is here to stay and will be re-used in different contexts.

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