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As the number of deaths from coronavirus approaches 90,000 worldwide, the Azerbaijani authorities have been restricting the movement of citizens to curb the COVID-19 outbreak in the country. According to the Johns Hopkins University coronavirus map, Azerbaijan, with a population of approximately 10 million, has 926 cases of infection and nine coronavirus-related deaths as of April 9.
On April 5, Azerbaijan tightened the quarantine regime imposed on March 24, in order to stop the spread of the virus. The new restrictions stipulate that citizens must notify in advance before leaving their home with a free SMS message. People are allowed to leave their homes for three reasons or “indices”: visit the doctor (index 1), visit a pharmacy, store, bank, or post office (index 2), or attend a family member's funeral (index 3) .
The text of the approval, like the one the author received, says:
2-ci indeks uzre muracietiniz tesdiqlendi. Artiq 2 saat muddetine yashayish yerinizi terk ede bilersiniz
Your request for Index 2 has been confirmed. You can now leave your place of residence for two hours.
The free SMS message (sent to number 8103) must include the person's personal identification number and their reasons for leaving the house. They will then receive a confirmation message granting them permission, which is valid for two hours and can only be issued one per day. The permit requirement also applies to foreign citizens living in Azerbaijan.
Permission requests can be rejected if incorrect information is not provided. It is unknown if any application has been rejected for other reasons.
But can everyone send an SMS? Coverage of the mobile phone network throughout Azerbaijan is generally good, but there have been cases where users' phone numbers have been blocked due to outstanding debts with mobile phone operators. They must first recharge their accounts before they can send an SMS, which could cause problems for the poorest in Azerbaijani society.
The requirement to send an SMS message does not apply to those over 65 who are prohibited from leaving their homes since March 24. Employees of various state agencies are also exempt from the permit; Private legal entities and diplomatic missions in Azerbaijan also enjoy freedom of movement after registering on a government portal. In addition, there is no need to obtain SMS permits in emergencies that pose a threat to health and safety. Nor is it needed when there is a summons to a court or by law enforcement agencies.
However, there appear to have been gaps in the SMS permission system since it went into effect on April 5. On April 8, the spokesman for the Council of Ministers, Ibrahim Mammadov, expressed concern about breaches of the country's quarantine regime even after the introduction of the SMS permit system; He said there have been “many cases of illegal issuance of permits.”
“Two people have been arrested for selling permits for journalists … The measures were taken in connection with false calls and messages and with the falsification of permits,” Mammadov said, adding that, as of April 7, administrative measures had been taken against 3,037 Azerbaijani citizens for various violations of the quarantine regime, while 12 have been detained. Mammadov went on to say that the restrictions could even be tightened, as “many do not meet the requirements.”
“Some natural and legal persons authorized to operate are putting names of foreign citizens on the portal icaze.gov.az, and issuing false identifications to people who are not employed by the media, thereby creating the conditions for their free circulation and seriously violates the requirements of the special quarantine regime, “said Mammadov.
Mammadov reminded the population that the Government has access to residents' employment data through the state's electronic employment contract notification system, which is managed by the Ministry of Labor and Social Protection. He issued a public warning against the entry of false information on any government portal, explaining that the issuance or use of any falsified document to violate the quarantine regime was illegal.
Although there is a widespread understanding of the need for the quarantine regime, there has been some criticism of the SMS permission system.
Some digital rights advocates have expressed concern about the possible lack of safeguards. Lawyer Emin Abbasov recently told Az-Netwatch, portal dedicated to freedom of information in Azerbaijan, that in his opinion there were many things that were not clear, such as whether an SMS can be used to track a mobile device, how the information will be protected. users' staff and whether that information will be removed from the database once quarantine is lifted.
Whatever the concern, the SMS system is here to stay – at least until quarantine is lifted on April 20.
The legal framework of the quarantine regime remains obscure; there is no clear information about fines or other consequences for violating it. Some have been fined a hundred manats ($ 60) for violating the quarantine regime. People are also detained by the Police for not wearing protective masks; however, there is no fine for not wearing protective clothing as it is scarce in the country.
However, the authorities continue to closely monitor and punish non-compliance. On April 5, the Interior Ministry announced that fines had been imposed on 3,796 people, including 1,881 people in the capital, Baku, for violating the quarantine regime. At the same time, a person received a warning for spreading false information about the coronavirus on social networks, even through WhatsApp instant messaging.
The Government has taken other measures to combat the coronavirus, such as the suspension, on April 5, of the operation of independent taxi drivers who transport clients in their private cars. Previously, it revealed an aid package for April and May to cushion the social consequences of the pandemic. The following day, President Ilham Aliyev signed a decree on the early release of 176 prisoners over the age of 65, in connection with the spread of the coronavirus. Those pardoned include employees of the now defunct Ministry of National Security, such as Major General Akif Chovdarov and the former director of the Ministry, General Subahir Gurbanov. Both were jailed in 2015 on corruption charges.
As many in Azerbaijan will fight financially against the consequences of the closure, the Government has announced economic support measures. On April 9, Minister of Labor and Social Protection Sahil Babayev revealed that $ 1.7 billion has been allocated to reduce the negative impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the economy, as well as $ 235.2 million to support social welfare. . Workers in the informal sector, those who are registered as unemployed, and microentrepreneurs each receive a monthly sum of $ 210, $ 111, and $ 78, respectively. Residential electricity subsidies have also been extended for two months.
It should be noted that the Government has allocated $ 8.7 million to build six new modular hospitals with 200 beds each for the treatment of patients with coronavirus. Previously, a new clinic was opened to treat coronavirus patients in Baku.
Most surprising of all, although the emergency is deeply felt in Baku, the government has not yet officially declared a state of emergency. This is despite the fact that the Operational Headquarters announced on April 2 that an emergency situation can be declared if the infection rate continues to grow.