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12 April 2011

AZERBAIJAN: "Sword of Damocles" hangs over religious booksellers

Bookshops selling religious literature in Azerbaijan are facing unspecified measures because they do not have the compulsory state licence to sell religious literature, Forum 18 News Service notes. Ilgar Ibrahimoglu Allaverdiev, head of the Devamm Muslim religious freedom organisation, told Forum 18 that "only very few can get such licences, while fines for selling religious books without a licence hang over traders like a sword of Damocles." However, he added that traders were reluctant to make official complaints in writing, fearing state reprisals, and preferred to complain verbally. Some local people noted to Forum 18 that traders are vulnerable to officials seeking bribes to turn a blind eye to evasion of the regulations. However, the harsh censorship regime on all religious literature is still being rigorously applied. And a ban is being imposed on local branches of foreign non-governmental organisations if, among other things, they engage in "political or religious propaganda".

8 April 2011

AZERBAIJAN: Riot police versus worshippers

Three religious communities in Azerbaijan's second city Gyanja have been banned from meeting for worship, Forum 18 News Service has learned. Babek Sadykov of Gyanja Police completely denied this, claiming to Forum 18 that "no one is being prevented from worshipping". Local people, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of state reprisals, told Forum 18 that one of the communities was warned that "if they met for worship on the following Sunday or at any future date they will all be arrested". Two buses full of ordinary police and riot police later arrived to prevent any religious worship. Protestants told Forum 18 that the church had already reluctantly decided not to hold one big Sunday service that day. "People are now very afraid." Meanwhile, a government-initiated World Forum on Intercultural Dialogue was told by President Ilham Aliyev that "freedom of religion, freedom of conscience have been fully established in Azerbaijan".

7 April 2011

AZERBAIJAN: Gaining legal status "a torturous process"

Many of Azerbaijan's religious communities have told Forum 18 News Service that procedures to gain or re-gain legal status are "a torturous process". At least 300 communities are waiting for renewed legal status, and unregistered activity is banned. Typically over 15 separate documents are required, and many complain that State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations officials arbitrarily and repeatedly question information supplied, the grammar of applications, and the completeness of documentation. Yusif Askerov of the State Committee told Forum 18 that "we're trying to help religious communities with the re-registration process". But communities state that complaints about slowness and hostility in processing applications are dismissed with comments such as "If you're not happy you can take us to court". Many communities are afraid to speak out publicly, for fear of official reprisals. But some are prepared to take their cases to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, noting the precedents set by Moldova losing such cases.

5 April 2011

AZERBAIJAN: "True believers aren't concerned"

As yet a further mosque is reported closed, parliamentarian Fazil Gazanfaroglu Mustafaev complained to Forum 18 News Service of the continued enforced closure of places of worship. He cited the Turkish mosque near parliament where he regularly prayed, whose 2009 closure he termed "unfounded". Local Muslims told Forum 18 officials in Qobustan closed and sealed their mosque on 4 March with no explanation. They said denials to Forum 18 from Administration and local police officials were lies. Members of the only Sunni mosque in Azerbaijan's second city Gyanja are continuing their campaign to have it reopened, though the city's Administration chief told them it was not his business. Baku's Baptists are renewing their campaign for the return of their church ceremonially opened exactly a century ago but confiscated during Soviet rule. Rabiyyat Aslanova of Parliament's Human Rights Committee admitted mosques have been closed, but told Forum 18 that "true believers aren't concerned about this".

22 February 2011

AZERBAIJAN: Continued defiance of UN and Council of Europe

Azerbaijan marked the tenth anniversary of its accession to the Council of Europe by rejecting a prisoner of conscience's appeal against his conviction. On 25 January Jehovah's Witness conscientious objector Farid Mammedov's appeal against his nine month jail term was rejected by the Supreme Court. He is now preparing a case at the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) in Strasbourg, Jehovah's Witnesses told Forum 18 News Service. Continued conviction of conscientious objectors breaks Azerbaijan's international – including Council of Europe - human rights obligations. Less than a month beforehand, the Supreme Court also rejected the final appeal against a fine imposed for conscientious objection from fellow Jehovah's Witness Mushfiq Mammedov (no relation of Farid). He and a former Jehovah's Witness prisoner of conscience, conscientious objector Samir Huseynov, lodged a joint application (No. 14604/08) on 7 March 2008 to the European Court of Human Rights. "This application is pending before the Court and no date has yet been fixed for its examination," a Court spokesperson told Forum 18.

21 February 2011

AZERBAIJAN: Why a fine with no notice of a trial?

In the second such case known to Forum 18 News Service so far in 2011, Azerbaijan has imposed a fine for religious activity without state permission - without informing the victim she was being tried for this "offence". Jehovah's Witness Rasmiyya Karimova was warned by police in Gakh in north-western Azerbaijan not to conduct religious activity after a raid on her home in November 2010. However, although she was verbally told by a police officer that she would be fined 100 Manats, or three week's average wages, the first time she knew of a trial was when she received a court document informing her that she had been found guilty under Article 299.0.2 of the Code of Administrative Offences ("Infringement of the regulations on organising religious meetings or events"). The court document said that if she failed to pay the fine within the next ten days, bailiffs would seize property from her home to meet the fine. She has appealed, but has yet to receive an answer. The first such victim of a "trial" without notification was a Protestant fined for leading unregistered worship.

16 February 2011

AZERBAIJAN: Schoolboy prayer ban leads to two-day prison sentence

Boys of school age were prevented from attending Friday prayers at the Juma Mosque in the central town of Yevlakh on 21 January, local Muslims complained to Forum 18 News Service. Barring entry was a town administration official and the head teacher of a local school, but both refused to explain to Forum 18 why they had done so. A young man, Elvin Mamedov, was given a two-day prison sentence for failing to abide by police orders after he protested against the local police officer forcing entry into the home of a father who had defied the ban and taken his son to pray. Meanwhile, Seventh-day Adventist Gheorghiy Sobor was allowed to return to his family and home after being barred for eight weeks from returning to Azerbaijan. A Moldovan citizen, he and his wife have been required to pledge in writing that he will not conduct religious activity. "Of course we are not happy about this," Aida Sobor told Forum 18. "It's like living without an arm or a leg."

4 February 2011

RUSSIA: "It is, in my opinion, religious persecution"

Russia continues to raid meetings of readers of the works of Muslim theologian Said Nursi in 2011, Forum 18 News Service has found. Azerbaijani national Rashid Abdulov was arrested in Ulyanovsk on 20 January and is still in detention awaiting charge. Other Muslims gathered in the same flat were briefly detained in a raid in which police reportedly used physical violence was used against them, including against children present. Abdulov's lawyer Vladimir Zavilinich told Forum 18 that: "It is, in my opinion, religious persecution, and fits in with the trend of arrests in Novosibirsk and Krasnodar". Abdulov was found to be in possession of materials listed on titles which feature on the Federal List of Extremist Materials, and his lawyer expects him to come to trial in "a maximum of six to nine months, during which time Abdulov will remain in prison". Fellow Nursi reader Bobirjon Tukhtamurodov from Uzbekistan also remains in prison in Russia. This follows an extradition request from his home country and a request he filed to receive refugee status in Russia. Jehovah's Witnesses are also subject to such raids.

26 January 2011

AZERBAIJAN: "There is no discrimination" ?

After Azerbaijan's deportation of a former leader of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, Russian citizen Ivan Uzun, and the denial of re-entry to Moldovan citizen Gheorghiy Sobor, Adventists have told Forum 18 News Service they are trying to resolve problems with the government through dialogue. Sobor lives in the capital Baku with his Azerbaijani wife and their three young children. He thinks he may have been denied re-entry as he helped Adventists gain state permission to import books. His wife Aida told Forum 18 that: "Without any court decision and without the possibility for him to respond, they have separated Gheorghiy from his family and children. Such an action contradicts basic human rights and international law at the same time as Azerbaijan considers itself a democratic country". Yusif Askerov of the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations claimed that "there is no discrimination". Adventists stress that they have been present in the country for more than a century. An Adventist told Forum 18 that: "We're working to build bridges with the government".

24 January 2011

AZERBAIJAN: Pressure and punishments for worship without state permission increasing?

Azerbaijan appears to be increasing raids on and threats to religious communities for worshipping without state permission, Forum 18 News Service notes. An imam near the capital Baku, Mubariz Gachaev, received threats in late December 2010 that he would be imprisoned if his mosque continues to hold unregistered worship. A Protestant in northern Azerbaijan, Ilham Balabeyov, was in mid-January 2011 fined three weeks' average local wages for leading unregistered worship. Police also summoned him to a police station and detained him there for all of the day his church marks Christmas. Members of a forcibly closed Sunni mosque in Gyanja have told Forum 18 that the only religious activity they are now allowed to conduct is to meet in small groups, under police surveillance, to pray in private homes. As of today (24 January) only 510 religious communities are registered. It seems that many applications are either being denied or left without answer. No legal challenges to re-registration denials have yet succeeded. All unregistered religious activity is illegal, against international human rights law.

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