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1 December 2015

AZERBAIJAN: Police killings, shooting and mass arrests as Muslims pray

Fourteen Muslim Unity Movement members – including leader former prisoner of conscience and recently tortured Imam Taleh Bagirov – were detained in Nardaran, near Azerbaijan's capital Baku, on 26 November as the authorities raided the village firing weapons freely during prayers. According to officials, at least seven people were killed - five men in the village and two police officers – with others in the village being wounded. The authorities have repeatedly promised to return the bodies of those killed to their families for burial, but have not yet done so. The 14 detained Shia Muslims are now in two-months' pre-trial detention and face criminal charges which carry a life sentence. Muslim Unity Movement members in at least three other places have also been arrested. Etibar Najafov, Chief Adviser on Multiculturalism, Ethnic and Religious Affairs in the Presidential Administration, told Forum 18 that "they've done wrong things – they violated established rules". But he struggled to explain what rules they had broken. Asked if the Muslim Unity Movement had killed or proposed killing anyone, he replied "No". Also, changes to the Religion Law (which have not been published) to further restrict freedom of religion or belief may reach the Milli Mejlis on 4 December.

19 November 2015

AZERBAIJAN: Conscientious objector (again) one of 20 current prisoners of conscience

Kamran Shikhaliyev, a 20-year-old conscientious objector to compulsory military service, is serving a one-year sentence in a military disciplinary unit in Salyan Region south of Azerbaijan's capital Baku. He failed to overturn his conviction – the second on the same charges – at Baku Appeal Court on 12 November, court officials told Forum 18 News Service. He is one of 20 known prisoners of conscience punished by the Azerbaijani authorities for exercising the right to freedom of religion or belief. Of these, 17 have been convicted and are serving prison terms, while three are in pre-trial secret police imprisonment. One of the three, 55-year-old disabled widow Irina Zakharchenko, was transferred to hospital on 26 October. "The many months of imprisonment have taken a serious toll on her health," Jehovah's Witnesses told Forum 18.

12 November 2015

AZERBAIJAN: Police torture one Muslim, 10 more short-term prisoners of conscience

Police in Azerbaijan's capital Baku detained and tortured Shia Muslim theologian and former prisoner of conscience Imam Taleh Bagirov, head of the Muslim Unity Movement, when he began to pray in the police station, Forum 18 News Service has learned. Two days later, police elsewhere in Baku imprisoned his deputy Elchin Qasimov (also known as Qasimli), imam of Hazrat Abbas Mosque, and a colleague. Eight Muslims who demonstrated outside the Baku police station where Qasimov was initially held were also arrested. A total of 10 prisoners of conscience, including Qasimov, were given prison terms of up to one month. The torture of Imam Bagirov was just a week before the 11 and 12 November consideration of Azerbaijan's record under the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT) at the UN Committee Against Torture. And the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations is preparing Religion Law changes banning religious leaders without state approval from leading religious meetings for worship, as well as street religious ceremonies.

28 October 2015

AZERBAIJAN: "Residents wanted to worship. Instead, they came face to face with police truncheons"

Three Sunni Muslims face possible criminal prosecution with punishment of up to three years' imprisonment, one of the three and two others were given prison terms of up to five days and others were fined. The punishments followed a secret police raid on a meeting about religion in a cafe in the Azerbaijani capital on 22 October. The following day Shia Muslims in the second city Gyanja were detained after trying to enter the Friday Mosque for Friday prayers to mark Tasua, the day before the Ashura commemoration. They came "face to face with police truncheons", a letter to the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations complained. The letter complained that the city authorities had ordered closed that day all but one of the city's mosques. But Hasan Mammadov, a consultant on social and political issues at Gyanja City Administration, denied the closure of any mosques. He insisted to Forum 18 News Service that police arrested only those intent on conducting an "illegal" march for which they had not sought permission.

8 October 2015

AZERBAIJAN: Five latest freedom of religion or belief prisoners of conscience

Azerbaijan's latest prisoners of conscience are five Sunni Muslims jailed for exercising freedom of religion or belief. They were arrested in court on 7 October after their sentences were passed and have been transferred to a Baku prison, a friend of the five men told Forum 18 News Service. 46-year-old Ismayil Mammadov was jailed for 5 years, 5 months; his brother 45-year-old Zakariyya, with 46-year-old Shahin Hasanov, was jailed for 5 years; 41-year-old Eldeniz Hajiyev was jailed for 4 years, 5 months; and 21-year-old Revan Sabzaliyev was jailed for 1 year, 7 months. Hasanov is the only one of the five prisoners of conscience to be married. Judge Akshin Afandiyev's assistant Seymur (who would not give his last name) confirmed the sentences to Forum 18 today (8 October). He said the written verdicts would be issued today or soon after. The five were arrested after an April 2014 armed police raid on Muslims meeting together to study Islam with the aid of texts by theologian Said Nursi. Their lawyers were prevented from attending the final court hearing. One male Shia Muslim and two female Jehovah's Witness prisoners of conscience are still under investigation in the NSM secret police Investigation Prison for exercising their right to freedom of religion or belief.

1 October 2015

AZERBAIJAN: "We forbid religious books – but this isn't religious discrimination"

As legal changes are set to make the state religious censorship even tighter, Gunduz Ismayilov, a deputy chair of the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations – which enacts the state censorship – says that large-scale distribution of works by Muslim theologian Said Nursi is "not appropriate". He made the assertion in a letter to Ismayil Mammadov, one of five Sunni Muslims facing up to six years' imprisonment in Baku for distributing religious literature. The trial is likely to end on 5 October, the lawyer Asabali Mustafayev told Forum 18 News Service. The State Committee has already banned the import of nine Jehovah's Witness publications in 2015 so far. "We forbid religious books – but this isn't religious discrimination," a junior State Committee official told Forum 18.

29 September 2015

AZERBAIJAN: Fines, deportations, criminal trials to punish meetings for worship and study

Two Turkish citizens arrived in the Azerbaijan capital Baku on 19 September to take part in a meeting of prayer and study ahead of the Muslim festival of Eid al-Adha. That evening police and secret police officers raided the meeting in a home, taking 85 people for questioning and confiscating 3,000 religious books. On 20 September, the two Turks were fined and ordered deported. Five local Sunni Muslims were also fined. Although the court decision had not entered legal force, the Migration Service deported the two Turks on 21 September, their lawyer Asabali Mustafayev complained to Forum 18 News Service. A secret police officer insisted to Forum 18 the meeting had been "illegal", but refused to explain how a meeting for worship in a home could be illegal. Five Jehovah's Witnesses have failed to overturn convictions for meeting for study and worship in a Baku home raided by police in April. And the criminal trial of five Sunni Muslims to punish them for participating in a religious meeting is due to resume for what might be the last session on 5 October. The prosecutor is demanding up to six years' imprisonment for each.

9 September 2015

AZERBAIJAN: Seven months' secret police detention so far, three more added

A court in Azerbaijan's capital Baku ruled that two female Jehovah's Witnesses – imprisoned for seven months already at the secret police Investigation Prison – can now be held for a further three months, Jehovah's Witnesses told Forum 18 News Service. Ten months is the maximum they can be held in pre-trial detention. The two - 54-year-old Irina Zakharchenko (a disabled widow) and 37-year-old Valida Jabrayilova – face up to five years' imprisonment for offering religious literature to nearby residents. Forum 18 was unable to reach Judge Rauf Ahmadov to find out why he considered further imprisonment necessary. Two of five Sunni Muslims imprisoned for selling uncensored religious literature have lost their appeals, while the third appeal – by Imam Mubariz Qarayev of Baku's Lezgin Mosque – is due to resume on 11 September. And the long-running trial of five further Sunni Muslims for a religious meeting appears to be close to concluding. "You almost never get an acquittal here," those close to the case told Forum 18. "But if they are to be convicted, we hope that at least they get suspended sentences."

8 September 2015

AZERBAIJAN: 11 weeks with no Sunday liturgy

Amil Javadov, head of communications at Azerbaijan's State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations in the capital Baku, told Forum 18 News Service he "can't say" why the only Georgian Orthodox priest cannot return to serve his community. The Azerbaijani State Border Service denied re-entry to the country to the only Georgian Orthodox priest (and bishop-designate), Georgian citizen Fr Demetre Tetruashvili, on 21 June. For the past 11 Sundays, the communities of its two state registered parishes in the northern Gakh Region have been unable to host the liturgy. "People go into the church and pray individually, but without a priest there is no liturgy, no service," a Georgian Orthodox Christian lamented to Forum 18. Officials had earlier denied permission for the community to invite a second priest, while a third parish was denied registration. The Church has been banned from re-opening all but two of its historic churches closed during the Soviet period.

11 August 2015

AZERBAIJAN: Muslim bookseller's prison sentence "a judicial secret"

Sunni Muslim prisoner of conscience Eyvaz Mammadov was given a nine-month prison term in Azerbaijan's capital Baku for selling religious books and other religious items which have not undergone state censorship. However, the assistant to the Judge who sentenced him described the sentence to Forum 18 News Service as a "judicial secret". Mammadov was the last of five Muslim prisoners of conscience to be jailed on the same charges. Another of the five, Salim Qasimov, failed in his appeal against his six-month prison sentence. Shia Muslim Jeyhun Jafarov has failed to overturn the latest court order that he should be held in pre-trial detention at the NSM secret police Investigation Prison in Baku for a further four months. An NSM secret police officer dismissed Forum 18's question as to whether Jafarov and two female Jehovah's Witnesses also held by the secret police might be subjected to torture. "There is no torture here – there can't be," the official insisted. Azerbaijan has refused to allow publication of a report on an April 2015 visit to this and other prisons by the UN Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture (SPT). The criminal trial of five Muslim former prisoners of conscience arrested for participating in a meeting to discuss their faith is due to resume in a Baku court on 7 September.

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