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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.

5 August 2015

AZERBAIJAN: Raid, warnings, deportation

A court in Azerbaijan has officially warned 13 Jehovah's Witnesses after they were detained when 10 police raided a meeting in a Baku home to exercise freedom of religion or belief. One Jehovah's Witness – Georgian citizen Goderdzi Kvaratskhelia – was on 6 July ordered to be deported, Jehovah's Witnesses told Forum 18 News Service. One week later, a court in Sheki rejected appeals by two Jehovah's Witness sisters against fines of more than three months' average wages for discussing their faith on the street. They escaped criminal prosecution as the New Testament and Jehovah's Witness brochure they had with them had been imported with permission from the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations. A Baku resident who sold Muslim books without the required State Committee licence has lost his Supreme Court appeal against the fine of 18 months' average wages.

16 July 2015

AZERBAIJAN: Religious freedom survey, July 2015

As increasing numbers of prisoners of conscience are jailed by Azerbaijan, Forum 18 News Service notes that freedom of religion or belief and related human rights such as the freedoms of expression and of assembly remain highly restricted. Among the regime's current prisoners of conscience are 14 Muslims and two Jehovah's Witnesses jailed for exercising freedom of religion or belief. There is also one Jehovah's Witness conscientious objector to compulsory military service in a disciplinary military unit. Other freedom of religion or belief issues documented by Forum 18 are: attempts to counter discussion of human rights violations with outright denials and claims of "inter-religious harmony", "religious tolerance" and similar assertions; officials behaving as if the rule of law places no limitations on their actions; unfair trials lacking due legal process; "legal" restrictions on and punishments for exercising freedom of religion or belief; arbitrary official actions denying fundamental rights to citizens and foreigners; a highly restrictive censorship regime, including pre-publication, bookshop, photocopy shop and postal censorship; an arbitrary compulsory state registration system, designed to make all exercise of freedom of religion or belief dependent on state permission; enforced closures of places people meet for worship, especially Sunni mosques; a ban on praying outside mosques; and severe denials of human rights in the Nakhichevan exclave.

13 July 2015

AZERBAIJAN: Imam prisoner of conscience jailed for one year

Imam Mubariz Qarayev, who led prayers and preached at the Lezgin Mosque in Azerbaijan's capital Baku, was given a one-year prison sentence on 10 July, Forum 18 News Service has learned. He is the fourth from a group of five Sunni Muslim prisoners of conscience connected to the Mosque, which the authorities want to close, to receive a prison term. And in western Azerbaijan, Sabuhi Mammadov, the host of a group of Muslims who met to study the works of Islamic theologian Said Nursi, was given a massive fine in early June. "He had not gathered people correctly," police told Forum 18. Thirteen other Muslims were also fined after police broke up the meeting. And in late June, Azerbaijan denied entry to Georgian Orthodox priest Fr Demetre Tetruashvili, who has served the only two Georgian Orthodox parishes with state permission to exist in the country for the past four years. The local Georgian Orthodox community cannot now celebrate the liturgy or receive other sacraments.

10 July 2015

AZERBAIJAN: Three Muslim prisoners of conscience jailed for 15 to 6 months for selling books

Three of five Sunni Muslim prisoners of conscience arrested in Azerbaijan's capital Baku in February have been jailed for selling books and other religious items which have not undergone state censorship. All five Muslims are associated with the Lezgin Mosque, which the government wants to forcibly close. Azad Qafarov was given a 15-month jail term, Habibullah Omarov a one-year jail term and Salim Qasimov a six-month jail term, fellow Muslims who know them told Forum 18 News Service from Baku on 8 July. The criminal trials continue of the other two prisoners of conscience of the group, Eyvaz Mammadov and Lezgin Mosque Imam Mubariz Qarayev. Including the five Sunni Muslims, eight prisoners of conscience are being held in the NSM secret police Investigation Prison because of their faith. The other three are Jehovah's Witnesses Irina Zakharchenko and Valida Jabrayilova – who on 4 July were ordered to be held for two more months - and Shia Muslim Jeyhun Jafarov, who was on 9 July ordered to be held for four more months.

26 May 2015

AZERBAIJAN: "He was acting as a bookseller illegally"

On 14 July Azerbaijan's Supreme Court is due to hear a challenge by Kamran Abdiyev to a fine of 18 months' average wages, for distributing religious literature which has not undergone the compulsory state censorship. "He was acting as a bookseller illegally," an official of the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations told Forum 18 News Service. Judge Gulzar Rzayeva, who will be presiding over the appeal, rejected the last appeal of Jehovah's Witness conscientious objector and former prisoner of conscience Kamran Mirzayev, Forum 18 notes. He is now intending to lodge an appeal to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) in Strasbourg. And four of five planned criminal trials of imprisoned Sunni Muslim prisoners of conscience have begun at a court in the capital Baku. All face up to two years' imprisonment and all are associated with a Sunni mosque the government plans to forcibly close after the European Games. Like Abdiyev, the five prisoners of conscience are charged with selling uncensored religious literature.

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