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23 February 2015

AZERBAIJAN: Latest secret police prisoners – two female Jehovah's Witnesses

In a sudden closed hearing on 17 February, a Judge in the Azerbaijani capital Baku ordered two female Jehovah's Witnesses to be held for three months in the National Security Ministry secret police investigation prison, according to the decisions seen by Forum 18 News Service. Irina Zakharchenko and Valida Jabrayilova face up to five years' imprisonment if convicted of offering religious literature without state permission. "Under our laws, spreading religious books is banned," Colonel Isfandiyar Mehbaliyev, head of the District Police in Pirallahi, where the women were initially detained, told Forum 18. He refused to say if this means that the state regards offering religious literature to others as dangerous and a threat to state security. On 18 February a Judge in Sumgait sentenced Sunni Muslim Zohrab Shikhaliyev to six months' imprisonment on weapons charges. His friends insisted to Forum 18 that police planted the weapons to punish him for maintaining a prayer room in his home. Sumgait has no Sunni Muslim mosque.

16 February 2015

AZERBAIJAN: Nakhichevan detentions without trial, beatings and attempted kidnapping

Three Muslims who read the works of the late Turkish theologian Said Nursi were freed from prison on 11 February in the Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhichevan. Two were seized in Nakhichevan and the third in Baku and transferred to the exclave. All three were held without any court approval. They were beaten to force them to "confess" to a "crime" (distributing anti-government leaflets) one of their friends insisted to Forum 18 News Service they had nothing to do with. Police have confiscated passports from all three to prevent them leaving the exclave. A fourth fled to Turkey to evade possible arrest, though Azerbaijani police tried to kidnap him there. The Head of Nakhichevan's Department for Work with Religious Organisations Vuqar Babayev declined to discuss the cases with Forum 18. About six of the 200 or so Muslims arrested in November 2014 are still in detention, Yafez Akramoglu of Radio Free Europe told Forum 18. Several are being investigated on treason charges. Most of the 50 Nakhichevan mosques forcibly closed in November 2014 have reopened, but under new leadership "closer to the authorities".

12 February 2015

AZERBAIJAN: Five years' imprisonment for "normal Muslims" who "simply conduct prayers"?

Five Sunni Muslims who attended a religious meeting in a home in the Azerbaijani capital Baku raided by armed and masked police in April 2014 could be imprisoned for up to five years each if convicted. "These are normal Muslims who are not involved in politics and simply conduct prayers," the lawyer for four of the five men Asabali Mustafayev told Forum 18 News Service. Their trial is likely to last two more months. Three of the five - Eldeniz Hajiyev, Ismayil Mammadov and Revan Sabzaliyev – have lodged cases to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg over the months they spent in secret police detention in 2014. A verdict is likely to be handed down in Sumgait on 18 February to Zohrab Shikhaliyev, to punish him for maintaining a Sunni Muslim prayer room in his home. He faces up to three years' imprisonment on charges of illegal weapons, which his friends vehemently deny. And Jehovah's Witness conscientious objector Kamran Shikhaliyev (no relation) was finally transferred to a military disciplinary unit 14 months after being seized. He is supposed to be serving a one-year sentence.

4 December 2014

AZERBAIJAN: 200 Nakhichevan Muslims arrested, 50 still detained, 50 mosques closed

The authorities in Azerbaijan's exclave of Nakhichevan continue to restrict freedom of religion or belief even more severely that in the rest of the country, Forum 18 News Service notes. In mid-November, several sources have stated that up to 200 Muslims were arrested. Most were released within one or two days but up to 50 are apparently still in detention, Yafez Akramoglu of Radio Free Europe told Forum 18. Restrictions are particularly tight during the Shia Muslim commemoration of Ashura. As in the past, in November police stood outside mosques and once again prevented young people, especially school children and students, from entering, Malahat Nasibova of the Nakhichevan-based Democracy and NGO Development Resource Centre told Forum 18. Even outside Ashura many state employees – and even employees of many private companies, some of which have ties to state officials – are "too afraid" to attend mosques, Akramoglu and Nasibova separately told Forum 18. Up to 50 mosques – especially those Nakhichevan's authorities think are oriented towards Iran - appear to have been forcibly closed after the mid-November arrests.

1 December 2014

AZERBAIJAN: Forced mosque liquidation, Baptists and Adventists told to liquidate themselves

Azerbaijan's Supreme Court has rejected an appeal by the capital Baku's Fatima Zahra mosque community against state-enforced liquidation. "They justified the decision by saying the mosque is to be demolished as an illegal structure," the community's lawyer Aslan Ismayilov told Forum 18 News Service. Many mosques, especially those used by Sunni Muslims, have been forcibly closed by the state. Also, the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations has told the Baptist and Seventh-day Adventist Churches on 16 October that they would be re-registered, having applied in 2009 and then been rejected. But State Committee officials now insist that if the Adventists and Baptists do not liquidate themselves, form new communities and lodge new applications by the end of 2014, the State Committee will go to court to liquidate them. And the criminal trial of three Muslims - Eldeniz Hajiyev, Ismayil Mammadov and Revan Sabzaliyev – for allegedly using "illegal" religious literature and forming an "illegal" religious group is due to begin in Baku on 4 December. Raids and confiscations similar to those the three Muslims experienced continue.

18 November 2014

AZERBAIJAN: Imprisoned for pistol or prayer room?

Nine Sunni Muslims arriving for lunchtime prayers on 13 November at a prayer room in a Sumgait home were detained by plain clothes police, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Masked, armed police then stormed the home and searched it, claiming to find weapons. The nine were beaten and humiliated by police officers before release that evening, several confirmed to local news agencies. The home owner, Zohrab Shikhaliyev, was arrested elsewhere in Sumgait that day. On 15 November a court in Azerbaijan's capital Baku ordered him held in two months' pre-trial detention as a criminal case is investigated. Although Shikhaliyev's prayer room has functioned for two years, about six months ago officials started accusing him of "illegally" providing a space where Sunni Muslims might worship, Gamet Suleymanov, imam of Baku's closed Abu Bekr Sunni mosque, told Forum 18. Meanwhile, the criminal case against three Baku-based Muslims - who spent up to five months under criminal investigation in pre-trial detention at the NSM secret police for holding a religious education meeting - has now been handed to a Baku court and their trial is expected soon.

22 September 2014

AZERBAIJAN: Transfer to house arrest a prelude to trial?

Eldeniz Hajiyev, Ismayil Mammadov and Revan Sabzaliyev could soon face criminal trial to punish them for attending a religious meeting in Hajiyev's Baku home raided in April, a friend of the three Muslims told Forum 18 News Service. They face up to three years' imprisonment if tried and convicted. A Baku court ordered the men's release from Azerbaijan's National Security Ministry (NSM) secret police investigation prison on 12 September and transfer to house arrest. The permitted investigation period in the case runs out in mid-October. "I believe they will take the case to court for a full criminal trial," the friend insisted. NSM officials refused to discuss the case with Forum 18. Meanwhile, the new chair of the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations, Mubariz Qurbanli, has rejected the right of individuals to conduct religious work, the right of mosques to choose their own leaders, the right of individuals to interpret the Koran for themselves, the right to distribute religious literature uncensored, and the right to share one's faith.

14 August 2014

AZERBAIJAN: Four months' extra prison term because "they gave him too little"

Imprisoned Islamic preacher and theologian Taleh Bagirov was given an extra four months' imprisonment at a new trial in Baku. He "categorically denied" in court the charge of possessing an illegal mobile phone in his cell, his lawyer Javad Javadov told Forum 18 News Service. He insists that the phone was planted. Judge Suleyman Agayev claimed to Forum 18 that Bagirov had "half admitted" the accusation. Bagirov is already serving a two-year strict regime sentence on drugs charges which his supporters insist were similarly fabricated. Baku Old City officials confirmed to Forum 18 that the Lezgin Mosque – one of very few remaining specifically Sunni mosques in Azerbaijan – is to be closed for renovation. They refused to say if the Mosque will be returned to the same community after renovation. Also, increased Criminal Code punishments for exercising freedom of religion or belief are planned. Maximum prison terms under Article 168 – for which three Muslims are under investigation in NSM secret police detention – seem set to more than double to eight years.

11 August 2014

AZERBAIJAN: "They don't want a Sunni mosque in the Old City"

Samir Nuriyev, director of Baku's Icherisheher (Old City) State Historical-Architectural Reserve, summoned the leader of the Lezgin Mosque community in mid-July and told him verbally that it must voluntarily leave the building in advance of full renovation, community leader Faiq Mustafa and Reserve official Emil Huseynli separately told Forum 18 News Service. Mustafa fears this might be an attempt to oust the community, in line with earlier moves against other Sunni communities. Reserve spokesperson Narmin Azadgil has not responded to Forum 18's questions on why no document on the proposed renovation has been given to the community and whether the community will be able to resume use of its Mosque once any renovation is complete. Despite the consistent closures of specifically Sunni mosques, Sarkhan Halilov of Azerbaijan's State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations insisted that the government "has nothing against Sunni mosques". But he admitted to Forum 18 that Baku's (Sunni) Martyrs' Mosque – closed by the state in 2009 - will never be reopened.

7 August 2014

AZERBAIJAN: NSM secret police detentions extended, conscientious objector's appeal fails

Two Muslim prisoners of conscience detained since April, Eldeniz Hajiyev and Ismayil Mammadov, had their pre-trial detention in the hands of Azerbaijan's NSM secret police extended for a further two months today (7 August), Forum 18 News Service has been told. Pre-trial detention for a third prisoner of conscience, Revan Sabzaliyev who was detained in May, was extended three days earlier. If convicted, the three men face up to three years' imprisonment for participating in a meeting which was raided by armed police and the NSM secret police. The men had met with other Muslims to discuss their faith with the help of the writings of Islamic theologian Said Nursi. The rulings come after an appeal court in southern Azerbaijan rejected the appeal of Jehovah's Witness conscientious objector Kamran Shikhaliyev against a one-year sentence in a military disciplinary unit. In all these cases Forum 18 has been told that violence has been used by officials against those in their power. There are also continuing administrative fines of people for exercising their freedom of religion or belief.

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