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14 May 2015

AZERBAIJAN: Prisoners of consciences' detention extended, criminal cases imminent

Two Jehovah's Witness prisoners of conscience in Azerbaijan, Valida Jabrayilova and Irina Zakharchenko, have had their NSM secret police pre-trial detention extended, Forum 18 News Service has learned. Five Sunni Muslim prisoners of conscience – Imam Mubariz Qarayev, Habibullah Omarov, Salim Qasimov, Eyvaz Mammadov and Azad Qafarov - also in NSM pre-trial detention are apparently about to face criminal trial. All seven prisoners of conscience were arrested for allegedly distributing religious literature that has not passed state censorship. The eighth prisoner of conscience in NSM pre-trial detention, Shia Muslim theologian Jeyhun Jafarov held for alleged treason, continues to be imprisoned. The trial of another group of five Sunni Muslims, who were in 2014 held in the NSM prison, continues in the capital Baku. Elsewhere, Shia Muslim prisoner of conscience Taleh Bagirov is challenging his transfer to Qobustan Prison where torture has been documented. All these prisoners of conscience are being denied visits by relatives and friends, as well as religious literature.

21 April 2015

AZERBAIJAN: Baku's pre-Olympic Mosque closure?

Mubariz Qurbanli, Head of Azerbaijan's State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations, visited the Lezgin Sunni Mosque in Baku's Old City at evening prayers on Friday 17 April to tell them they had three days to vacate the building. Qurbanli connected the demand to the European Olympic Games, which begin on 12 June. "We want fewer believers", mosque members quoted him to Forum 18 News Service as telling them. "If you don't go within three days we'll remove you by other means". At a meeting the following day, Qurbanli did not repeat the demand to leave immediately, but "openly stated that they want the Mosque to be closed for the European Games", Mosque members told Forum 18. "He didn't want people to be at our Mosque during it, claiming that the sight of bearded men will frighten Europeans". Officials of the State Committee and the Old City Reserve failed to respond to Forum 18's questions as to why officials want the Mosque to close for the Games. Officials of the National Olympic Committee and the Baku 2015 European Games Organising Committee told Forum 18 they had "no knowledge" of such plans. The authorities have long targeted the Lezgin Mosque and other Sunni mosques for enforced closure.

9 April 2015

AZERBAIJAN: Transfer from detention for prisoners of conscience rejected

A request by a Jehovah's Witness prisoner of conscience, Valida Jabrayilova, to be transferred from pre-trial detention in the NSM secret police Investigation Prison to house arrest was refused on 4 April. Asked why she is detained and could face a five-year prison term for offering uncensored religious literature, Judge Elshad Shamayev replied "it's in the Criminal Code" to Forum 18 News Service. He refused to say why the government sees Jabrayilova – and seven other Muslim and Jehovah's Witness prisoners of conscience awaiting trial for exercising their freedom of religion or belief – as such a danger to the state that they must be detained by the NSM secret police. Asked why he also ordered Muslim prisoners of conscience to be held in pre-trial detention by the NSM, Judge Shamayev responded: "We're not obliged to account for our decisions". People continue to be prosecuted and punished for exercising freedom of religion or belief, for example in February for discussing their faith with others in public.

16 March 2015

AZERBAIJAN: Six new freedom of religion or belief prisoners of conscience

On 10 March Shia Muslim theologian and translator Jeyhun Jafarov became the latest prisoner of conscience to be arrested and ordered held in pre-trial detention by Azerbaijan's NSM secret police, apparently to punish him for exercising his freedom of religion or belief, his friends told Forum 18 News Service. He has been ordered to be held for four months while being investigated for treason. Jafarov's arrest was two weeks after the arrest of five Sunni Muslim prisoners of conscience from Baku, including Mubariz Qarayev, imam of the Lezgin Mosque in Baku's Old City. The Lezgin Mosque is one of many Sunni Muslim mosques the government seeks to close. They five have been ordered to be held for three months by the NSM on criminal charges of selling religious literature which has not been censored by the state. Already held in the same NSM prison are two female Jehovah's Witness prisoners of conscience, Irina Zakharchenko and Valida Jabrayilova, whose appeal against being held in pre-trial detention for three months has been rejected.

24 February 2015

AZERBAIJAN: Another Mosque forcibly transferred to new leadership

Anar Kazimov, of the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations, warned the leaders of a Sunni Mosque in Qobustan in Azerbaijan's capital Baku that if the leadership did not liquidate itself, hand back documents for the Mosque and allow the Mosque leadership to be replaced, the State Committee would go to court to enforce its liquidation. "Anar sounded threatening," one original community member told Forum 18 News Service. "He said they could easily find 50 new people to constitute the new leadership. They obviously wanted people closer to the authorities." The Mosque leadership complied reluctantly. Kazimov refused to discuss with Forum 18 why the authorities have yet again forcibly transferred a Sunni Muslim mosque to new, Shia-led leadership. Police have refused to explain why they raided the Mosque and seized religious literature weeks after the enforced transfer. In January a Jehovah's Witness was fined more than three months' average wage for discussing his faith on the street, the latest in a series of heavy fines for exercising the right to freedom of religion.

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.

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