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12 December 2013

AZERBAIJAN: "I want my rights to be protected by our government, not violated"

Seven Jehovah's Witnesses in northern Azerbaijan were in November and December each fined the equivalent of one year's salary for a teacher for exercising their freedom of religion or belief, Forum 18 News Service has learned. The fines followed a police raid on a Jehovah's Witness family, which took place without a search warrant. Police forced their way into the family's home and confiscated books including personal Bibles, money, and personal medical and financial documents. Against the law, police gave the family no record of their confiscations. One of the women present was injured by police, and she had to be hospitalised when she later during detention had an epileptic fit. Police detained those present at a police station for 12 hours, claiming that they were terrorists, and repeatedly threatened detainees with sexual violence and loss of employment. Police also pressured detainees to give up their faith. Following a similar raid in May 2012 a Muslim from Baku, Zeka Miragayev is preparing a case for the European Court of Human Rights. "I want my rights to be protected by our government, not violated," he told Forum 18.

7 November 2013

AZERBAIJAN: "Tragicomedy and mockery of justice"

Islamic theologian Taleh Bagirov has been given a two-year strict regime prison sentence on 1 November by a court in Azerbaijan. He was found guilty of possessing just over one gram of heroin, a fabricated accusation his supporters insist. As well as politically opposing the state, Bagirov and other Muslims had opposed the Caucasian Muslim Board's attempt to impose an imam on the Hazrat Abulfaz Aga Mosque. The authorities attempted to use a sermon to prosecute him, but "they realised they would have made themselves a laughing stock if they had pursued these charges" lawyer Javad Javadov told Forum 18 News Service. In August Bagirov's driver, Anar Melikov, was given a 19-month prison term. His lawyer Anar Kasimov denounced this "tragicomedy and mockery of justice". Among other recent cases, two Jehovah's Witnesses - Reza Babayev and Ilham Hasanov - were discussing their faith in Barda when a local man gathered a crowd of about 20 men who insulted and assaulted the two, and tore some of their religious literature. Police took no action against the crowd, but Babayev and Hasanov have been convicted of "violating legislation on holding religious meetings, marches, and other religious ceremonies". Their appeals were rejected today (7 November).

28 June 2013

AZERBAIJAN: Conscientious objectors amnestied, imam and driver not freed

Azerbaijan's two known imprisoned conscientious objectors – both Jehovah's Witnesses - have been freed as part of a prisoner amnesty, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. However, prisoners of conscience Imam Taleh Bagirov and his driver Anar Melikov have not been freed. Imam Bagirov is known for his political opposition to the government, and also openly opposed the imposition of an imam from the state-backed Caucasian Muslim Board to lead his mosque near the capital Baku. All mosques are required by the Religion Law to be controlled by the Board, which is required to appoint their religious leadership. On 27 June a Baku court ordered the extension of Imam Bagirov's pre-trial detention by one month, while Melikov's trial is expected to begin in a different Baku court in mid-July. Both men have been detained since 31 March. They insist that state claims that they possessed heroin, a pistol, and bullets are false.

14 May 2013

AZERBAIJAN: Imam and driver in pre-trial detention, conscientious objector imprisoned

Imprisoned Jehovah's Witness conscientious objector Kamran Mirzayev is due to hear tomorrow (15 May) if his appeal has overturned his nine-month prison sentence, Jehovah's Witnesses told Forum 18 News Service. He is one of two known conscientious objectors imprisoned for refusing Azerbaijan's compulsory military service. Azerbaijan committed itself to adopting an alternative civilian service by January 2003, but failed to do so. Meanwhile, Imam Taleh Bagirov – who led prayers and preached at a Shia mosque near Baku in defiance of the authorities' pressure – is in his second month of pre-trial detention, together with his driver. Community members insist the accusations against them are fabricated. The investigator leading the criminal case, Vusal Salehov from the Police Department for the Fight Against Organised Crime, refused to discuss the case with Forum 18.

2 May 2013

AZERBAIJAN: Harsh fines cancelled, banned books list publication soon?

Two Baptists in Azerbaijan's north-western Zakatala District - Pastor Zaur Balaev and Hinayat Shabanova – have had harsh fines overturned on appeal, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Both had been punished for participating in unregistered religious meetings in their home village of Aliabad. The State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations has announced that it will make a list of banned books public, but without giving a date for this. And more changes to the Religion Law restricting where religious literature and other materials can be sold, and requiring such items to be marked with special stickers before they can be sold, have been approved by President Ilham Aliyev. Religious literature is often confiscated in raids on religious meetings and at the border, in mid-March Customs officers confiscating works by Muslim theologian Said Nursi at Gyanja Airport. Also, concern has been expressed about a school textbook that denigrates some faiths.

4 April 2013

AZERBAIJAN: Heavy fines follow police raids and confiscations

Judge Imanverdi Shukurov in Zakatala in Azerbaijan has fined two Baptists, Pastor Zaur Balaev and Hinayat Shabanova, more than a year's average local wages for a manual worker to punish them for exercising their right to freedom of religion or belief. "I can't pay this amount," Shabanova told Forum 18 News Service. Judge Shukurov, as well as the local police chief and the local official of the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations, refused to discuss the fines with Forum 18. Balaev and Shabanova's husband have both served prison sentences for their faith and their church has been denied legal status since 1994 – an Azerbaijani record. Meanwhile, Baku-based Muslim Zeka Miragayev is lodging a further appeal in his case against the police and NSM secret police who raided his home and seized religious literature.

17 January 2013

AZERBAIJAN: No legal place of worship for 40,000-strong town

The stripping of state registration from a Muslim community through the court leaves the 40,000 residents of Hirdalan near the Azerbaijani capital Baku with no legal place of worship of any faith, Forum 18 News Service notes. Neither the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations – which brought the suit - nor the Justice Ministry would explain how one agency could seek the liquidation of legal status granted by the other. After a similar liquidation, Baku's Greater Grace Protestant Church, failed in its last-ditch Supreme Court challenge on 9 January. Meanwhile, Baku's Baha'i community is lamenting the demolition of a building in Baku significant to the early years of their faith, whose return they had repeatedly sought in vain. Imprisoned Jehovah's Witness conscientious objector Fakhraddin Mirzayev has been transferred to a prison near Salyan after he lost his appeal against his one year sentence.

16 January 2013

AZERBAIJAN: Accountability for raiders through Baku and Strasbourg courts?

Baku-based Muslim Zeka Miragayev – whose home was raided by police and secret police without a warrant in May 2012 during which Korans and other religious books were seized – is seeking through a Baku court to have the raids declared illegal. Local police chief Lt-Colonel Hakani Mammadov denied to Forum 18 News Service that any literature had been taken in the raid. The secret police denied to the court that it had been involved at all. The OSCE Office in Baku told Forum 18 it will monitor the case when it resumes in court on 22 January. Gyanja-based Rashad Niftaliyev – who has been fined three times in as many years after police raids on unregistered meetings for worship – is the most recent Jehovah's Witness from Azerbaijan to lodge a case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg over such raids. Four other groups of Jehovah's Witness victims have lodged raid-related cases to the Strasbourg court since 2007, though no verdicts have yet been issued.

12 November 2012

AZERBAIJAN: Censorship "to create an environment of freedom of conscience"

For the second time a court in the Azerbaijan's capital Baku has backed State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations' decisions on both what religious literature can and cannot be imported into the country, and also what quantities can be imported. Baku Appeal Court rejected the Jehovah's Witness community's appeal on 1 November, Forum 18 News Service has learned. Jehovah's Witnesses told Forum 18 they will continue their legal challenge. State Committee spokesperson Orhan Ali insisted that the literature in question was "harmful". When Forum 18 pointed out that the State Committees' own "expert analysis" had not found any harmful material, Ali put the phone down. An earlier lower court decision claimed that "in order to create an environment of freedom of conscience, putting limitations upon the import of a sufficient amount of literature is normal for all communities." Azerbaijan is the only Council of Europe member state to impose such compulsory censorship, against its human rights obligations.

9 November 2012

AZERBAIJAN: Former prisoners of consciences' homes raided, literature confiscated

Police in Azerbaijan raided a meeting for Baptist worship in the home of former prisoner of conscience Zaur Balaev on 7 November, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. The raid in Aliabad took place as Balaev and his wife Nunuka were in Moscow, where she is undergoing cancer treatment. Police detained and questioned one Baptist, as well as seizing religious literature including New Testaments. In a simultaneous raid on another home in the village, police seized more religious literature and questioned another former prisoner of conscience, Hamid Shabanov. Local police refused to discuss with Forum 18 why they had raided the two homes and seized literature including New Testaments. State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations spokesperson Orhan Ali claimed that if nothing illegal is found in the books, they will be returned. "This is not censorship," he insisted to Forum 18.

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