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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.

25 October 2012

AZERBAIJAN: Is confiscating religious literature censorship?

Azerbaijani customs and secret police officers spent more than six hours searching a family minibus returning from Russia in late September, seizing religious literature they found hidden and confiscating the van and the driver's passport, members of the Byakov family told Forum 18 News Service. One copy of each book and magazine has been sent to the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations in Baku for "religious expert analysis". Azerbaijan bans the import of religious literature without State Committee permission. After five months, a car confiscated from other Baptists after religious literature was found in it has been returned, but a criminal case against the three for "illegal" religious literature distribution continues. Claiming that censorship has been abolished in Azerbaijan, Prosecutor Zahid Valiyev denied to Forum 18 that confiscating religious literature represents censorship.

23 October 2012

AZERBAIJAN: Government blames "errors" for negative Venice Commission/OSCE Opinion

Following serious criticism of Azerbaijan's Religion Law by the Council of Europe's Venice Commission and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), Ali Hasanov of the Presidential Administration blamed this on "translation errors" in an "unofficial translation" he claimed had been used for the legal Opinion. However, a Venice Commission spokesperson told Forum 18 News Service that the translation on which the Opinion was based was an official translation supplied by the Government. Hasanov claimed that as soon as the Opinion was released, the Presidential Administration had immediately sent an "official translation" to the Venice Commission. However, the Venice Commission spokesperson told Forum 18 that it has received no new translation from the Azerbaijani government. Hasanov also claimed that the Venice Commission "now considers that the Law .. completely reflects European standards." The Commission's Opinion found that the Law contains "restrictive provisions which are against international standards". The Venice Commission spokesperson told Forum 18 that it fully stands by its Opinion.

16 October 2012

AZERBAIJAN: One conscientious objector jailed, others called up

The latest conscientious objector to be jailed in Azerbaijan is a 19-year-old Jehovah's Witness, Forum 18 News Service has learned. Fakhraddin Mirzayev was given a one-year prison sentence on 25 September by a court in Gyanja. He has lodged an appeal. "This is the first criminal prosecution of a Jehovah's Witness conscientious objector in Azerbaijan since Farid Mammedov was imprisoned in September 2010," Jehovah's Witnesses told Forum 18. "Others have been investigated, but their cases were never referred to court." Jehovah's Witnesses told Forum 18 that up to 20 others have been called up in the latest conscription round. Asked if the young men fear being prosecuted and possibly imprisoned, one Jehovah's Witness responded: "I'm not sure they're afraid – it's just a reality. They are aware of this when they become Jehovah's Witnesses. They are not afraid just because they are following their consciences." In January 2001, Azerbaijan promised the Council of Europe that it would within two years pardon all jailed conscientious objectors and introduce alternative civilian service.

10 August 2012

AZERBAIJAN: Ramadan mosque bans, JW jailed, Church ban upheld

An official in Azerbaijan's second city Gyanja has admitted to Forum 18 News Service that only one of the city's six permitted mosques is allowed by the state to hold iftar meals at the end of each day's Ramadan fast. Ruslan Kardashov, whose role includes overseeing religious communities, also repeatedly refused to discuss local Muslims' complaints about a ban on the mosques holding Ahya night prayers. Also, one Jehovah's Witness from Gyanja spent three days in prison and another received an official warning in July, for being unable to pay massive fines imposed for exercising their freedom of religion or belief. Elsewhere, a Jehovah's Witness conscientious objector was forcibly conscripted into the army, but was allowed home after two weeks. And an appeal against state liquidation by Baku's Greater Grace Protestant Church has failed.

30 July 2012

RUSSIA: "Absurd bans"

Russia's recent ban of more than 65 Islamic works has attracted many protests. Appeals against the bans will be presented on 6 August to Orenburg Regional Court, Forum 18 News Service has been told by a court official. On 18 July it became known that one of the 65 books, Elmir Kuliyev's Russian-language book "The Path to the Koran", had been banned for the second time by a court in Omsk. This second ban was, like the Orenburg banning decision, at the initiative of the FSB security service. Islamic scholar Rinat Mukhametov has stated that the Orenburg court ban was a "crucial turning point" for Russia's Muslims. He said the "absurd bans" had to be challenged.

20 July 2012

AZERBAIJAN: Two plus three equals five

Two Muslims in Azerbaijan's second city Gyanja failed in their appeals in July to have heavy fines to punish them for their religious activity overturned, according to court records seen by Forum 18 News Service. The two were fined after police raided Muslim prayers in a private home, days after three Turkish students were fined. Gyanja is a religious freedom blackspot, with a Sunni mosque and three Protestant churches closed down, fines for religious activity and raids on shops selling religious literature. Meanwhile, the first hearing took place in the capital Baku in the appeal by Greater Grace Protestant Church against its enforced liquidation. The appeal resumes on 31 July. Unless the Church succeeds in its appeal, any communal activity it undertakes will be illegal and its members subject to prosecution.

18 July 2012

AZERBAIJAN: New literature controls not "formally" about censorship

New legal amendments approved by Azerbaijan's parliament specify that not only medicines, books and recordings, but "literature with a religious purpose (both hard copy and electronic), audio and video material, goods and produce and other information material with a religious theme" require a state-issued "verification mark" before they can be sold. Those selling religious materials without such marks risk fines and confiscation of the materials. Forum 18 News Service notes that religious literature is already subject to compulsory prior censorship from the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations, with punishments for those who produce or sell religious literature without State Committee permission.

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