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The right to believe, to worship and witness
The right to change one’s belief or religion
The right to join together and express one’s belief

AZERBAIJAN: Disturbing numbers of police raids on religious communities

Police raids on religious communities have continued to take place at a disturbing rate, Forum 18 News Service has found, especially on summer camps and open air preaching outside the confines of state-registered religious buildings. Baptists, independent Muslims outside the state-controlled Caucasian Muslim Board, Jehovah's Witnesses, Hare Krishna communities, and Baha'is are amongst those who have been attacked by the authorities. Nakhichevan, an exclave wedged between Turkey, Armenia and Iran, is the "worst region in the country" for religious freedom, a Hare Krishna devotee told Forum 18. This is an observation that people of several faiths have frequently made to Forum 18. One of the most serious attacks was a raid on a Baptist children's summer camp, in which ordinary police and NSM secret police officers arrived "in many cars, shouting and swearing, even at the women," a church member who was handcuffed and beaten up in front of children told Forum 18.

ARMENIA: We are breaking our Council of Europe commitments, official admits

Four Jehovah's Witnesses who abandoned their alternative service at a psychiatric hospital in May after it turned out to be under military control were sentenced to three years' imprisonment each on 3 November in Sevan, Jehovah's Witnesses in Armenia told Forum 18 News Service. One of the four, Boris Melkumyan, testified in court that the hospital director ordered them to shovel snow with their bare hands until their arms froze, to remove a dead body from the women's section during the night, and despite having no training, to perform nursing duties on aggressive patients. Valery Mkrtumian of the Armenian foreign ministry admitted to Forum 18 that alternative service is under military control, thus violating Armenia's commitment to the Council of Europe to have introduced a genuinely civilian alternative service by January 2004. Twenty Jehovah's Witnesses are currently serving prison terms in Armenia, with a further fourteen soon due to go on trial.

AZERBAIJAN: Family and mosque appeal for imam's freedom

The family and mosque community of the only Sunni Muslim mosque in Azerbaijan's second city Gyanja have appealed for their imam, Kazim Aliyev, to be freed – three and a half years after his arrest. His family have told Forum 18 News Service that they reject absolutely the government accusation that Aliyev was preparing an armed anti-government uprising to create an Islamic state. Aliyev, who is married with three young children, is being held in prison camp 15 in Baku and his lawyer, Eldar Zeynalov, head of the Human Rights Centre of Azerbaijan, insists that he has been wrongfully jailed. A European Court of Human Rights appeal is currently under way. Zeynalov told Forum 18 that he believes Aliyev's refusal to demand set fees for carrying out religious rituals angered other imams in the town, and that this may have provoked the charges. Aliyev was initially held by the Military Counter-Intelligence Department for espionage, but the allegations were later changed.

TURKEY: Is there religious freedom in Turkey?

The European Union (EU) must make full religious freedom for all a core demand in the EU membership negotiations with Turkey which have just begun, argues Otmar Oehring of the German Catholic charity Missio in this personal commentary for Forum 18. Dr Oehring also calls for people inside and outside Turkey who believe in religious freedom for all to honestly and openly raise the continuing obstructions to the religious life of Turkey's Muslim, Christian and other religious communities. He analyses the limited, complex and changing state of religious freedom in the country. In particular, he notes that Christians of all confessions, devout Muslim women, Muslim minorities, and other minority religions face official obstacles in practicing their faith and (in the case of non-Muslims) strong social hostility.

ARMENIA: New wave of Jehovah's Witness sentences begins

Shaliko Sarkissian became the first Jehovah's Witness who abandoned alternative service because it remains under defence ministry control to be punished. On 15 September a court in the capital Yerevan imprisoned him for two years and eight months for "desertion". The trial of another, Garik Bekjanyan, is imminent, while a further dozen await trial. An OSCE official expressed alarm to Forum 18 at the "growing number" of Jehovah's Witness prisoners. The Council of Europe and the OSCE have condemned Armenia's failure to introduce a genuine civilian alternative to military service. But Sedrak Sedrakyan of the Defence Ministry's legal department rejects all complaints, insisting that his ministry has "no control" over the alternative service. He dismisses all concerns about the Jehovah's Witnesses. "We believe all this has been organised to make a show," he told Forum 18.

NAGORNO-KARABAKH: Baptist conscript now imprisoned

Military leaders in the unrecognised republic of Nagorno-Karabakh in the South Caucasus have successfully appealed to the courts for Gagik Mirzoyan - handed a suspended sentence in July for refusing to handle weapons or swear the military oath on grounds of religious faith – to be sent to prison. On 5 September Hadrut district court imprisoned the embattled Baptist conscript for one year. The court told Mirzoyan that if he declared then and there he would swear the oath it would free him and send him back to his unit. "Gagik responded that he couldn't do so as the Bible doesn't allow it," a fellow Baptist told Forum 18 News Service. "He was sentenced and police took him away immediately." Two Jehovah's Witnesses have also been sentenced to prison in Nagorno-Karabakh this year for refusing compulsory military service because of their religious convictions.

NAGORNO-KARABAKH: Suspended sentence for embattled Baptist conscript

Embattled Baptist conscript Gagik Mirzoyan received a two-year sentence, suspended for one year, at his 7 July trial. He had refused to swear the military oath or serve with weapons since being called up into the army of the unrecognised republic of Nagorno-Karabakh in the South Caucasus. "This means he won't have to serve any time in prison - if of course he does nothing wrong over the next year," Albert Voskanyan of the local Centre for Civilian Initiatives told Forum 18 News Service. Beaten twice since his conscription last December, Mirzoyan spent 10 days in prison for preaching his faith in his army unit. "After a lot of pressure, Gagik was finally happy because he could see his brothers and sisters from the church at his trial," a Baptist told Forum 18.

NAGORNO-KARABAKH: Illegally deported Armenian JW conscientious objector jailed, no progress in Karabakh Baptist case

An Armenian citizen, Jehovah's Witness conscientious objector Armen Grigoryan, who was illegally deported from Armenia to the unrecognised republic of Nagorno-Karabakh, has been jailed in Karabakh for two years and sent back to Armenia to serve the sentence, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Armen Grigoryan joins eleven other Jehovah's Witness conscientious objectors who are currently jailed in Armenia, despite the country's broken promise to the Council of Europe that it would free all these prisoners of conscience and introduce civilian alternative service by January 2004. In another Nagorno-Karabakh case, that of Baptist conscientious objector Gagik Mirzoyan - a Karabakh native who has already spent 10 days in a military prison – the Nagorno-Karabakh Foreign Ministry has told Forum 18 that no case has yet been formally brought against him. His congregation were expecting him to be tried in June.

AZERBAIJAN: Police with hostile TV crew raid meeting

Some 25 police and a hostile film crew from Space TV raided a Jehovah's Witness congress in the capital Baku on 12 June, echoing similar earlier raids on both Jehovah's Witnesses and Adventists in Azerbaijan's second city Gyanja [Gäncä]. Both police and the public prosecutor have refused to explain to Forum 18 News Service why a legally registered religious community was raided, a policeman stating that they "were fined and then released. We won't give out any other information by phone." Jehovah's Witnesses have told Forum 18 that "when the police arrived they gave the journalists orders of what to film," and that journalists tried to film interviews with local Jehovah's Witnesses and people from Georgia and the Netherlands against their will. Space TV falsely claimed that a criminal prosecution had been launched with the raid on "a non-traditional religion," but insists – against the evidence – that it also showed the Jehovah's Witness side of the story.

NAGORNO-KARABAKH: Baptist faces two years jail or two years forced labour

Baptist conscript Gagik Mirzoyan faces either being jailed or sent to do forced labour for two years for refusing, on religious grounds, to swear the military oath, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Mirzoyan has been beaten up several times in two different military units in Nagorno-Karabakh since being called up last December, when he refused to serve with weapons. He has also been detained for more than 10 days for sharing his faith with other soldiers and possessing several Christian calendars. Mirzoyan's trial has now been set for June and fellow Baptists have told Forum 18 that the "harsh reality" of the maltreatment Baptist conscripts suffered in the Soviet era is returning. Gagik Mirzoyan's congregation has earlier faced harassment from the Karabakh authorities and other Protestants and religious minorities, especially Jehovah's Witnesses, have faced restrictions on their activity.

ARMENIA: Not illegal deportation, merely illegal removal

Jehovah's Witness conscientious objector Armen Grigoryan faces a six year jail sentence, after his illegal deportation from his own country, Armenia, and his refusal to do military service in the unrecognised Nagorno-Karabakh republic, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. But Armenia's Human Rights Ombudsperson, Larisa Alaverdyan, denied to Forum 18 that Grigoryan had been deported. "You can't call it illegal deportation – there's no such term. I'm a specialist on this. Perhaps it might have been illegal removal from the country." She defended what she claimed was the right of the Armenian Defence Ministry to send Armenian citizens to Nagorno-Karabakh, which international law regards as part of Azerbaijan. Armenia continues to break its promises to the Council of Europe to free conscientious objectors and introduce a civilian alternative to military service. Baptists and Jehovah's Witnesses continue to be beaten up and jailed for conscientious objection.

NAGORNO-KARABAKH: Beating and 12 day imprisonment for Baptist soldier

Forum 18 News Service has been unable to reach V. Davidov, commanding officer of the unit in Hadrut of the army of the unrecognised Nagorno-Karabakh republic where Baptist conscript Gagik Mirzoyan was beaten and detained for more than ten days in early April before being transferred to an unknown location. Mirzoyan "is being persecuted for preaching the Gospel and because they found several Christian calendars in his possession," his relatives and friends told Forum 18 after meeting him at the unit just before his transfer. Mirzoyan has been threatened with a two year prison sentence.