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The right to believe, to worship and witness
The right to change one’s belief or religion
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AZERBAIJAN: "Torture is nothing new, but insulting Allah is crossing a red line"

After the jailing of a Muslim Unity Movement member for six years, police seized and tortured two of his supporters outside the Baku courtroom. "They put their hands through the sack and pulled out my beard. I was insulted with the crudest of obscene words. They also insulted Allah," one of the two, Suleyman Alakbarov, recounted. In protest, the Movement's leader, prisoner of conscience Taleh Bagirov, began a hunger strike. "Torture is nothing new, but insulting Allah is crossing a red line," said Bagirov's wife Leyla Ismayilzade.

AZERBAIJAN: Treason case against Imam Sardar Babayev "clearly fabricated"

The State Security Ministry secret police arrested Shia Muslim Imam Sardar Babayev in October 2021 on treason charges. On 14 April, a Baku court extended pre-trial detention for a further five months. Human rights defender Elshan Hasanov described the treason case against Imam Babayev as "clearly fabricated". "No one believes Sardar Babayev is an Iranian spy," said exiled human rights defender Arif Yunus. Imam Babayev has already served a three-year jail term for leading mosque prayers after gaining Islamic education outside Azerbaijan.

AZERBAIJAN: Direct regime employing and firing imams is "role of a religious organisation"

In the first known use of new powers for appointing, re-appointing every five years, and firing all Islamic clergy, in early May, the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations fired Imam Mirseymur Aliyev in Neftchala. He had held end of Ramadan prayers on 3 May, not the regime-enforced date of 2 May. Lawyer Asabali Mustafayev noted that the regime taking direct control of Islamic clergy means that "the state is now playing the role of a religious organisation."

AZERBAIJAN: State appointment of all imams now in law

On 11 March, President Ilham Aliyev signed further Religion Law amendments handing responsibility for naming prayer leaders in all mosques from the Caucasian Muslim Board to the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations. A State Committee official says "it has not yet been decided which [State Committee] Department will name imams". Told that Forum 18 was unaware of any Muslims demanding that the state name imams, the official responded: "How do you know?" Commentator Kanan Rovshanoglu says the amendments "mean that religious activity will increasingly be concentrated in the hands of the state". The UN Human Rights Committee issued two further rulings that Azerbaijan violated the rights of Jehovah's Witnesses to freedom of religion or belief.

AZERBAIJAN: Imam's pre-trial imprisonment extended in treason case

A Baku court has extended pre-trial imprisonment for Shia imam Sardar Babayev until April. The secret police arrested the former prisoner of conscience in October 2021 and is investigating him on criminal charges of treason. Six other arrested Shia preachers were freed and criminal cases dropped. "It's a question of relations between Azerbaijan and Iran," a commentator noted, but insists charges of treason are unfounded. "If someone has sympathy for Iran, does it make them an Iranian agent?" A Baku mosque police closed in October 2021 on alleged coronavirus grounds remains closed. A spokesperson said police close mosques, "but we do so when we get a request from the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations".

AZERBAIJAN: State takes direct control of mosque leadership

The State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations will take over naming imams in all mosques from the Caucasian Muslim Board if amendments to the Religion Law awaiting their second reading in Parliament are approved. The amendments would also give the State Committee the leading role in re-appointing all imams every five years. Commentator on religious issues Kanan Rovshanoglu notes that the Caucasian Muslim Board "will completely lose control over mosques", just as it has already lost control over Islamic higher education. He argues that Islamic communities themselves should choose their own imams. Another amendment would remove the possibility for non-Muslim communities to have a "religious centre" or headquarter body.

AZERBAIJAN: Alternative service "not under discussion" despite latest ECtHR decision

Despite another European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) decision that Azerbaijan violated the human rights of two more conscientious objectors, Saadat Novruzova of the Presidential Administration's Human Rights Protection Unit told Forum 18 that changing the law to introduce a civilian alternative to compulsory military service "is not under discussion". Azerbaijan committed to the Council of Europe to introduce an alternative service by January 2003. The 7 October ECtHR decision reminded Azerbaijan of a similar earlier decision that "calls in principle for legislative action" to satisfy "the obligations incumbent on it of assuring .. the right to benefit from the right to conscientious objection".

AZERBAIJAN: "They hold services and pray there, but without a congregation"

Azerbaijani military forces have blocked Armenian Apostolic Church pilgrims' access to Sunday worship at Dadivank Monastery since 2 May, citing first coronavirus, then a blocked road because of a landslip. "They do not want Dadivank to function as a Christian monastery, but they can't say directly that they don't want this," Nagorno-Karabakh's Bishop Vrtanes Abrahamian stated. "So they use technical issues." The Monastery, in Azerbaijani territory close to the ethnic Armenian-controlled unrecognised entity of Nagorno-Karabakh, is home to six monks and is protected by Russian peacekeepers.

AZERBAIJAN: Religion Law amendments "more controlling mechanisms"

On 16 June, President Ilham Aliyev signed into law Religion Law and Administrative Code changes introducing new restrictions on freedom of religion and belief. These include requiring the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations to approve the appointment of all non-Islamic religious leaders and to take part in the re-attestation of all clerics of the state-controlled Caucasian Muslim Board every five years. "Most provisions of the amendments are quite restrictive and raise the question as to whether they are the right policy," human rights defender Rasul Jafarov commented. "Our opinion is that they are not, as they violate all international standards."

AZERBAIJAN: 9 new Strasbourg judgments, 9 judgments awaited - list

The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) in Strasbourg issued judgments in May and June in eight freedom of religion or belief cases, finding that Azerbaijan had violated human rights and ordering compensation. One of the lawyers in seven of the cases, Asabali Mustafayev, said that all involved were "a little dissatisfied" with the ECtHR judgments, as the Court had not looked at all aspects of the violations included in the cases. The Court dismissed a ninth case. Nine other freedom of religion and belief cases from Azerbaijan are awaiting judgments.

AZERBAIJAN: A Strasbourg Court judgment alone "is not enough for justice"

After the latest European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) judgments that Azerbaijan violated freedom of religion and belief, the regime is imposing more restrictions in Religion Law changes. "The judgment of the Court alone is not enough for justice," a lawyer who wished to remain anonymous for fear of state reprisals told Forum 18. "The government's failure to fulfil its ECtHR obligations is a serious issue," says another lawyer, Asabali Mustafayev. "The Council of Europe and other international organisations are not insistent enough, so the government gets away with flouting [its obligations]."

AZERBAIJAN: Azerbaijan blocks ordination in Armenian monastery

Azerbaijan's military blocked Armenian pilgrims visiting Dadivank Monastery for Sunday worship on 25 April and the ordination of a priest. The monastery is in territory returned to Azerbaijani control after 2020 fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh. Russian peacekeepers accompany pilgrims to Dadivank, but "They too were surprised" by the sudden denial of access, says Nagorno-Karabakh's Ombudsperson, Gegham Stepanyan. The ordination had to be moved to another monastery. Azerbaijan's Defence Ministry has not responded on why it blocked access to Dadivank.