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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: 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, 8 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. Eight 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.

AZERBAIJAN: State to have veto on religious leader appointments?

The State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations would acquire a veto over non-Islamic religious communities' appointment of leaders under Religion Law amendments due for their first parliamentary reading on 23 April. It would also be involved in re-attesting Muslim Board clerics every five years. Only communities with a religious centre (headquarters) – requiring five state-registered communities in different locations – would be allowed to apply to have foreign citizens as religious leaders, establish religious educational establishments or organise visits by their adherents abroad.

AZERBAIJAN: Will regime implement UN, European Court of Human Rights decisions?

The UN Human Rights Committee adopted two decisions in favour of four Jehovah's Witnesses, requiring not only that Azerbaijan repay their fines and court fees but review "its domestic legislation, regulations and/or practices" to ensure similar violations cannot recur. Dozens of European Court of Human Rights judgments in freedom of religion or belief cases similarly require changes to law and practice to implement the decisions. The regime has given no public indication of any changes to law and practice to prevent further violations.

AZERBAIJAN: 36 freedom of religion cases pending at ECtHR

Pending at the European Court of Human Rights are 36 known cases relating to violations of freedom of religion or belief, involving 64 individuals and 4 communities. A decision is expected on 22 October in the case of Nina Gridneva, fined for offering religious literature on the street. Other cases cover punishments for leading mosque prayers and holding religious meetings, refusing compulsory military service on grounds of conscience and the state's religious censorship.