23 October 2012
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
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
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'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
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
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.
11 July 2012
Police and secret police officers raided the home of local Muslim Zeka Miragayev in the capital Baku, confiscating copies of the Koran and other Muslim books, as he told Forum 18 News Service. Officers also took money from his home. Police declined to comment to Forum 18. In Azerbaijan's second city Gyanja, police raided a private home where the hosts and three visiting Turkish students were praying the namaz. Two family members and the students were questioned for eight hours at the police station. The Muslims say police beat at least some of them. The three students were given heavy administrative fines, but the orders to deport them were overturned on appeal. "They were praying where they weren't allowed," the local police chief explained to Forum 18. He denied anyone was beaten.
28 June 2012
Police in Azerbaijan have threatened six Baptists with criminal prosecution for sharing their beliefs with others, Forum 18 News Service has learned. The passports of three have been confiscated, as has Christian literature and a car. Deputy police chief Misir Imamaliyev, who interrogated one group held at a police station, claimed to Forum 18 that they were not arrested but merely detained. "Distribution of any religious books without state permission is illegal", he stated. Elsewhere, Baku's Greater Grace Protestant Church is awaiting its appeal against a court ruling that it be liquidated.
18 May 2012
At least 20 police officers – including the local police chief – took part in a raid on a Seventh-day Adventist Church in Gyanja in Azerbaijan on 12 May, Forum 18 News Service has learned. The local head of the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations took part in the raid, but denied this to Forum 18. Police initially searched for foreigners in the congregation, and when they found none then started checking whether all the approximately 50 children present had written permission to be present from both their parents. After questioning church members and children for several hours, police warned those they questioned that prosecutions would follow with fines. At least one congregation member has been heavily fined, without going through a court trial. The raid came two weeks after the home of a Jehovah's Witness in Sumgait was also raided and religious literature confiscated. Sumgait Police told Forum 18 that "no-one was raided". Baptists have also been stopped while sharing their faith, and a court in the capital Baku has handed down a verdict liquidating Greater Grace Protestant Church. The Church will appeal against this, the first enforced liquidation of a religious community since a harsh Religion Law was adopted.
26 April 2012
A court in the Azerbaijani capital Baku has ruled to liquidate the Greater Grace Protestant Church, the Judge's assistant told Forum 18 News Service. At a 15-minute final hearing on 25 April in the Church's absence, Judge Tahira Asadova upheld the suit lodged by the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations. Asked how the Judge could have taken a decision which means that any activity the Church engages in would be illegal and subject to punishment, Judge Asadova's secretary Sevinj Ahmedova told Forum 18: "The court has decided." She said the decision will enter into force a month after the written verdict is issued, unless the Church lodges an appeal. Church members told Forum 18 they intend to challenge the decision through every court, even to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. Ilya Zenchenko, head of Azerbaijan's Baptist Union, says he is troubled by the decision. "I protest against it – it is not just," he told Forum 18.
25 April 2012
An official of the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations – which operates Azerbaijan's harsh religious censorship system – admitted in mid-April that about 100 shops wishing to sell religious books are still waiting for the necessary licences. Only 16 such licences have been issued since the system's introduction in 2009. Forum 18 News Service notes that selling religious books without a licence risks a maximum punishment for a first offence of two years' imprisonment. Baku's Metro banned the sale of religious books in early April. One religious publisher told Forum 18 that after the compulsory licensing system was introduced, several bookshops returned books as they were too afraid to sell them without a licence. Jehovah's Witnesses have failed in about 15 legal cases challenging State Committee religious censorship decisions.
17 April 2012
Ahead of Azerbaijan's hosting of the Eurovision Song Contest, Forum 18 News Service notes that freedom of religion or belief and related human rights such as the freedom of expression and of assembly remain highly restricted. Among issues documented in Forum 18's religious freedom survey are: state attempts to counter discussion of violations with claims of inter-religious harmony and religious tolerance; officials behaving as if the rule of law places no limitations on their actions; unfair trials lacking due legal process; steadily increasing "legal" restrictions on and punishments for exercising freedom of religion or belief, often prepared in secret, forming a labyrinth of restrictive state controls; "legal" denials of international human rights standards Azerbaijan has agreed to implement; a highly restrictive censorship regime; enforced closures of places people meet for worship; a ban on praying outside mosques; jailing of prisoners of conscience exercising the right to conscientious objection to military service; arbitrary deportations of foreign citizens exercising the right to freedom of religion or belief; and severe denials of human rights in the Nakhichevan exclave. Azerbaijan is likely to remain a place where fundamental human rights are violated with impunity, and the state tries to make exercising human rights conditional upon state permission.