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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: "Distributing religious literature without state permission"

Police in Azerbaijan have detained two Jehovah's Witnesses and fined them each the equivalent of about three weeks' average wages, Forum 18 News Service has learned. The two – who also had their personal Bibles and other literature confiscated – were fined under the Administrative Code article banning "distributing religious literature without state permission". They were detained by police in the capital Baku after talking to neighbours about their beliefs, and were put on trial the same day. The assistant to the judge who tried the case insisted to Forum 18 that the verdicts had been "in accordance with the law". Meanwhile, Baku's Baptist congregation is deeply concerned about a political opposition newspaper article making unfounded allegations against them, including that they are spies for foreign countries. The article led directly to police officers visiting the church several times to check its documents and question the pastor. The newspaper's editor, Rauf Arifoglu, vigorously defended the article to Forum 18.

AZERBAIJAN: Raids, fines, detentions, and another birth certificate denial

Two followers of the approach to Islam of Said Nursi have been fined and sentenced to 48 hours' detention in Azerbaijan, Forum 18 News Service has learned. They were also among seven Muslims fined three days earlier, after police raids on private homes during which religious books were seized. During the raids police used hostile TV and newspaper coverage against the Muslims, as has also happened against members of Protestant Christian and Jehovah's Witness communities the authorities dislike. Separately, a "temporary" nationwide ban on praying around mosques, imposed in August 2008, continues to be enforced. And the latest case of a child in Zakatala Region being denied a birth certificate because the parents have chosen a Christian name is Esteri Shabanova, born on 25 December 2009. Without a birth certificate, it is impossible for children to go to kindergarten or to school, get treatment in a hospital, or travel abroad. An official of the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations insisted to Forum 18 that "there is no persecution of religious believers in Azerbaijan."

AZERBAIJAN: Raids "as if we are terrorists" on Muslims

Three groups of followers of the approach to Islam of Said Nursi have been raided by police in Azerbaijan since the beginning of 2010. "Officers with automatic weapons raid our meetings as if we are terrorists," a Nursi follower complained to Forum 18 News Service. "But what troubles me the most is that when our books are confiscated they say they will check them and return them – yet they never do." Also, three members of one of the mosques forcibly closed in 2009 have been fined, in apparent retaliation for a large-scale commemoration of Ashura in December. Arif Yunusov of the Baku-based Institute of Peace and Democracy told Forum 18 that this represents an official attempt to crack down on the last uncontrolled sector of the population. "First they [the authorities] moved against opposition political parties, then against non-governmental organisations and journalists. Now all that is left are religious movements." He noted that "religion provides an umbrella for protest. So they have moved against groups they say are conducting unsanctioned meetings."

AZERBAIJAN: Nakhichevan authorities crack down on Ashura commemorations

Authorities in the Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhichevan warned employees of state enterprises and students not to attend mosque during Shia Muslim commemorations of Ashura in December, local human rights activist Malahat Nasibova told Forum 18 News Service. She said she had seen plain clothes police officers turning away young men from a Nakhichevan city mosque. A massive crackdown in the Nakhichevan village of Bananyar the day after the Ashura commemorations saw dozens detained, including some in psychiatric hospital. It is not clear if this was official punishment for their Ashura commemoration or to prevent potential opposition. Parliamentary deputy Ismail Hajiev denied to Forum 18 any crackdown in Bananyar, adding: "All mosques in Nakhichevan are working normally." Nasibova also said three young men who attended the Turkish-built Sunni mosque in Nakhichevan city were detained for 15-days in November and told to go to a Shia mosque instead. Forum 18 notes that small Adventist and Baha'i minorities have already been forced out of Nakhichevan.

AZERBAIJAN: "The authorities are already preparing to destroy the mosque"

Rovshan Shiraliev, lawyer for the only mosque in the Yeni Guneshli residential district of Azerbaijan's capital Baku, told Forum 18 News Service he fears that the authorities are already preparing to demolish the Fatima Zahra mosque. This is despite the community intending to take their case to the Supreme Court. Baku Appeal Court failed to uphold the community's challenge against a lower court decision to evict the community, demolish the Fatima Zahra mosque and return the land to the local administration. "The most important thing is that the court decision should be in favour of God," community leader Tofik Razizade told Forum 18. In Baku alone the authorities have demolished one mosque and closed three others, including Fatima Zahra. Several commentators bitterly pointed out to Forum 18 that the mosque closures and demolitions came while Baku was one of the four Capitals of Islamic Culture for 2009.

AZERBAIJAN: Restrictions imposed as registration deadline approaches

Less than two weeks before Azerbaijan's 1 January 2010 deadline for religious communities to re-register to continue to legally exist, Forum 18 News Service has found that more than four fifths of religious communities have apparently been unable to get re-registration so far. They are liable to liquidation through the courts, unless they are able to re-register before 2010. Muslims have complained to Forum 18 News Service that only communities affiliated with the Caucasian Muslim Board are now eligible to apply for registration, while non-Muslim communities complain that officials of the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations - which conducts the registration - is forcing communities to include restrictions in their statutes. The so-called "model statute" reinforces restrictions included in the 2009 Religion Law, and also imposes unclear wording that may be used against peaceful religious activity. One reinforcement of restrictions is a requirement that the State Committee will be informed when religious education is given to a community's young people and adults. It appears that in the Nakhichevan exclave no re-registration is taking place.

AZERBAIJAN: Jehovah's Witness claims police beating, interrogation and strip-search

Police in Azerbaijan's northwestern district of Zakatala have refused to explain whether, and if so why, they beat a 71-year-old Jehovah's Witness Lydia Suleimanova. She states that a beating from police left her requiring medical attention, and that police questioned her for many hours at the police station, accused her of being a prostitute and stripped her naked for a drugs search. Deputy police chief Kamandar Hasanov asked Forum 18 News Service: "Why are you getting involved in things here that have nothing to do with you?" Despite repeated calls, no duty officer at the police station was prepared to discuss Suleimanova's case. She has lodged an appeal against her maltreatment with the General Prosecutor's Office, the Interior Ministry's Inspection Department and the Human Rights Ombudsperson. Police elsewhere in Azerbaijan have also been involved in harassment of Muslim and Protestant religious believers. Also, Jehovah's Witness Mushfiq Mammedov has failed in his appeal to overturn his criminal conviction for conscientious objection to military service. He is preparing an appeal to the Supreme Court.

AZERBAIJAN: Officials deny Alternative Service commitment, as victim challenges sentence

Sentenced by Azerbaijan in 2006 for conscientious objection to compulsory military service on grounds of religious faith, Jehovah's Witness Mushfiq Mammedov has been sentenced again on exactly the same charges in October 2009 and fined. He is challenging this in Baku's Appeal Court. The judge's assistant told Forum 18 News Service that the hearing, which began on 2 December, is due to resume on 9 December. Jehovah's Witnesses pointed out to Forum 18 that Azerbaijan's Constitution and Criminal Code do not allow criminal charges to be brought against someone twice for the same crime. Meanwhile, despite Azerbaijan's commitment to the Council of Europe to have already adopted a Law on Alternative Service, a senior parliamentary official has said the draft will not be presented to Parliament until the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh is resolved. Andres Herkel, co-rapporteur of the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly, told Forum 18 that "this can't be a universal excuse for Azerbaijan not to fulfil its obligations and standards on human rights and basic freedoms".

COMMENTARY: The European Court of Human Rights - Out of step on conscientious objection

The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg (ECtHR) has recently made a very dangerous judgement for freedom of religion or belief in the Bayatyan v. Armenia case which puts it out of step with the international standards on conscientious objection to military service and with the Council of Europe's own human rights agenda, notes Derek Brett of Conscience and Peace Tax International http://www.cpti.ws in a commentary for Forum 18 News Service http://www.forum18.org. The Court, apparently unaware of the recent parallel jurisprudence under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, found no violation of the freedom of thought, conscience and religion in the imprisonment of a Jehovah's Witness for his refusal on grounds of conscientious objection to perform military service, or the subsequent increase in the sentence, which had been partly justified by his reasons for refusal. Brett argues that it is vital that the Grand Chamber of the ECtHR agrees to hear the appeal in the Bayatyan case, as it alone can overturn the precedent which this will otherwise set for future ECtHR cases.

NAGORNO-KARABAKH: "If they violate the law by meeting together for religious purposes, they will be fined"

Jehovah's Witnesses in the internationally unrecognised entity of Nagorno-Karabakh, in the south Caucasus, have lost a legal challenge to the entity's refusal to grant them legal status, Forum 18 News Service has learned. An appeal to the entity's Supreme Court may be made. Ashot Sargsyan, head of the Department for Ethnic Minority and Religious Affairs vigorously defended to Forum 18 denial of registration to Jehovah's Witnesses and a local Protestant Church. Sargsyan said that, without registration, individual believers have the right to conduct religious activity – such as to pray - alone at home. But he said neither of the two groups can meet together as a community, even in private. "If they violate the law by meeting together for religious purposes, they will be fined," Sargsyan pledged. Both groups have told Forum 18 that low-profile meetings are not currently being obstructed.

AZERBAIJAN: Police chief deports local-born Baptist – with no documentation

Local Baptist Javid Shingarov (who holds a Russian passport) was cut off from his wife, father and children in his native village near Yalama in northern Azerbaijan when he was yesterday (30 September) deported to Russia. Yalama's police chief Gazanfar Huseinov – who punished him under the Administrative Code with a fine and deportation order for holding religious worship in his home – refused to tell Forum 18 News Service why he had refused to give his verdict in writing and why the Migration Service was apparently not involved. An official of the Human Rights Ombudsperson's office told Forum 18 that failure to give a verdict in writing is a violation of the law and that the Law on Migration puts responsibility for deportation decisions on the State Migration Service, not the police. The Christian books confiscated from Shingarov and others during raids on 9 September have not been returned, while a Baptist whose home was among those raided was pressured to resign from his job as a school director.

AZERBAIJAN: Mosque closed four days before Ramadan ends

Four days before the feast marking the end of Ramadan, religious affairs official Firdovsi Kerimov and the police closed the only Sunni Muslim mosque in Azerbaijan's second city, Gyanja, claiming it was not registered. Imam Ilham Ibrahimov told Forum 18 News Service the mosque has registration under the old Religion Law and has applied for re-registration under the new Religion Law, for which the deadline is 1 January 2010. He said Kerimov "believes it's his role to control religious communities". He added that police warned that if the community prays on the street they will be arrested. Most of the mosques closed over the last year have been Sunni. Meanwhile, Deputy Police Chief Elman Mamedov denied to Forum 18 that violence was used in breaking up a Baptist children's summer camp near Kusar: "No-one was beaten, no-one was insulted, nothing was confiscated. Do you think we're bandits?" One Baptist told Forum 18: "He's completely lying."