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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: 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."

AZERBAIJAN: "They believe talking about their faith is not a crime"

Arrested by police in Yevlakh in late August for "preaching the Nursi religious trend" – a reference to the teachings of the late Turkish Muslim theologian Said Nursi - Hasil Mamedov was imprisoned for seven days and Yusif Mamedov and Arif Yunusov for five days each on charges of hooliganism, court officials told Forum 18 News Service. "The police accused them of hooliganism, but they were not guilty of any wrongdoing," their lawyer Farhat Mamedov told Forum 18. "They believe talking about their faith is not a crime." Other Nursi followers have been fined. Jehovah's Witness Tarana Khutsishvili, whose husband was deported to punish him for his religious activity in July, again had a meeting in her home raided by a dozen police in August. Although in her last month of pregnancy, police threatened her with arrest and told others to pay large fines.

AZERBAIJAN: Jehovah's Witnesses deported, Baptist next

On 10 September Javid Shingarov, a Baptist from the small town of Yalama in northern Azerbaijan, was fined and ordered deported for hosting religious events in his home. "I fined him – he violated the procedure for foreign citizens to live in Azerbaijan by propagandizing for his faith," police chief Gazanfar Huseinov told Forum 18 News Service. "He invited friends and neighbours for religious events at his home." Shingarov told Forum 18 he was born in Azerbaijan but has a Russian passport. He said Yalama is his only home and is where his wife, two children and elderly father live. "It is 99 per cent certain that they will deport me." In July, two Jehovah's Witnesses – both Georgian citizens - were deported with no documentation for alleged "religious propaganda". One was an ethnic Georgian born and brought up in Azerbaijan, the other an ethnic Azeri, born and brought up in Georgia.

AZERBAIJAN: "The government doesn't want to give up control over religion"

Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev has modified the text of legal changes targeting the freedom of religion or belief of Muslims, Forum 18 News Service has learned. The Caucasian Muslim Board alone will now appoint mosque leaders, only subsequently informing the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations. Non-citizens and citizens who have gained their religious education abroad will still be banned from leading Muslim rituals. Parliamentary deputy Fazil Gazanfaroglu Mustafaev of the Great Formation Party stated that the revised text is "a little better". "But it doesn't resolve the problem," he told Forum 18. "The government doesn't want to give up control over religion." He also noted that the President has no legal authority to make changes to the amendments without parliamentary approval. Also, in addition to the state's continuing harassment of minorities such as the Jehovah's Witnesses, followers of the Muslim theologian Said Nursi are also being targeted. Three followers of his approach to Islam have been detained and internally deported.

AZERBAIJAN: Parliament approves latest Religion Law changes

Azerbaijan's Parliament, the Milli Mejlis, today (30 June) adopted controversial new amendments to the Religion Law, a month after the last restrictive amendments to the same Law came into force. A parliamentary official told Forum 18 News Service that they "will be sent on to the Presidential Administration for final approval within days." The amendments require all leaders of Muslim communities to be appointed by the state, and state that "religious rituals of the Islamic faith can be carried out only by citizens of Azerbaijan who have received their education in Azerbaijan." Despite these restrictions on freedom of religion or belief, parliamentary deputy Ali Huseynov, who heads the Legal Policy and State Building Committee – which arranged the amendments' passage through Parliament - stated they "do not at all restrict freedom of conscience". Forum 18 was unable to find out from Huseynov why he thinks limiting the freedom of communities to choose their own religious leaders does not limit freedom of conscience.

AZERBAIJAN: "Why shouldn't we bring order to this?"

Complaining of the latest closure of a mosque in Azerbaijan is Muslim rights activist Ilgar Ibrahimoglu Allahverdiev. He told Forum 18 News Service that local officials and police banned Muslims from praying at the Khazrat Fatima mosque in Baku, cut off the power and threatened to demolish the uncompleted building. "The time the community had to complete construction work is over," local police chief Jovdat Mamedov told Forum 18. "The city authorities ordered them to stop. It's a problem of documentation." Parliamentary deputy Rabiyyat Aslanova defended the moves against mosques, insisting to Forum 18 that only "illegal structures" had been demolished or closed. "Why shouldn't we bring order to this?" Police elsewhere in Baku warned Jehovah's Witnesses they would be closed down if they allow children to attend, while two female Jehovah's Witnesses have officially complained of police interrogations during which they were pressured to change their faith.

AZERBAIJAN: Muslim opposition to new Religion Law changes

A deputy chairman of the Caucasian Muslim Board, Haji Salman Musaev – stressing he was speaking personally – has told Forum 18 News Service of his opposition to the further two amendments to the Religion Law due for consideration in the Milli Mejlis (parliament) on 30 June. The changes would ban foreigners and those who have studied Islam abroad from leading Muslim prayers and require state approval for all mosque leaders. "If religion here is separate from the state, they should explain why this is necessary," he told Forum 18. Opposition Milli Mejlis deputy Iqbal Agazade – who opposes the changes – told Forum 18 he fears they will be adopted. "Only about eight – maximum ten – deputies will vote against them." The Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly called on Azerbaijan to send the restrictive May 2009 Religion Law amendments to its Venice Commission for review. But ruling party Milli Mejlis deputy Rabiyyat Aslanova told Forum 18: "Why should we check our every step with the Council of Europe? This would be wrong – a violation of our sovereignty."