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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: Unregistered worship "illegal" - but under what law?

Police in Azerbaijan have raided another Jehovah's Witness meeting, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. In the latest raid, nine Jehovah's Witnesses were detained and threatened. "We consider the police raid unlawful since the Constitution of Azerbaijan gives us the right to gather for worship and Azerbaijani law does not require registration to come together to study the Holy Scriptures," a Jehovah's Witness told Forum 18. The community will continue to meet, he insisted. Officials repeatedly insist that unregistered worship is banned by the Administrative Code. Article 299 of this Code lists three "offences": avoiding state registration, violating regulations over organising religious events and attracting children to religious events. Violations can be punished with fines of between 10 and 15 times the minimum monthly wage. However, state registration is not legally required for religious activity to be conducted. Meanwhile Baptist Pastor Hamid Shabanov's trial is once again due to resume, after repeated delays, on 4 February.

NAGORNO-KARABAKH: Repressive new Religion Law signed

The President of the internationally unrecognised entity of Nagorno-Karabakh, Bako Sahakyan, has signed a repressive new Religion Law, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. It comes into force ten days after its official publication, which is expected to be after the current Christmas holidays. No officials were available to discuss the new Law, because of public holidays for Christmas which the Armenian Apostolic Church celebrates on 6 January 2009. The main restrictions in the new Law are: an apparent ban on unregistered religious activity; highly restrictive requirements to gain legal recognition; state censorship of religious literature; an undefined "monopoly" given to the Armenian Apostolic Church over preaching and spreading its faith while restricting other faiths to similarly undefined "rallying their own faithful". Many articles of the Law are formulated in a way that lacks clarity, making the intended implementation of the Law uncertain. The Law also does not resolve the issue of conscientious objection to military service.

NAGORNO-KARABAKH: "The Law is like rubber"

President Bako Sahakyan of the internationally unrecognised entity of Nagorno-Karabakh is considering a restrictive new Religion Law, Forum 18 News Service has found. The new Law imposes vaguely formulated restrictions, including: an apparent ban on unregistered religious activity; state censorship of religious literature; an undefined "monopoly" given to the Armenian Apostolic Church over preaching and spreading its faith, while banning "soul-hunting" and restricting others to undefined "rallying their own faithful". Garik Grigoryan, head of the parliamentary Commission on State Legal Issues, claimed to Forum 18 that "it will be a more liberal, democratic Law." Members of religious communities have expressed serious concerns to Forum 18. One member of the Armenian Apostolic Church rhetorically asked Forum 18: "Where's the freedom?" Another described the Law as "like rubber," noting that "you can't see exactly how it's going to be put into practice." The Law also does not resolve the issue of a civilian alternative to compulsory military service.

AZERBAIJAN: New excuses for mosque closure, new raid on Jehovah's Witnesses

Azerbaijan continues to obstruct religious worship, Forum 18 News Service has found. Police in the capital Baku have put forward new claims as to why the Abu-Bekr mosque cannot be reopened. The latest police claims, for which no evidence has been produced, are that there is a threat of terrorist attack, that local people object to the mosque, and that it was built illegally. However, Deputy Police Chief Alekper Ismailov claimed to Forum 18 that the authorities do not want to keep the mosque closed. A nationwide "temporary" ban on praying outside mosques also remains in force. Separately, Baku police have also raided a legal Jehovah's Witness meeting for worship, confiscated legally imported literature, and detained two people for five hours as part of a "passport check." Police Chief Firuddin Jamalov initially claimed to Forum 18 that "it was not us", but in the face of evidence changed his claim to "this is not the subject of a phone conversation." Meanwhile, the trial of Baptist pastor Hamid Shabanov is due to resume in Zakatala on 17 November.

AZERBAIJAN: Pastor awaits trial hearing under house arrest

Baptist pastor Hamid Shabanov – on trial since July for allegedly possessing an illegal gun – was transferred from prison to house arrest at a hearing in Zakatala on 5 November, church members told Forum 18 News Service. He had been detained for twenty weeks. His next hearing is due on 17 November. He insisted that the accusation against him is fabricated. "The police came into my house back in June and placed the pistol there," he told Forum 18. "The first time I saw it was when they claim to have found it." He believes he will eventually be cleared. "The Word of God is stronger than a pistol." Shabanov's church has been denied legal status since the 1990s, one of three Baptist congregations whose applications have failed. Also denied registration is an Assemblies of God congregation in Baku, whose pastor insisted to Forum 18 that the authorities simply do not want to register any more Christian churches. The State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations refused to discuss registration denials with Forum 18, but its head Hidayat Orujev told the local media on 5 November: "Not one religious organisation applying recently for registration was denied it."

AZERBAIJAN: Authorities "dragging out" Baptist pastor's trial and Baku mosque case

The long-delayed trial of Baptist pastor Hamid Shabanov in Zakatala on charges of possessing an illegal weapon is due to resume on 5 November, his lawyer and family told Forum 18 News Service. The charges carry a maximum penalty of three years in prison. Church members say police planted the weapon in the pastor's home to punish him for his leadership of the church. Meanwhile, four days after ruling that the closed Abu-Bekr mosque in Baku should be allowed to reopen, the same judge overturned his own decision, the mosque's lawyer Javanshir Suleymanov told Forum 18. He says police claim the mosque faces a threat of a second attack. "This is just stupid. They don't have the right to scare people like that," Suleymanov told Forum 18. He pointed out that if such a serious threat exists it would be investigated by the NSM secret police, not the ordinary police. The State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations refused to discuss these cases with Forum 18.

AZERBAIJAN: "They want to imprison the leader and see the community fall apart"

Baptist pastor Hamid Shabanov is due in court in Zakatala again on 31 October to face charges of illegal possession of a weapon. Church members insist the accusation is fabricated. Neither he nor his lawyer have been given the indictment as required in law. Nor has there been any explanation of why Shabanov is still being held when the court-ordered detention period expired on 21 October, nor why the police did not bring him to the court for a scheduled hearing on 28 October. "They are deliberately drawing this out as they don't want Shabanov to go to court," his lawyer Mirman Aliyev told Forum 18 News Service. "They want to hold him for as long as they can." He complained of the "crude violations" of the law. Shabanov's brother complains of the authorities' attempt to prosecute the second of the church's pastors. "They want to imprison the leader and see the community fall apart." Meanwhile, although the Abu-Bekr mosque community in Baku won its case in court challenging its enforced closure, it remains unclear when it will be allowed to reopen for prayers. "We need a special instruction from the Interior Ministry before we can allow it to reopen," an official of the local police insisted to Forum 18.

AZERBAIJAN: State still deprives Muslims of mosque and Baptists of pastor

Azerbaijan continues to maintain the closure of Baku's Abu-Bekr Mosque, Forum 18 News Service has found. The closure was imposed after a 17 August bomb attack on the mosque, and a nationwide "temporary" ban – still in force – on people praying outside mosques was also imposed. The authorities have caught the alleged attackers, but "the decision not to allow the mosque to reopen offends the community," Imam Gamet Suleymanov told Forum 18. The ordinary police, the Interior Ministry, the Prosecutor's Office, the National Security Ministry (NSM) secret police, and the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations all deny that their agency is responsible. Similarly, the authorities also refuse to release the text of the ban on praying outside mosques. Elsewhere, Baptist prisoner of conscience Hamid Shabanov remains in jail, with his latest detention period due to end on 21 October. It is unclear what the authorities plan to do, even though he is held on charges his church and family insist are fabricated.

AZERBAIJAN: Religious freedom survey, September 2008

In its survey analysis of religious freedom in Azerbaijan, Forum 18 News Service has found continuing violations of freedom of thought, conscience and belief. The state attempts to control or limit the majority Muslim and minority religious communities, including imposing strict censorship, violating its international human rights commitments. The situation in the Nakhichevan exclave is worse than the rest of the country. Officials often claim that Azerbaijan is a state of religious tolerance – a view promoted by government-favoured groups – but the state promotes intolerance of some minorities and has not introduced the genuine religious freedom necessary for genuine religious tolerance to flourish. Many officials are convinced that ethnic Azeris should not be non-Muslims, and act on this conviction. In practice, many violations of the human rights of both Muslims and non-Muslims – such as the detention of Baptist prisoner of conscience Hamid Shabanov and a ban on Muslims praying outside mosques - are based on unwritten understandings and even violations of the written law.

AZERBAIJAN: Baptist prisoner of conscience and Muslim still jailed

Azerbaijan's Baptist prisoner of conscience Hamid Shabanov has been ordered – in a closed hearing he and his defence lawyer were not informed of – to be detained for another two months, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. "The judge called the latest hearing without even informing Hamid's lawyer," Ilya Zenchenko of the Baptist Union told Forum 18. "This was a clear violation." The defence's request that Shabanov be freed pending possible trial was rejected. However, Baptists have welcomed his transfer to Balakan District, in north-western Azerbaijan, which is next to Pastor Shabanov's home Zakatala District. In a separate case, Muslim prisoner Said Dadashbeyli has failed in his appeal to the Supreme Court, the last possible avenue of appeal within Azerbaijan. His family told Forum 18 that they will now take the case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. Difficulties continue for religious communities, a Baku Protestant church, Cathedral of Praise, having had its place of worship confiscated.

AZERBAIJAN: Muslims banned from praying outside mosques, Raids on Jehovah's Witnesses continue

A ban on worshipping outside mosques in Azerbaijan, imposed after an August bomb attack on a mosque which killed three people, is still in force Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Some Muslim men have also had their beards forcibly shaved off by police. "With the rise in the number of Muslims performing the namaz [Islamic prayers] the numbers who cannot fit inside mosques and have to pray outside has been rising in Baku," a Muslim who preferred not to be identified told Forum 18. "The authorities want total control of the situation – and this could be a challenge. They fear it could lead to the destruction of social order." Also, NSM secret police and the ordinary police have raided another Jehovah's Witness meeting. The NSM filmed those present, saying they would show the film on television to "disgrace" them. Those present, including a young child, were detained and questioned for five and a half hours, as well as being pressured to become Muslims. Two women were fined without being allowed legal representation. No official has been willing to talk to Forum 18 about either matter.

AZERBAIJAN: Threats and deportation "to stop us talking about God"

On 22 August Russian citizen Imamzade Mamedova was deported from Azerbaijan to Russia for talking to nearby residents in the north-western town of Zakatala about her faith as a Jehovah's Witness. She is the ninth Jehovah's Witness to be deported from Azerbaijan for religious reasons in the last two years. Detained with her was Gamar Aliyeva, who had been "forbidden" by a local police officer back in 2000 from speaking about her faith. The same officer threatened the two women that the police "would punish us in such a way that we would stop talking about God," Aliyeva complained. Vali Aslanov of the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations in Baku dismissed complaints over the treatment of the two women. "What the Jehovah's Witnesses did was wrong, but then they blame the authorities," he told Forum 18 News Service. Zakatala is also where Baptist pastor Hamid Shabanov is in the police cell awaiting the resumption of his trial on charges of possessing a weapon, which his congregation insists was planted by police. However, the regional official of the State Committee rejects any suggestion that religious rights are violated in north-western Azerbaijan. "Here we have freedom of conscience and tolerance at the highest level throughout the world," Nizami Mamedov claimed to Forum 18.