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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: Second raid this month on Jehovah's Witnesses

Police in Azerbaijan have now raided two Jehovah's Witness communities this month, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. The second raid was on "a small peaceful religious meeting" in a home in the capital Baku. Fifteen police officers took part in this raid and detained all of the congregation, beating up three detainees. After the first raid, nine Jehovah's Witnesses caught up in it wrote to the General Prosecutor, pointing out that the raid was a violation of their rights to freedom of thought, speech and conscience guaranteed under the Azerbaijani Constitution and Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights. They asked for "urgent and effective measures" to halt such violations, for the actions of officials to be legally verified, and for criminal prosecutions of officials who have violated the law. The number of raids seems to have increased in the past year, primarily targeting Jehovah's Witnesses, Baptists, Adventists and other Protestants. Communities of other faiths have also been raided and warned by officials in 2008; these communities have asked Forum 18 not to identify them for fear of further repression.

AZERBAIJAN: "Wasn't one prison term enough?"

Baptist former prisoner of conscience Zaur Balaev has been summoned and threatened with a new prison term, he has told Forum 18 News Service. "Haven't you learnt from your imprisonment?" Balaev quoted police officers as telling him. "Wasn't one prison term enough for you?" One officer added: "You may not be afraid, but you've forgotten you've got a wife, daughter and a son." Police banned Balaev's church from meeting, a ban the congregation has defied. Kamandar Hasanov, the deputy police chief in Azerbaijan's north-western Zakatala region, denied to Forum 18 that he had threatened Balaev. Hasanov also refused to discuss with Forum 18 the harassment of Balaev's Baptist congregation, why Muslim men with beards were forcibly shaved and banned from Zakatala's mosque in recent years, and why religious books were confiscated in a raid on a Jehovah's Witness home. A local resident told Forum 18 that the pressure to shave off beards has at present halted.

AZERBAIJAN: Beatings, rape threats and pressure to renounce faith

The local police chief whose forces raided a Jehovah's Witness meeting in the capital Baku on 3 June insisted to Forum 18 News Service that the meeting had been "illegal" and that they should not meet in a private house. "They collect people together and teach them," Colonel Sahib Babaev complained to Forum 18. The Jehovah's Witnesses told Forum 18 that nine men who had been present were taken to the police station, beaten, threatened with rape and pressured to renounce their faith. Colonel Babaev denied this. But he said a Spanish Jehovah's Witness present at the meeting will "probably" be expelled from Azerbaijan. Muslim and Protestant communities have also seen intermittent police and NSM secret police raids on their meetings in recent years. One Protestant told Forum 18 that after their congregation in Sumgait was raided in autumn 2007, police brought in the local imam and pressured the 30 or so detained church members to renounce their faith under a copy of the Koran.

AZERBAIJAN: Jailed Muslim teacher "completely innocent"

Said Dadashbeyli, a Muslim teacher on a 14 year jail term is "completely innocent," his lawyer and family have insisted to Forum 18 News Service. His lawyer, Elchin Gambarov, claims the Azerbaijani government wanted to show foreign governments that there was a serious Islamist threat. Commenting on the trial proceedings, he complained that "anyone who saw what actually went on would laugh," he told Forum 18. Dadashbeyli's family told Forum 18 that he promoted a "European style of Islam" and rejected fundamentalism, especially that preached by missionaries from neighbouring Iran. An appeal against the sentence has been made to the Supreme Court. However, a court official told Forum 18 that no case under the name Dadashbeyli is listed. "This means the appeal was not received." Gambarov rejects this and stated that, if the Supreme Court appeal fails, they will take the case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

AZERBAIJAN: Conscientious objector prisoner freed

Azerbaijan has freed a Jehovah's Witness conscientious objector prisoner, Samir Huseynov, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Huseynov was freed from jail on 1 May, despite his appeal against his sentence being refused. "Because I have not been cleared, I now have a criminal record," Huseynov complained. "If I want to get a job, any employer will find this out and will treat me with more caution." He insisted that "the state one hundred percent had no right to imprison me," telling Forum 18 that "I have rights guaranteed under the European Convention of Human Rights." Jehovah's Witnesses state that no other of their young men are facing prosecution for refusing compulsory military service on religious grounds, although several have this year been harassed by military conscription offices. When it entered the Council of Europe in 2001, Azerbaijan promised to introduce an Alternative Service Law by January 2003. But it has not done this. An official claimed that an Alternative Service Law "will be adopted this year."

NAGORNO-KARABAKH: Jailed religious conscientious objector must undergo "re-education"

Jehovah's Witness Areg Hovhanesyan, who has served more than three years of a four-year jail sentence for refusing compulsory military service on religious grounds, must remain in jail and undergo "re-education", Forum 18 News Service has learnt. The internationally unrecognised entity of Nagorno-Karabakh's has rejected his appeal for early release, a Supreme Court official told Forum 18. Albert Voskanyan of the Centre for Civilian Initiatives – who attended the court hearing - told Forum 18 that the court had ordered the prison leadership to "re-educate the prisoner". Ashot Sargsyan, head of the Department for National Minorities and Religions, defended the jail sentence. "He's not dangerous, but how can he be a well-behaved person if he breaks the law by refusing to do military service?" A previous conscientious objector, who did military service without bearing weapons, was a Baptist, Gagik Mirzoyan. He refused to swear the military oath or bear arms, for which he was beaten up and imprisoned, but was eventually released from military service in January.

AZERBAIJAN: Baptist pastor freed, second religious prisoner of conscience still jailed

Azerbaijan has today (19 March) freed one of its two religious prisoners of conscience, Baptist pastor Zaur Balaev, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Balaev was arrested in May 2007 and jailed for two years in August, on what church members insist were false charges. "It's a great joy to be free," Balaev told Forum 18 after his release. Since Balaev's jailing, a number of other Protestants have been threatened with jail, but these threats have not so far been carried out. However, Jehovah's Witness Samir Huseynov, jailed in October 2007 for 10 months for refusing compulsory military service on religious grounds, has not been freed. Ilya Zenchenko, head of the Baptist Union, welcomed Balaev's release. "We thank God and those who prayed and supported Zaur," he told Forum 18. "But there is a lot more work still to be done to defend religious freedom in Azerbaijan." State officials have refused to tell Forum 18 whether Balaev and his congregation will be safe from future official harassment, or to discuss Huseynov's case.

AZERBAIJAN: Raid and beatings for "illegal" religious meeting – but police deny it

The police raid on a Jehovah's Witness meeting in a private home in Barda on 30 January is the latest attempt to suppress religious meetings in private homes, Forum 18 News Service has found. "If this was a religious group, why were they meeting in a private house?" Orhan Mansuzade of the Interior Ministry in Baku told Forum 18. "The Jehovah's Witnesses don't have registration with the Justice Ministry, so their activity is illegal." No law bans unregistered religious activity or religious meetings in private homes. Local police denied conducting the raid or beating six of those attending. Baptists and Seventh-day Adventists are among others who have faced recent raids. In the exclave of Nakhichevan, no religious minorities - whether Baha'i, Hare Krishna or Adventist communities - are allowed to function. "There is no possibility for us to do anything in Nakhichevan," a Baha'i told Forum 18. "Of course our people would like to be able to meet."

AZERBAIJAN: "People should not be jailed solely for their religious or conscientious behaviour"

Five years after promising the Council of Europe that it would have a civilian alternative to military service in place, Azerbaijan is still sentencing those who cannot perform military service on grounds of conscience, Forum 18 News Service notes. Jehovah's Witness Samir Huseynov was sentenced to ten months' imprisonment in October 2007 and is in prison in Gyanja, apparently awaiting imminent transfer to a labour camp in Baku. "We at the Council of Europe think that people should not be jailed solely for their religious or conscientious behaviour," Denis Bribosia, the Council of Europe representative in Baku, told Forum 18. "Categorically saying that Azerbaijan failed to honour its commitment is premature," Marat Kangarlinski of the Azerbaijani representation to the Council of Europe told Forum 18. But he did not explain why no alternative service is in place and why conscientious objectors are still being prosecuted. Also in prison is Baptist pastor Zaur Balaev, serving a two-year sentence on charges church members insist are trumped up. He is still waiting to hear from the Supreme Court when his appeal will be heard.

AZERBAIJAN: Pastor threatened with jail for allowing children in church

Police in Azerbaijan's second city Gyanja have threatened Adventist pastor Elshan Samedov with prison, if he refuses to ban children from attending worship services and does not halt worship in two church-owned properties. "People don't have the right to meet for religious purposes just where they want," Major Alovset Mamedov told Forum 18 News Service, "they need to have permission." Mamedov "threatened to imprison me for turning people into Christians," Samedov stated. "He violates our rights to worship God – and he insulted my personal dignity. Who gave him the right to violate my rights?" Major Mamedov demanded that Pastor Samedov sign a statement that he would prevent children from attending services in future, but he refused to do this. Following a separate raid in the capital Baku, police tried to pressure eight Adventists into giving up their faith and fined them under the Administrative Code for holding meetings "not connected with the conducting of religious rituals with the aim of attracting young people and youth."

AZERBAIJAN: "If you meet again you'll be imprisoned," Adventists told

Neighbourhood police officer Elhan Sokhbetov, who took part in an 8 December raid on a Baku Adventist congregation's worship service, denied that it was a raid. "It was just a check-up," he insisted to Forum 18 News Service. Asked why 13 police officers had raided the service, why eight church members had been held for five hours, insulted, threatened and fined he responded: "No-one was threatened. It was just a check-up." Pastor Rasim Bakhshiyev told Forum 18 he was warned they would be imprisoned if they meet again for worship. "They tried to make us sign statements that we had been led astray in coming to services and that we were renouncing our faith," he added. "This was a crude violation of the law," another Adventist leader told Forum 18. "All our documents are in order and they have no reason to raid the congregation or to fine our members." No official of the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations was available to tell Forum 18 why the service had been raided. Officials have told the Adventists they are "too busy" to receive them.

TURKMENISTAN: "Prayer without state registration violates the Religion Law"

Baptist pastor Vyacheslav Kalataevsky has been warned not to meet for worship with his fellow believers, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. "Officials summoned me for what they said was a conversation, but at the end presented me with a pre-written statement saying that I agreed not to meet with my fellow-believers," he told Forum 18. Although Kalataevsky's congregation does not oppose state registration on principle, officials kept telling him that his congregation does not have enough adult citizen members to apply for registration. They added that unregistered religious activity, including people meeting together for worship in homes, is banned. "I asked them to show me what part of the law bans unregistered worship and they were unable to do so," Kalataevsky told Forum 18. Throughout Turkmenistan, Protestants, Muslims and people from other faiths have been this autumn stopped from exercising their right to freedom of thought, conscience and belief.