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The right to change one’s belief or religion
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AZERBAIJAN: Imminent trial for Baptist pastor, final appeal for imprisoned Muslim

Baptist pastor Hamid Shabanov from the remote village of Aliabad is due to be transferred from investigation prison in the city of Gyanja back to Zakatala on 10 July, with a trial due soon after, his lawyer Mirman Aliyev told Forum 18 News Service. The 51-year-old pastor faces up to three years' imprisonment on a charge of holding an illegal weapon. "Hamid Shabanov does not consider himself guilty and insists the gun the police are claiming was his was planted by them," Aliyev reports. Ilya Zenchenko of the Baptist Union complains that Shabanov's arrest is part of a pattern of such government activity against Baptist and other religious communities across Azerbaijan. Fellow Aliabad Baptist pastor Zaur Balaev was freed from prison in March. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court has finally named a judge to hear the final appeal by Muslim teacher Said Dadashbeyli, imprisoned with eight others his family says are innocent. His lawyer told Forum 18 this could be held in late July or early August. Dadashbeyli's wife Ilhama says she wants one thing: "That the Supreme Court in Baku completes the case and frees these innocent men from prison, where they have been held with no proof."

AZERBAIJAN: "No new Religion Law," official states

Despite discussions in recent years, Azerbaijan does not now intend to change its Religion Law, a senior official of the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations told Forum 18 News Service. "There will be no new Religion Law," Jeyhun Mamedov stated categorically. "This is what we've been told from above." He declined to specify who made this decision. Current legislation, including the Religion Law, and the authorities' actions have long been criticised by religious communities. Complaints focus on: compulsory censorship of all religious texts; arbitrary denial of legal status to religious communities; restrictions on the role of foreigners; and the detention or imprisonment of individual religious believers. Fazil Gazanfaroglu Mustafaev, an opposition parliamentary deputy, is also troubled by the authorities' actions. "It is illegal when police raid religious communities," he told Forum 18. "Yet they do it. It is the same problem for political parties, journalists and non-governmental organisations. This is not a law-governed state."

AZERBAIJAN: Shock at second Baptist pastor arrest

Ilya Zenchenko, head of Azerbaijan's Baptist Union, has condemned the arrest yesterday (20 June) of Baptist pastor Hamid Shabanov after police claim to have found an illegal weapon in his home. "We're in shock," Zenchenko told Forum 18 News Service. "This was a provocation by the police, a deliberately targeted action." The pastor's brother told Forum 18 the police's aim is to halt Baptist activity. "Their target is the church." Pastor Shabanov is the second Baptist pastor in the remote village of Aliabad to face imprisonment on what local Baptists insist are trumped-up charges. His arrest comes three months after Pastor Zaur Balaev was freed from prison. Shabanov's family insist he has no weapon and that police planted the gun they claim to have found. But the local police chief appears to have made up his mind. "He's a criminal," the head of Zakatala regional police told Forum 18, even though under Azerbaijani law individuals are innocent until found guilty in court.

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.