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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.

AZERBAIJAN: Police threaten second pastor with jail

Family and friends of Baptist prisoner of conscience Zaur Balaev have told Forum 18 News Service that officials at his new prison in the capital Baku are demanding high payments before they will give him food or allow him to meet relatives. Pastor Balaev, who is from north-western Azerbaijan, is serving a two-year jail sentence on what Baptists describe as a "trumped-up charge". The authorities significantly altered their claims of what Balaev was alleged to have done during the trial process. Ilya Zenchenko, who leads the Baptist Union, told Forum 18 that it is "disturbing" that police are now threatening a Baptist pastor in southern Azerbaijan with the same fate as Pastor Balaev. "Pastor Telman Aliyev and his assistant Jabbar Musaev were summoned one by one by the police for 'preventative conversations'," Zenchenko told Forum 18. "Pastor Telman was not intimidated and is continuing to lead services. But Jabbar was forced not to attend church. They promised to arrange the same thing as happened to Zaur if he appears in church again." Balaev is appealing against his jail sentence.

TURKMENISTAN: Did government order Orthodox diocese to split?

The Deputy Chair of Turkmenistan's Committee for Religious Affairs has refused to say whether the government pressured the Orthodox Church to split the Church's Central Asian Diocese by putting its Turkmen Deanery under the Patriarch. "I'm not authorised to respond to you," Nurmukhamed Gurbanov told Forum 18 News Service when asked about the split. However, Gurbanov was willing to discuss other matters, claiming for example that Orthodox parishes in the country face no restrictions. Fr Georgi Ryabykh of the Moscow Patriarchate told Forum 18 that they hope the decision will make pastoral oversight easier. "For years the bishop in Tashkent didn't visit this part of the Diocese, and that isn't normal church life." Deceased President Niyazov had asked for the split in 2005, sparking complaints from another priest that Niyazov was trying to build an independent Orthodox Church just as he had done with Islam. Fr Ryabykh, however, said that "It couldn't just be a response or reaction to a demand by a president, as if the president demands and the Church obeys." He added that "some time was necessary to understand the situation and make a decision."

AZERBAIJAN: Baptists "stunned" as court confirms Pastor's jail sentence

A court in Azerbaijan has today (3 October) rejected the appeal of Baptist Pastor Zaur Balaev against a two-year prison sentence, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. "We're stunned at the result the court handed down," the head of the Baptist Union Ilya Zenchenko told Forum 18 from the steps of the court building. "We don't know what to do. It is a tragedy for his wife and children." Officials have refused to explain to Forum 18 why Balaev has been targeted to punish him for his religious activity with his congregation. Zenchenko of the Baptist Union told Forum 18 that "It was all over in two minutes." He added that "Zaur's son is very distressed, complaining that there is no hope and no law in Azerbaijan. He is young but his emotional reaction is understandable." Baptists from another congregation in Balaev's home village, who unlike Balaev's congregation reject state registration on principle, are also being threatened with imprisonment by the authorities.

AZERBAIJAN: Imprisoned pastor's lawyer "optimistic" over appeal

The lawyer for imprisoned Baptist pastor Zaur Balaev is hopeful about his appeal, which began at Sheki Appeal Court today (6 September) and resumes on 19 September. "Of course I'm optimistic," Gazalfar Rzaev told Forum 18 News Service. Also hopeful that the two year sentence imposed on charges of assaulting five police officers will be overturned was Ilya Zenchenko, head of Azerbaijan's Baptist Union. But he fears Balaev may not be fully exonerated. "This is a dilemma for the court. Clearing Balaev would mean incriminating the police officers who falsely testified against him," Zenchenko told Forum 18. The State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations insists the prosecution had nothing to do with Balaev's religious affiliation but refused to explain why the verdict speaks of Balaev's "illegal religious activity" when the concept does not exist in Azerbaijani law. "This case has given a bad impression of Azerbaijan around the world," an official of the OSCE in Baku told Forum 18.

AZERBAIJAN: Two-year prison term for Baptist pastor

Baptist Pastor Zaur Balaev was yesterday (8 August) sentenced to two years in jail, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. The Pastor from Aliabad in northern Azerbaijan was convicted of using violence against a state representative, and was also accused of holding "illegal meetings under the guise of religious activity without concrete authority and without state registration," attracting young people to worship services and playing loud music at services. Azerbaijan's authorities have changed their accusations whilst Balaev has been held, initially claiming that he set a dog on police during a raid on a Sunday worship service. After more than 50 people signed a written statement testifying to Balaev's innocence, the dog disappeared from the authorities' claims and Balaev was instead accused of attacking five policemen and damaging a police car door. The authorities' claims are strongly disputed. Prosecution witnesses admitted that they had not witnessed the alleged assault by Pastor Balaev. They stated that they had only heard about it from people at the market, teahouse, or because police pressured them into testifying. "We're preparing to submit an appeal," Ilya Zenchenko of the Baptist Union told Forum 18. A court official told Forum 18 that Judge Seifali Seifullaev was not available for comment and had been transferred to a new position.

AZERBAIJAN: 20 July trial of Pastor who led "illegal meetings"

The trial of Pastor Zaur Balaev of a Georgian-speaking Baptist congregation in the village of Aliabad in the far north of Azerbaijan is to begin on 20 July, Judge Seifali Seifullaev, who will hear the case, told Forum 18 News Service. He refused to explain why he rejected Balaev's appeal to be transferred from prison to house arrest as he awaits trial. Balaev was arrested on 20 May and is charged with beating up five policemen and damaging a police car, charges he and church members reject. The indictment complains that Balaev "conducts illegal meetings under the guise of religious activity without concrete authority and without state registration", attracts young people to services and plays loud music at services. Ilya Zenchenko of the Baptist Union told Forum 18 that "this is the opinion of the police and representatives of the authorities, not of the [ethnic] Georgian residents of the village, who support Zaur and do not regard him as a 'dangerous person'."