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AZERBAIJAN: Did "thin" Pastor beat up five "strong" policemen?

The hearing of the case against detained Baptist pastor Zaur Balaev begins tomorrow (13 July) at 10 am, Forum 18 News Service has been told by Judge Seifuli Seifullaev. Azerbaijan's Baptist leader, Ilya Zenchenko, insists the charges are false – as do over 50 other people, including 25 who were present at the service, other villagers who are not Christians, and the leaders of eight Christian churches in Azerbaijan. "Zaur is accused of beating up five policemen and damaging the door of a police car," Zenchenko stated. "But how could a thin man like Zaur beat up five strong policemen?" Police initially alleged that Balaev had resisted being taken to a police station by setting a dog onto them. "The dog has completely disappeared from the accusation," Zenchenko told Forum 18. However, during the investigation, the Prosecutor stated verbally that Balaev is a Christian and therefore a threat to society and to social security. The date for the formal trial is due to be set at tomorrow's preliminary hearing.

AZERBAIJAN: Baptist pastor still held on false charges

Imprisoned Baptist pastor Zaur Balaev has been held for over a month by Azerbaijan, on charges which witnesses insist are false, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Pastor Balaev was arrested on 20 May, and the authorities intend to bring criminal charges of resisting officials with violence. The arrest took place during a police raid on a worship service which they insist – against Azerbaijan's international human rights commitments – was illegal as the church does not have state registration. The authorities have been denying the church legal status for 13 years. Since being detained over a month ago, "Zaur's health has deteriorated seriously" the head of the Baptist Union Ilya Zenchenko told Forum 18. Zenchenko also stated that police had hit Balaev in the face and that since his arrival in prison he has been threatened with violence. The Balaev family has had to go into debt to pay to take food to Zaur Balaev, who has been held over 250 km. (150 miles) from his home. The authorities have denied Balaev's family the opportunity to meet him since his arrest. Officials have refused to discuss the charges with Forum 18.

AZERBAIJAN: Arrested Baptist pastor to face three years in prison?

Police have verbally told members of the embattled Baptist church in the remote village of Aliabad in north-western Azerbaijan that their pastor Zaur Balaev is to face a criminal charge of "resisting government representatives", which carries a maximum three year prison term. The authorities claim he set a dog onto police who raided the church's Sunday service on 20 May. The church's deacon, Ramiz Osmanov, insisted to Forum 18 News Service that the accusation is based on "false testimony". "I was there – I saw." After two weeks in police custody, Balaev was today (4 June) transferred to the prison in Gyanja [Gäncä]. Ilya Zenchenko, head of the Baptist Union, told Forum 18 the region around Aliabad is the worst in Azerbaijan for Baptists. "It is a place where officials insult our believers, won't allow them to gain legal status and deny birth certificates to their children." Hidayat Orujev, the chief state religious affairs official, rejected Baptist claims of persecution. Balaev's arrest "has no relation to his faith", he told Forum 18.

AZERBAIJAN: Baptist Pastor arrested / Another Protestant child denied birth certificate

Baptist pastor Zaur Balaev has been detained by police in Azerbaijan since Sunday (20 May), when police raided his church's worship service, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Police claim that Balaev was arrested as he resisted them, but this is strongly denied by witnesses. The police also claim – in defiance of the right to freedom of thought, conscience and belief – that the church has no right to meet, as it is not registered. The authorities have put Pastor Balaev's church under strong pressure since its foundation. "We are immensely humiliated as human beings in a country which pretends to be democratic," one congregation member told Forum 18. "We are discriminated against in many ways." It has been suggested that the raid and detention is in retaliation for protests against the authorities' attempts to demolish a church member's home. Also, in their latest refusal to register the birth of a Protestant family's child, the authorities are refusing to register the birth of Ilya Eyvazov – who officially does not exist and so cannot have health care.

AZERBAIJAN: Biggest expulsion in eight years

In the biggest expulsion of foreigners involved in religious activity in Azerbaijan since 1999, two Georgian and two Russian Jehovah's Witnesses have been deported, with a Dutch and a British citizen about to follow, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. The administrative deportation orders – which do not require any court proceedings – followed a massive police raid on a Jehovah's Witness meeting, which only four of the six foreign residents were attending. Jeyhun Mamedov of the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations claimed to Forum 18 that "it wasn't a raid – you can't call it that." He refused to state what law the Jehovah's Witnesses had allegedly broken. Mamedov claimed on local public TV – which accompanied the raid - that "specialised equipment" was confiscated which "could be used for communicating secretly with secret services of other countries". Jehovah's Witnesses totally reject these allegations. A steady trickle of foreigners have in recent years been deported for their religious activity.

AZERBAIJAN: Raid on Jehovah's Witnesses deliberately timed?

Azerbaijan's latest manifestation of hostility to Protestant Christian and other religious minorities, such as Jehovah's Witnesses, is a 24 December raid on the Kingdom Hall in the capital, Baku, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. "We suspect that the police and prosecutor used the holiday season - when foreign representations obviously have only minimum staff - to make this attack," Jehovah's Witnesses told Forum 18. Property was confiscated, money was apparently stolen by police, congregation members were detained and at least two were beaten up. In a repeated pattern during police raids on religious minorities, a local TV station which encourages religious intolerance was present. Six foreign attendees – three of whom grew up in Azerbaijan - may be deported. Forum 18 was able to speak to the Migration Police, but not to Hidayat Orujev, chair of the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations, or other officials there, for comment.

NAGORNO-KARABAKH: No guarantees for religious conscientious objectors

The proposed Nagorno-Karabakh Constitution may have little practical impact. However, human rights activists and religious believers are concerned, they have told Forum 18 News Service, about the absence of any guarantee of alternative non-military service. "If alternative service is not there in the constitution, it doesn't make it impossible for it to be introduced later - the Constitution is not dogma. But it does make it more difficult," Albert Voskanyan of the Centre for Civilian Initiatives told Forum 18. "It is bad that such a provision is not there, just as it is bad it is not there in the Armenian Constitution," Jehovah's Witness lawyer Lyova Markaryan told Forum 18. Two Jehovah's Witnesses and one Baptist have been jailed in recent years for refusing military service on grounds of conscience. Some have also expressed concern about the draft Constitution's recognition of the Armenian Apostolic Church's "exclusive mission" as the "national church."

NAGORNO-KARABAKH: Uncertainty faces Baptist conscientious objector

It is unclear whether the authorities will take further action against a young Baptist conscript who refuses to swear the military oath and bear arms on grounds of conscience, Forum 18 News Service has found. Gagik Mirzoyan was freed from prison at the end of a jail sentence, held by the Military Police and, after eight days, transferred to a military unit. "They are still pressuring him to swear the military oath and take up weapons," Baptist pastor Garnik Abreyan told Forum 18. "He still has three months to serve of his military service and we just don't know what they will do with him." Albert Voskanyan, of the Centre for Civilian Initiatives – who has regularly visited both Gagik Mirzoyan and jailed Jehovah's Witness conscientious objector Areg Hovhanesyan – told Forum 18 that "the danger is real that Mirzoyan could be imprisoned again." Deputy Foreign Minister Masis Mailyan told Forum 18 that he does not know what the military will now do.

AZERBAIJAN: Religious minorities want religious freedom

As Azerbaijan prepares amendments to its Religion Law, religious communities have told Forum 18 News Service of their widely differing views on this. The state-approved Caucasian Muslim Board wants more restrictions, as the current Law "gives great possibilities to all kinds of destructive and totalitarian sects and pseudo-religions" – although its spokesman repeatedly could not name any such Azeri group. In sharp contrast, religious minorities Forum 18 has spoken to want religious freedom. The major changes they want are: the end of compulsory censorship of religious literature; the removal of practical and legal barriers, such as a requirement that non-Muslim communities have a centre abroad to which they are subject; and an end to the ban on foreigners conducting "missionary activity". They have also told Forum 18 that they want an end to officials' arbitrary powers to interpret the law to restrict religious freedom, or to invent restrictions without any foundation in law.

AZERBAIJAN: Why and how will Religion Law be amended?

A parliamentarian preparing changes to Azerbaijan's restrictive Religion Law, Rabiyyat Aslanova, has declined to discuss them or why they are being made, Forum 18 News Service has found. She expressed hostility to "Christian missionaries", who she accused of "working underground and calling for an uprising," but declined to give Forum 18 any proof of her allegations. Aslanova also denied that religious literature censorship exists – until Forum 18 reminded her of its existence – and then defended it, as well as denying both that police have raided religious communities and that religious communities are arbitrarily denied legal status. An official of the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations could not explain why the state practices religious discrimination. Human rights activists have expressed frustration to Forum 18 at the secretiveness surrounding the new Law, and pessimism that it will bring any improvement to the religious freedom situation.

AZERBAIJAN: Jehovah's Witness conscientious objector sentenced

Mushfiq Mammedov, a Jehovah's Witness conscientious objector has been given a six month suspended jail sentence and intends to appeal against this, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. He was sentenced for refusing compulsory military service – even though the country's Constitution guarantees the right to alternative service, and not allowing this breaches its Council of Europe commitments. "My son has done nothing wrong – he's not guilty," his mother Sevil Najafova told Forum 18 "He told the Military Commissariat he's prepared to do alternative unarmed service in line with his religious beliefs." A spokesperson for the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations, defended the sentence. "Our law says every young man must join the army, so this sentence is correct," he told Forum 18. The OSCE has noted that "a constitutional right would be meaningless if the government recognised a right to alternative service only after it had initiated the promulgation of a law."

AZERBAIJAN: Criminal trial resumes for Jehovah's Witness

Mushfiq Mammedov, a 23-year-old Jehovah's Witness who wants to be allowed to do alternative service in line with Azerbaijan's constitution and international obligations rather than compulsory military service, faces up to two years in prison if convicted. His trial at Baku's Sabail District Court, which began on 30 June, resumes on 12 July. "We don't know how the hearing will go – nor how long the case will last," his mother Sevil Najafova told Forum 18 News Service. "Azerbaijan undertook the obligation to the Council of Europe to adopt a law on alternative service, and not granting alternative service is a clear violation of this commitment," Krzysztof Zyman of the Council of Europe told Forum 18. But Adil Gadjiev of the Human Rights Ombudsperson's Office in Baku insists Azerbaijan is doing nothing wrong. "Signing such commitments doesn't mean we have to accept these rights without a corresponding law."