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AZERBAIJAN: Four mosques remain closed, Georgian Orthodox still with no priest

Four mosques in the village of Nardaran near Azerbaijan's capital Baku remain closed as the authorities work to bring them under state control. They can resume worship only if they submit to the state-backed Muslim Board and get registration with the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations. They were forcibly closed immediately after the November 2015 armed assault on the village to suppress the Muslim Unity Movement and arrest its leader Taleh Bagirov. The imam of Nardaran's closed Rahima Hanum Mosque is also among those in pre-trial imprisonment. Meanwhile, parishioners of the two Georgian Orthodox parishes which the government allows to exist remain without a priest, seven months after their previous priest was denied re-entry to Azerbaijan. "There is no news for us to be joyful about," a Georgian diplomat familiar with the negotiations told Forum 18 News Service. The State Committee has yet to allow Georgian citizen Fr Petre Khumarashvili to begin serving in Azerbaijan. The regional State Committee representative repeatedly refused to give Forum 18 any date for permission to be given or explain why it has been withheld so far.

AZERBAIJAN: UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention condemns prisoners of consciences' jailings

The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has found that two female Jehovah's Witness prisoners of conscience on trial in Azerbaijan, Irina Zakharchenko and Valida Jabrayilova, are being punished for exercising freedom of religion or belief and called for them to be freed and compensated, Forum 18 News Service has learned. The Working Group also condemned the use of conscientious objection to military service as an excuse to detain the two women. A Judge has prevented the Working Group's opinion being attached to the case file, but lawyers are calling for the court to act on the Working Group's opinion. The secret police cell where one was held for 10 months has been described by her as a "cage" with no privacy, where the smell of sewage was "suffocating". Jehovah's Witnesses are concerned for the women's health as their detention "has damaged their health", stating that "the pointless delay in proceedings amount to further mistreatment." The trial is due to resume at 12 noon on 28 January.

AZERBAIJAN: No Christmas meetings for worship for Georgian Orthodox?

Azerbaijan is still denying entry to Georgian Orthodox priests, denying the Church's only two parishes allowed to exist in the country (in the north-western Gakh Region) the possibility of celebrating the liturgy. "I still don't know who will lead the Christmas liturgy there," Bishop Demetre Kapanadze told Forum 18 News Service. "I hope this will be resolved by then." Also, after nearly 10 months' secret police imprisonment, the criminal trial of two Jehovah's Witness prisoners of conscience - Irina Zakharchenko (who is 80 per cent disabled) and Valida Jabrayilova - has begun. Azerbaijan has ignored an urgent request from the UN Human Rights Committee for Zakharchenko to be moved to a hospital or house arrest. "As a result of 10 months of detention, Irina is suffering from the effects of malnourishment, extreme sleep deprivation and severe psychological pressure," Jehovah's Witnesses noted. And following the arrest during a violent raid on Nardaran of 14 Shia Muslim prisoners of conscience, the authorities have forcibly closed mosques and obstructed the holding of religious events in the village. Officials have refused to answer Forum 18's questions about Azerbaijan's violations of the freedom of religion or belief of Georgian Orthodox Christians, Jehovah's Witnesses and Muslims.

AZERBAIJAN: Repeated fines, repeated jailings of prisoners of conscience

Prisoner of conscience Rashad Niftaliyev was released from prison in Azerbaijan's second city Gyanja on the evening of 14 December, after completing a 25-day sentence for not paying large fines imposed to punish him for taking part in religious meetings. "Although he thinks the fines are unjust, Rashad has been paying in small instalments according to his limited means," Jehovah's Witnesses told Forum 18 News Service. Another Jehovah's Witness short-term prisoner of conscience, 50-year-old Irada Huseynova, was freed on 3 December after being jailed for three days for taking part in a religious meeting. Both had previously been jailed as prisoners of conscience. On 5 December, 10 days after a police assault on Muslims worshipping in Nardaran, President Ilham Aliyev signed into law rushed legal changes to the Religion Law, the Criminal Code, the Administrative Code and the Citizenship Law – as well as a new "Countering Religious Extremism" Law. They further restrict the right to freedom of religion or belief.

AZERBAIJAN: Women's criminal trial to start after 10 months' imprisonment

The preliminary hearing in the criminal trial of Jehovah's Witnesses Irina Zakharchenko and Valida Jabrayilova is due tomorrow (10 December) under Judge Akbar Qahramanov at Baku's Pirallahi District Court, court officials told Forum 18 News Service. The secret police imprisoned the two women in February for offering religious literature to others without state permission and they face between two and five years' imprisonment each if convicted. The United Nations has asked Azerbaijan for Zakharchenko – who is in deteriorating health – to be immediately transferred from custody to house arrest, Jehovah's Witnesses told Forum 18. The cases come amid a massive state crackdown on the Muslim Unity Movement, with its leader Imam Taleh Bagirov and dozens of other Shia Muslims under arrest facing criminal prosecution. Arrested on 7 December was Nuhbala Rahimov, imam of the Rahima Hanum shrine at Nardaran. New legal restrictions have been adopted.

AZERBAIJAN: Police killings, shooting and mass arrests as Muslims pray

Fourteen Muslim Unity Movement members – including leader former prisoner of conscience and recently tortured Imam Taleh Bagirov – were detained in Nardaran, near Azerbaijan's capital Baku, on 26 November as the authorities raided the village firing weapons freely during prayers. According to officials, at least seven people were killed - five men in the village and two police officers – with others in the village being wounded. The authorities have repeatedly promised to return the bodies of those killed to their families for burial, but have not yet done so. The 14 detained Shia Muslims are now in two-months' pre-trial detention and face criminal charges which carry a life sentence. Muslim Unity Movement members in at least three other places have also been arrested. Etibar Najafov, Chief Adviser on Multiculturalism, Ethnic and Religious Affairs in the Presidential Administration, told Forum 18 that "they've done wrong things – they violated established rules". But he struggled to explain what rules they had broken. Asked if the Muslim Unity Movement had killed or proposed killing anyone, he replied "No". Also, changes to the Religion Law (which have not been published) to further restrict freedom of religion or belief may reach the Milli Majlis on 4 December.

AZERBAIJAN: Conscientious objector (again) one of 20 current prisoners of conscience

Kamran Shikhaliyev, a 20-year-old conscientious objector to compulsory military service, is serving a one-year sentence in a military disciplinary unit in Salyan Region south of Azerbaijan's capital Baku. He failed to overturn his conviction – the second on the same charges – at Baku Appeal Court on 12 November, court officials told Forum 18 News Service. He is one of 20 known prisoners of conscience punished by the Azerbaijani authorities for exercising the right to freedom of religion or belief. Of these, 17 have been convicted and are serving prison terms, while three are in pre-trial secret police imprisonment. One of the three, 55-year-old disabled widow Irina Zakharchenko, was transferred to hospital on 26 October. "The many months of imprisonment have taken a serious toll on her health," Jehovah's Witnesses told Forum 18.

AZERBAIJAN: Police torture one Muslim, 10 more short-term prisoners of conscience

Police in Azerbaijan's capital Baku detained and tortured Shia Muslim theologian and former prisoner of conscience Imam Taleh Bagirov, head of the Muslim Unity Movement, when he began to pray in the police station, Forum 18 News Service has learned. Two days later, police elsewhere in Baku imprisoned his deputy Elchin Qasimov (also known as Qasimli), imam of Hazrat Abbas Mosque, and a colleague. Eight Muslims who demonstrated outside the Baku police station where Qasimov was initially held were also arrested. A total of 10 prisoners of conscience, including Qasimov, were given prison terms of up to one month. The torture of Imam Bagirov was just a week before the 11 and 12 November consideration of Azerbaijan's record under the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT) at the UN Committee Against Torture. And the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations is preparing Religion Law changes banning religious leaders without state approval from leading religious meetings for worship, as well as street religious ceremonies.

AZERBAIJAN: "Residents wanted to worship. Instead, they came face to face with police truncheons"

Three Sunni Muslims face possible criminal prosecution with punishment of up to three years' imprisonment, one of the three and two others were given prison terms of up to five days and others were fined. The punishments followed a secret police raid on a meeting about religion in a cafe in the Azerbaijani capital on 22 October. The following day Shia Muslims in the second city Gyanja were detained after trying to enter the Friday Mosque for Friday prayers to mark Tasua, the day before the Ashura commemoration. They came "face to face with police truncheons", a letter to the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations complained. The letter complained that the city authorities had ordered closed that day all but one of the city's mosques. But Hasan Mammadov, a consultant on social and political issues at Gyanja City Administration, denied the closure of any mosques. He insisted to Forum 18 News Service that police arrested only those intent on conducting an "illegal" march for which they had not sought permission.

AZERBAIJAN: Five latest freedom of religion or belief prisoners of conscience

Azerbaijan's latest prisoners of conscience are five Sunni Muslims jailed for exercising freedom of religion or belief. They were arrested in court on 7 October after their sentences were passed and have been transferred to a Baku prison, a friend of the five men told Forum 18 News Service. 46-year-old Ismayil Mammadov was jailed for 5 years, 5 months; his brother 45-year-old Zakariyya, with 46-year-old Shahin Hasanov, was jailed for 5 years; 41-year-old Eldeniz Hajiyev was jailed for 4 years, 5 months; and 21-year-old Revan Sabzaliyev was jailed for 1 year, 7 months. Hasanov is the only one of the five prisoners of conscience to be married. Judge Akshin Afandiyev's assistant Seymur (who would not give his last name) confirmed the sentences to Forum 18 today (8 October). He said the written verdicts would be issued today or soon after. The five were arrested after an April 2014 armed police raid on Muslims meeting together to study Islam with the aid of texts by theologian Said Nursi. Their lawyers were prevented from attending the final court hearing. One male Shia Muslim and two female Jehovah's Witness prisoners of conscience are still under investigation in the NSM secret police Investigation Prison for exercising their right to freedom of religion or belief.

AZERBAIJAN: "We forbid religious books – but this isn't religious discrimination"

As legal changes are set to make the state religious censorship even tighter, Gunduz Ismayilov, a deputy chair of the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations – which enacts the state censorship – says that large-scale distribution of works by Muslim theologian Said Nursi is "not appropriate". He made the assertion in a letter to Ismayil Mammadov, one of five Sunni Muslims facing up to six years' imprisonment in Baku for distributing religious literature. The trial is likely to end on 5 October, the lawyer Asabali Mustafayev told Forum 18 News Service. The State Committee has already banned the import of nine Jehovah's Witness publications in 2015 so far. "We forbid religious books – but this isn't religious discrimination," a junior State Committee official told Forum 18.

AZERBAIJAN: Fines, deportations, criminal trials to punish meetings for worship and study

Two Turkish citizens arrived in the Azerbaijan capital Baku on 19 September to take part in a meeting of prayer and study ahead of the Muslim festival of Eid al-Adha. That evening police and secret police officers raided the meeting in a home, taking 85 people for questioning and confiscating 3,000 religious books. On 20 September, the two Turks were fined and ordered deported. Five local Sunni Muslims were also fined. Although the court decision had not entered legal force, the Migration Service deported the two Turks on 21 September, their lawyer Asabali Mustafayev complained to Forum 18 News Service. A secret police officer insisted to Forum 18 the meeting had been "illegal", but refused to explain how a meeting for worship in a home could be illegal. Five Jehovah's Witnesses have failed to overturn convictions for meeting for study and worship in a Baku home raided by police in April. And the criminal trial of five Sunni Muslims to punish them for participating in a religious meeting is due to resume for what might be the last session on 5 October. The prosecutor is demanding up to six years' imprisonment for each.