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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: Imprisoned for pistol or prayer room?

Nine Sunni Muslims arriving for lunchtime prayers on 13 November at a prayer room in a Sumgait home were detained by plain clothes police, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Masked, armed police then stormed the home and searched it, claiming to find weapons. The nine were beaten and humiliated by police officers before release that evening, several confirmed to local news agencies. The home owner, Zohrab Shikhaliyev, was arrested elsewhere in Sumgait that day. On 15 November a court in Azerbaijan's capital Baku ordered him held in two months' pre-trial detention as a criminal case is investigated. Although Shikhaliyev's prayer room has functioned for two years, about six months ago officials started accusing him of "illegally" providing a space where Sunni Muslims might worship, Gamet Suleymanov, imam of Baku's closed Abu Bekr Sunni mosque, told Forum 18. Meanwhile, the criminal case against three Baku-based Muslims - who spent up to five months under criminal investigation in pre-trial detention at the NSM secret police for holding a religious education meeting - has now been handed to a Baku court and their trial is expected soon.

AZERBAIJAN: Transfer to house arrest a prelude to trial?

Eldeniz Hajiyev, Ismayil Mammadov and Revan Sabzaliyev could soon face criminal trial to punish them for attending a religious meeting in Hajiyev's Baku home raided in April, a friend of the three Muslims told Forum 18 News Service. They face up to three years' imprisonment if tried and convicted. A Baku court ordered the men's release from Azerbaijan's National Security Ministry (NSM) secret police investigation prison on 12 September and transfer to house arrest. The permitted investigation period in the case runs out in mid-October. "I believe they will take the case to court for a full criminal trial," the friend insisted. NSM officials refused to discuss the case with Forum 18. Meanwhile, the new chair of the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations, Mubariz Qurbanli, has rejected the right of individuals to conduct religious work, the right of mosques to choose their own leaders, the right of individuals to interpret the Koran for themselves, the right to distribute religious literature uncensored, and the right to share one's faith.

AZERBAIJAN: Four months' extra prison term because "they gave him too little"

Imprisoned Islamic preacher and theologian Taleh Bagirov was given an extra four months' imprisonment at a new trial in Baku. He "categorically denied" in court the charge of possessing an illegal mobile phone in his cell, his lawyer Javad Javadov told Forum 18 News Service. He insists that the phone was planted. Judge Suleyman Agayev claimed to Forum 18 that Bagirov had "half admitted" the accusation. Bagirov is already serving a two-year strict regime sentence on drugs charges which his supporters insist were similarly fabricated. Baku Old City officials confirmed to Forum 18 that the Lezgin Mosque – one of very few remaining specifically Sunni mosques in Azerbaijan – is to be closed for renovation. They refused to say if the Mosque will be returned to the same community after renovation. Also, increased Criminal Code punishments for exercising freedom of religion or belief are planned. Maximum prison terms under Article 168 – for which three Muslims are under investigation in NSM secret police detention – seem set to more than double to eight years.

AZERBAIJAN: "They don't want a Sunni mosque in the Old City"

Samir Nuriyev, director of Baku's Icherisheher (Old City) State Historical-Architectural Reserve, summoned the leader of the Lezgin Mosque community in mid-July and told him verbally that it must voluntarily leave the building in advance of full renovation, community leader Faiq Mustafa and Reserve official Emil Huseynli separately told Forum 18 News Service. Mustafa fears this might be an attempt to oust the community, in line with earlier moves against other Sunni communities. Reserve spokesperson Narmin Azadgil has not responded to Forum 18's questions on why no document on the proposed renovation has been given to the community and whether the community will be able to resume use of its Mosque once any renovation is complete. Despite the consistent closures of specifically Sunni mosques, Sarkhan Halilov of Azerbaijan's State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations insisted that the government "has nothing against Sunni mosques". But he admitted to Forum 18 that Baku's (Sunni) Martyrs' Mosque – closed by the state in 2009 - will never be reopened.

AZERBAIJAN: NSM secret police detentions extended, conscientious objector's appeal fails

Two Muslim prisoners of conscience detained since April, Eldeniz Hajiyev and Ismayil Mammadov, had their pre-trial detention in the hands of Azerbaijan's NSM secret police extended for a further two months today (7 August), Forum 18 News Service has been told. Pre-trial detention for a third prisoner of conscience, Revan Sabzaliyev who was detained in May, was extended three days earlier. If convicted, the three men face up to three years' imprisonment for participating in a meeting which was raided by armed police and the NSM secret police. The men had met with other Muslims to discuss their faith with the help of the writings of Islamic theologian Said Nursi. The rulings come after an appeal court in southern Azerbaijan rejected the appeal of Jehovah's Witness conscientious objector Kamran Shikhaliyev against a one-year sentence in a military disciplinary unit. In all these cases Forum 18 has been told that violence has been used by officials against those in their power. There are also continuing administrative fines of people for exercising their freedom of religion or belief.

AZERBAIJAN: Third Muslim in secret police pre-trial detention

Revan Sabzaliyev became the third Muslim who reads the works of the late Turkish theologian Said Nursi to be arrested by Azerbaijan's National Security Ministry (NSM) secret police. He was summoned to the NSM headquarters in Baku on 23 May "and was arrested right there", fellow Muslims told Forum 18 News Service. Within days, a court ordered he be held in two months' pre-trial detention. He joins two others, Eldeniz Hajiyev and Ismayil Mammadov – held by the secret police since 12 April – facing criminal prosecution for a meeting for religious education without state permission. Meanwhile, two Jehovah's Witness meetings were raided by police as "illegal" in early June, one in Gyanja and one in Mingechaur. "It wasn't a raid," Mingechaur police chief Colonel Alasgar Badalov insisted to Forum 18. Four of those present at the Gyanja meeting face large fines if found guilty at court hearings due on 17 June.

AZERBAIJAN: "The banned book the Old Testament was confiscated"

Three women convicted in southern Azerbaijan in May of meeting for religious purposes without state permission are challenging their convictions, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. No dates for the appeal hearings have been set. Two of the women were heavily fined and police confiscated Bibles and other religious publications. In another case, following the detention of two women and a 14-year old girl talking about their faith to others, police confiscated what they described as "the banned book the Old Testament". Also, Muslims who read the works of the late Turkish theologian Said Nursi have been seeking to find out from the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations why his works have been banned and are confiscated by police. The State Committee replied that his works are "inappropriate for import in large quantities or publication". As one Muslim observed to Forum 18, "they didn't use the term 'forbidden' or 'banned', but the term 'inappropriate'. This is incomprehensible in terms of legislation, isn't it?"

AZERBAIJAN: Where is prayer allowed?

On 25 April, Police in Azerbaijan's capital Baku tried to prevent worshippers unable to fit into the small Lezgin Sunni Mosque for Friday prayers from praying in the surrounding streets. On the four Fridays since then, police impose a cordon from mid-morning and allow no prayer around the mosque, the mosque chair Faiq Mustafa complained to Forum 18 News Service. Colonel Kamal Velishov also tried to order the mosque to close at 8 pm each evening. "This would prevent us holding the last two prayers, at 9 pm and 11 pm," Mustafa noted. Colonel Velishov refused to discuss his actions, including threats to close the mosque. "Talk to the Interior Ministry," he told Forum 18, putting the phone down. Other Sunni Muslim mosques were closed in 2008-9. The State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations appears to have been behind this spring's enforced change of leadership at the previously Sunni mosque in Mushfiqabad near Baku.

AZERBAIJAN: Beating to extract "evidence"; conscientious objector gets one year's military detention

Dashqin Vahabli was among nine Muslims fined nearly four months' average wages for attending a study session of the works of Islamic theologian Said Nursi in Baku. On 1 May he was summoned to the secret police where, he told Forum 18 News Service, he was beaten. Officers tried to force him to incriminate Eldeniz Hajiyev and Ismayil Mammadov for teaching religion "illegally". The two have been in secret police custody since 12 April and face up to three years' imprisonment if convicted. Secret police investigator Nadir Mustafayev did not answer Forum 18's repeated calls. Meanwhile 18-year-old Jehovah's Witness conscientious objector Kamran Shikhaliyev has appealed against his sentence of one year in a disciplinary military unit. He was forcibly conscripted in October 2013. Azerbaijan's failure to introduce a civilian alternative to military service is in defiance of its commitments to the Council of Europe, of which it becomes Chair on 14 May.

AZERBAIJAN: Muslim Nursi texts, Old Testament, and Jehovah's Witness texts "banned"

Members of several religious communities in Azerbaijan have expressed concern to Forum 18 News Service over a list of "banned" books, which may be used to confiscate books in raids. Most of the banned books are Islamic texts such as those by theologian Said Nursi, but the list also includes the Old Testament and Jehovah's Witness texts. The list was apparently compiled by police based on State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations "expert analyses", but is not so far known to have been published officially. Police have long confiscated texts named on the list as well as others during raids on private homes and meetings of people exercising their right to freedom of religion or belief. "We need to pray to God for wisdom as to how to respond to this ban on the Holy Scriptures in Azerbaijan", one Protestant noted. Azerbaijan has long imposed tight censorship on all religious literature and items, and the State Committee seems to be delaying permission for the Baptist Union to print New Testaments.

AZERBAIJAN: Three year prison terms for Koran study?

Two Muslims from the Azerbaijani capital Baku - Eldeniz Hajiyev and Ismayil Mammadov – are under criminal investigation on charges of "Creation of a group carrying out activity under the pretext of spreading a religious faith", the lawyer for one of the men Nizami Abbasov told Forum 18 News Service. The charges carry a maximum three-year prison term. Two days after their 12 April arrest, a court ordered two months' pre-trial detention. The two – both readers of Islamic theologian Said Nursi's works - are being held in Baku's NSM secret police investigation prison. Hajiyev "told me he reads the Koran and studies with his friends and does nothing against anyone," Abbasov told Forum 18. "Of course he has the right to do this." After a separate raid in the north-western town of Qazax, another Nursi reader was given a seven-day prison term.

AZERBAIJAN: Four days incommunicado at secret police – so far

The NSM secret police has been holding two Muslims incommunicado since 12 April, including a man who offered his Baku home for a Muslim study session, Muslims who know them told Forum 18 News Service. Eldeniz Hajiyev and fellow Nursi reader Ismayil Mammadov were seized after an armed police raid on the meeting. Forum 18 was unable to reach anyone at the NSM secret police in Baku to find out where the men are being held and why. Nine others present were fined more than three months' average wages each. Fined the same day by the same court was a Shia Muslim theologian who had been teaching his faith in the same Baku district. Azerbaijan has tight government controls on exercising the right to freedom of religion or belief. Meetings for worship or religious education, or selling religious literature without state permission are banned and punishable.