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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: "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.

AZERBAIJAN: Conscientious objector's trial to begin after 4 months' detention

Four months after being forcibly detained in October 2013 and sent to a military unit, conscientious objector to military service 18-year-old Kamran Shikhaliyev is due to go on trial at a military court in southern Azerbaijan on 13 February. His fellow-Jehovah's Witnesses told Forum 18 News Service that "despite physical abuse, verbal humiliation, and psychological pressure, Shikhaliyev has refused to wear a military uniform, perform military duties, or take the military oath". The head of the Conscription Office which forcibly seized him claimed to Forum 18 that "he wasn't detained, just sent to a military unit". Elsewhere, after a Gyanja Police raid on a Jehovah's Witness meeting, five of those present were fined the equivalent of one year's teacher's salary. "More than 40 people were gathered in the flat," police complained to Forum 18. "That's banned. They had no permission from the state organs to meet." And the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations has declined to tell Forum 18 what measures are planned against the unregistered Sunni mosque in Mushfiqabad, as "work in this direction is in progress". Many such mosques have been forcibly closed by the state.

AZERBAIJAN: Fined for praying for deceased

Tural Kuliyev, a Muslim, was fined the equivalent of a year's salary for a local state employee in the central town of Mingechaur for praying at people's request for their deceased relatives in the town's Ali cemetery. The punishment was for "violating legislation on holding religious meetings, marches, and other religious ceremonies". "Other imams who pray in the cemetery and read the Koran complained about him. He didn't have permission," Police Captain Anar Kadimov, who prepared the case, insisted to Forum 18 News Service from Mingechaur. He said another man had similarly been fined at the same time. Meanwhile, the authorities have reportedly destroyed a mosque being built in a remote village in southern Azerbaijan. Villagers began construction after waiting in vain for permission. An official of the state-backed Caucasian Muslim Board told Forum 18 that "houses of God should never be closed or destroyed," but he said it was for the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations to decide when the many state-closed mosques will be allowed to reopen for worship.

AZERBAIJAN: "I want my rights to be protected by our government, not violated"

Seven Jehovah's Witnesses in northern Azerbaijan were in November and December each fined the equivalent of one year's salary for a teacher for exercising their freedom of religion or belief, Forum 18 News Service has learned. The fines followed a police raid on a Jehovah's Witness family, which took place without a search warrant. Police forced their way into the family's home and confiscated books including personal Bibles, money, and personal medical and financial documents. Against the law, police gave the family no record of their confiscations. One of the women present was injured by police, and she had to be hospitalised when she later during detention had an epileptic fit. Police detained those present at a police station for 12 hours, claiming that they were terrorists, and repeatedly threatened detainees with sexual violence and loss of employment. Police also pressured detainees to give up their faith. Following a similar raid in May 2012 a Muslim from Baku, Zeka Miragayev is preparing a case for the European Court of Human Rights. "I want my rights to be protected by our government, not violated," he told Forum 18.

AZERBAIJAN: "Tragicomedy and mockery of justice"

Islamic theologian Taleh Bagirov has been given a two-year strict regime prison sentence on 1 November by a court in Azerbaijan. He was found guilty of possessing just over one gram of heroin, a fabricated accusation his supporters insist. As well as politically opposing the state, Bagirov and other Muslims had opposed the Caucasian Muslim Board's attempt to impose an imam on the Hazrat Abulfaz Aga Mosque. The authorities attempted to use a sermon to prosecute him, but "they realised they would have made themselves a laughing stock if they had pursued these charges" lawyer Javad Javadov told Forum 18 News Service. In August Bagirov's driver, Anar Melikov, was given a 19-month prison term. His lawyer Anar Kasimov denounced this "tragicomedy and mockery of justice". Among other recent cases, two Jehovah's Witnesses - Reza Babayev and Ilham Hasanov - were discussing their faith in Barda when a local man gathered a crowd of about 20 men who insulted and assaulted the two, and tore some of their religious literature. Police took no action against the crowd, but Babayev and Hasanov have been convicted of "violating legislation on holding religious meetings, marches, and other religious ceremonies". Their appeals were rejected today (7 November).

AZERBAIJAN: Conscientious objectors amnestied, imam and driver not freed

Azerbaijan's two known imprisoned conscientious objectors – both Jehovah's Witnesses - have been freed as part of a prisoner amnesty, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. However, prisoners of conscience Imam Taleh Bagirov and his driver Anar Melikov have not been freed. Imam Bagirov is known for his political opposition to the government, and also openly opposed the imposition of an imam from the state-backed Caucasian Muslim Board to lead his mosque near the capital Baku. All mosques are required by the Religion Law to be controlled by the Board, which is required to appoint their religious leadership. On 27 June a Baku court ordered the extension of Imam Bagirov's pre-trial detention by one month, while Melikov's trial is expected to begin in a different Baku court in mid-July. Both men have been detained since 31 March. They insist that state claims that they possessed heroin, a pistol, and bullets are false.

AZERBAIJAN: Imam and driver in pre-trial detention, conscientious objector imprisoned

Imprisoned Jehovah's Witness conscientious objector Kamran Mirzayev is due to hear tomorrow (15 May) if his appeal has overturned his nine-month prison sentence, Jehovah's Witnesses told Forum 18 News Service. He is one of two known conscientious objectors imprisoned for refusing Azerbaijan's compulsory military service. Azerbaijan committed itself to adopting an alternative civilian service by January 2003, but failed to do so. Meanwhile, Imam Taleh Bagirov – who led prayers and preached at a Shia mosque near Baku in defiance of the authorities' pressure – is in his second month of pre-trial detention, together with his driver. Community members insist the accusations against them are fabricated. The investigator leading the criminal case, Vusal Salehov from the Police Department for the Fight Against Organised Crime, refused to discuss the case with Forum 18.