AZERBAIJAN: "Prosecutors very much want to sentence Hamid"
The criminal trial of Baptist pastor Hamid Shabanov began in the north-western town of Zakatala on 22 July, despite the fact that the prosecution had refused to hand the defence the case materials, Baptist Union leader Ilya Zenchenko told Forum 18 News Service. The trial resumes on 28 July. The same court sentenced fellow Baptist pastor Zaur Balaev to prison in 2007. Shabanov is being prosecuted on charges that he held an illegal weapon and faces up to three years' imprisonment. His church and family insist the weapon was planted during a massive raid on his home on 20 June during which he was arrested. They say he is being prosecuted to punish him for leading his congregation. "Prosecutors very much want to sentence Hamid," Zenchenko warned. "This whole case has been staged. We pray to God for him to come home," Shabanov's family told Forum 18. Meanwhile prosecutors in the capital Baku are trying to prosecute Jehovah's Witness conscientious objector Mushfiq Mammedov for a second time on charges of evading military service, although the Constitution and the Criminal Code ban this.
Zenchenko – who travelled the 450 kms (280 miles) from the capital Baku to attend the hour-long hearing – said Shabanov "looked bad". "Hamid was wearing the same clothes he had been arrested in back on 20 June," he told Forum 18. "The Zakatala police who are now holding him have not allowed his family to pass on food or clothes. Hamid's wife and daughters were crying in court – it was the first time they had been able to see him since he was brought back to Zakatala earlier this month. Even then they were kept at a distance of three metres [yards] and were not able to touch him."
The authorities similarly denied former Baptist prisoner of conscience Pastor Zaur Balaev's family the opportunity to meet him during his lengthy pre-trial arrest (see F18News 22 June 2007 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=979).
Forum 18 was unable to find out from Zakatala police why they had refused to accept food and clothes for Shabanov and why family visits had been denied. The duty officer refused to put Forum 18 through to the police chief Faik Shabanov (no relation) on 23 July. "Why should I put you through?" he asked, before putting the phone down.
Shabanov is leader of one of several Baptist congregations in the majority Georgian-speaking village of Aliabad, which is close to Zakatala, the regional centre. The 51-year-old pastor is married with three adult children, two daughters and a son. He is being tried at the same court where fellow Aliabad Baptist pastor Zaur Balaev was sent to prison in 2007. Fabricated evidence and lack of due process were evident in that trial (see F18News 9 August 2007 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=1005).
"We saw him today in court," Shabanov's family told Forum 18 on 22 July from their home in Aliabad. They report that about fifteen family and church members were allowed into the court and say that for the first time the police did not refuse to accept food and clean clothes for Shabanov. "We hope they now hand them on to him."
The family insists that all they want is Shabanov back home. "This whole case has been staged. We pray to God for him to come home."
Zenchenko complained that Shabanov's lawyer, Mirman Aliev, was only shown the full case file at the 22 July hearing and can only now begin to prepare Shabanov's defence. He said that Shabanov is being tried under Article 228, part 1 of the Criminal Code, which punishes illegal holding of a weapon with a sentence of up to three years' imprisonment. Shabanov's congregation and his family insist that a Nagan pistol a Prosecutor's Office official claims to have found during the 20 June house search was planted in his home. Shabanov was arrested immediately after the alleged discovery.
During the search by some ten officers of the police, Prosecutor's Office and National Security Ministry (NSM) secret police, Christian literature was deemed "banned literature" and confiscated (see F18News 7 July 2008 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=1155).
Zenchenko also complained that the case paperwork includes allegations that Shabanov was promoting separatism among other members of Azerbaijan's Georgian-speaking minority, allegations Zenchenko rejects. "Hamid did not have an illegal weapon and he did not promote separatism," he told Forum 18. "But he has been accused of trying to create a new Karabakh," he reported in a reference to the mountainous region with a majority ethnic Armenian population which broke away from control from Baku in a bitter war in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Forum 18 was unable to find out from Hekimkhan Seferov of the Zakatala District Prosecutor's Office why materials on Shabanov's case had not been handed to the defence until the first day of the trial. The official who answered the telephone on 23 July said Seferov was not in the office and refused to discuss Shabanov's case.
Zenchenko lamented that unlike with earlier hearings in the prosecution of fellow Aliabad Baptist pastor Balaev, no observers from the Baku Office of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) were present in court.
Balaev was arrested in May 2007 on charges of attacking five police officers and damaging a police car that he and his church insist were trumped up and aimed to punish him for leading his congregation. He was sentenced to two years' imprisonment, but was freed on 19 March after being held for nearly a year. He was summoned and threatened with a new prison term in early May (see F18News 12 June 2008 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=1142).
Meanwhile Jehovah's Witness conscientious objector Mammedov faces a possible new sentence for refusing compulsory military service, despite the fact that he has already served one sentence on this charge. Jehovah's Witnesses told Forum 18 on 22 July that the new criminal case could have been lodged to punish him for challenging the original sentence through the domestic courts and at the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) in Strasbourg, where his case is now awaiting an admissibility decision.
Forum 18 tried to find out why the Prosecutor's Office is seeking to prosecute Mammedov for a second time, but the telephone went unanswered on 23 July.
Mammedov was found guilty by Baku's Sabail District Court on 21 July 2006 of violating Article 321.1 of the Criminal Code, which punishes evasion of military service with a sentence of up to two years' imprisonment. He was given a suspended sentence of six months. The authorities have repeatedly – as in other cases such as that of Pastor Balaev – violated due legal process in hearing Mammedov's appeal (see F18News 22 January 2008 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=1075).
The original prosecution and the new attempted prosecution come despite Azerbaijan's commitment to the Council of Europe to have instituted an alternative sentence by January 2003, two years after it joined the pan-European organisation. Azerbaijan failed to meet this deadline and has still not adopted an alternative service law.
Jehovah's Witnesses told Forum 18 that the "harassment" of Mammedov and his family began soon after he filed the application to the ECtHR in March 2008. "Starting from May this year, policemen several times went to the apartment where Mushfiq is registered," they told Forum 18. "And several times officials from Sabail District Prosecutor's Office called his mother and told her that Mushfiq should come to the Prosecutor's Office, allegedly because Mushfiq was accused of committing the crime of stealing a mobile phone."
On 8 June Mammedov and his mother Sevil Najafova filed a complaint against these actions with Sabail District Prosecutor's office. "Up till now they received no answer from the Prosecutor's Office," the Jehovah's Witnesses complained. Copies of the complaint were also sent to the Human Rights Ombudsperson Elmira Suleymanova and human rights organisations.
On 7 July a police officer named Javad called Mammedov's mother and said that a criminal case has been instigated over his alleged evasion of military service. He said he had received a written order to find him and bring him forcibly to the investigator Vugar Alekperov of Sabail District Prosecutor's Office. "Interestingly, up till that time Mushfiq did not receive any written notice from the Prosecutor's Office," the Jehovah's Witnesses commented.
The next day Mammedov's mother went to the prosecutor's office where she was given the written decision that a criminal case had been instigated against her son. The decision – of which Forum 18 has seen a copy – was dated 5 June. She was also informed that police would soon declare a manhunt for him.
The Jehovah's Witnesses point out that Article 64 of Azerbaijan's Constitution and Article 8.2 of the Criminal Code do not allow criminal charges to be brought against someone twice for the same crime. "Moreover this should be true in this case when Mushfiq did not commit any crime, but used his constitutional rights to request alternative service." They said Mammedov intends to file another complaint shortly with Sabail District Prosecutor's Office about the attempt to prosecute him a second time for the same offence.
Another Jehovah's Witness conscientious objector prisoner, Samir Huseynov, was freed from jail on 1 May (see F18News 14 May 2008 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=1129). (END)
For a personal commentary, by an Azeri Protestant, on how the international community can help establish religious freedom in Azerbaijan, see http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=482.
For more background information see Forum 18's Azerbaijan religious freedom survey at http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=92.
More coverage of freedom of thought, conscience and belief in Azerbaijan is at http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?query=&religion=all&country=23.
A survey of the religious freedom decline in the eastern part of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) area is at http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=806.
A printer-friendly map of Azerbaijan is available at http://www.nationalgeographic.com/xpeditions/atlas/index.html?Parent=asia&Rootmap=azerba.
7 July 2008
Baptist pastor Hamid Shabanov from the remote village of Aliabad is due to be transferred from investigation prison in the city of Gyanja back to Zakatala on 10 July, with a trial due soon after, his lawyer Mirman Aliyev told Forum 18 News Service. The 51-year-old pastor faces up to three years' imprisonment on a charge of holding an illegal weapon. "Hamid Shabanov does not consider himself guilty and insists the gun the police are claiming was his was planted by them," Aliyev reports. Ilya Zenchenko of the Baptist Union complains that Shabanov's arrest is part of a pattern of such government activity against Baptist and other religious communities across Azerbaijan. Fellow Aliabad Baptist pastor Zaur Balaev was freed from prison in March. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court has finally named a judge to hear the final appeal by Muslim teacher Said Dadashbeyli, imprisoned with eight others his family says are innocent. His lawyer told Forum 18 this could be held in late July or early August. Dadashbeyli's wife Ilhama says she wants one thing: "That the Supreme Court in Baku completes the case and frees these innocent men from prison, where they have been held with no proof."
30 June 2008
Despite discussions in recent years, Azerbaijan does not now intend to change its Religion Law, a senior official of the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations told Forum 18 News Service. "There will be no new Religion Law," Jeyhun Mamedov stated categorically. "This is what we've been told from above." He declined to specify who made this decision. Current legislation, including the Religion Law, and the authorities' actions have long been criticised by religious communities. Complaints focus on: compulsory censorship of all religious texts; arbitrary denial of legal status to religious communities; restrictions on the role of foreigners; and the detention or imprisonment of individual religious believers. Fazil Gazanfaroglu Mustafaev, an opposition parliamentary deputy, is also troubled by the authorities' actions. "It is illegal when police raid religious communities," he told Forum 18. "Yet they do it. It is the same problem for political parties, journalists and non-governmental organisations. This is not a law-governed state."
21 June 2008
Ilya Zenchenko, head of Azerbaijan's Baptist Union, has condemned the arrest yesterday (20 June) of Baptist pastor Hamid Shabanov after police claim to have found an illegal weapon in his home. "We're in shock," Zenchenko told Forum 18 News Service. "This was a provocation by the police, a deliberately targeted action." The pastor's brother told Forum 18 the police's aim is to halt Baptist activity. "Their target is the church." Pastor Shabanov is the second Baptist pastor in the remote village of Aliabad to face imprisonment on what local Baptists insist are trumped-up charges. His arrest comes three months after Pastor Zaur Balaev was freed from prison. Shabanov's family insist he has no weapon and that police planted the gun they claim to have found. But the local police chief appears to have made up his mind. "He's a criminal," the head of Zakatala regional police told Forum 18, even though under Azerbaijani law individuals are innocent until found guilty in court.