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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: Unregistered worship "illegal" - but under what law?

Police in Azerbaijan have raided another Jehovah's Witness meeting, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. In the latest raid, nine Jehovah's Witnesses were detained and threatened. "We consider the police raid unlawful since the Constitution of Azerbaijan gives us the right to gather for worship and Azerbaijani law does not require registration to come together to study the Holy Scriptures," a Jehovah's Witness told Forum 18. The community will continue to meet, he insisted. Officials repeatedly insist that unregistered worship is banned by the Administrative Code. Article 299 of this Code lists three "offences": avoiding state registration, violating regulations over organising religious events and attracting children to religious events. Violations can be punished with fines of between 10 and 15 times the minimum monthly wage. However, state registration is not legally required for religious activity to be conducted. Meanwhile Baptist Pastor Hamid Shabanov's trial is once again due to resume, after repeated delays, on 4 February.

NAGORNO-KARABAKH: Repressive new Religion Law signed

The President of the internationally unrecognised entity of Nagorno-Karabakh, Bako Sahakyan, has signed a repressive new Religion Law, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. It comes into force ten days after its official publication, which is expected to be after the current Christmas holidays. No officials were available to discuss the new Law, because of public holidays for Christmas which the Armenian Apostolic Church celebrates on 6 January 2009. The main restrictions in the new Law are: an apparent ban on unregistered religious activity; highly restrictive requirements to gain legal recognition; state censorship of religious literature; an undefined "monopoly" given to the Armenian Apostolic Church over preaching and spreading its faith while restricting other faiths to similarly undefined "rallying their own faithful". Many articles of the Law are formulated in a way that lacks clarity, making the intended implementation of the Law uncertain. The Law also does not resolve the issue of conscientious objection to military service.

ARMENIA: Imprisonment of some 80 conscientious objectors "not a human rights issue"

Armenia's Foreign and Justice Ministries have denied to Forum 18 News Service that the country's alternative to military service is also under military control. Karine Soudjian, who heads the Human Rights Department in the Foreign Ministry, insisted to Forum 18 that the current Alternative Service Law has "no contradiction" with Armenia's international human rights obligations, including to the Council of Europe. But the Council of Europe's Human Rights Commissioner Thomas Hammarberg says the Law "does not provide for a genuine civilian service as the service is still managed and supervised by the Ministry of Defence". Soudjian says the imprisonment of some 80 Jehovah's Witness conscientious objectors – a figure she disputes – "is not a human rights issue". Parliamentary deputy David Harutyunyan told Forum 18 the Law has "room for improvement" and is being discussed in two parliamentary committees, but declined to spell out what changes are being discussed. Jehovah's Witnesses fear that if the system does not change, at least a further 15 young men will face trial from January.

NAGORNO-KARABAKH: "The Law is like rubber"

President Bako Sahakyan of the internationally unrecognised entity of Nagorno-Karabakh is considering a restrictive new Religion Law, Forum 18 News Service has found. The new Law imposes vaguely formulated restrictions, including: an apparent ban on unregistered religious activity; state censorship of religious literature; an undefined "monopoly" given to the Armenian Apostolic Church over preaching and spreading its faith, while banning "soul-hunting" and restricting others to undefined "rallying their own faithful". Garik Grigoryan, head of the parliamentary Commission on State Legal Issues, claimed to Forum 18 that "it will be a more liberal, democratic Law." Members of religious communities have expressed serious concerns to Forum 18. One member of the Armenian Apostolic Church rhetorically asked Forum 18: "Where's the freedom?" Another described the Law as "like rubber," noting that "you can't see exactly how it's going to be put into practice." The Law also does not resolve the issue of a civilian alternative to compulsory military service.

AZERBAIJAN: Religious freedom survey, September 2008

In its survey analysis of religious freedom in Azerbaijan, Forum 18 News Service has found continuing violations of freedom of thought, conscience and belief. The state attempts to control or limit the majority Muslim and minority religious communities, including imposing strict censorship, violating its international human rights commitments. The situation in the Nakhichevan exclave is worse than the rest of the country. Officials often claim that Azerbaijan is a state of religious tolerance – a view promoted by government-favoured groups – but the state promotes intolerance of some minorities and has not introduced the genuine religious freedom necessary for genuine religious tolerance to flourish. Many officials are convinced that ethnic Azeris should not be non-Muslims, and act on this conviction. In practice, many violations of the human rights of both Muslims and non-Muslims – such as the detention of Baptist prisoner of conscience Hamid Shabanov and a ban on Muslims praying outside mosques - are based on unwritten understandings and even violations of the written law.

AZERBAIJAN: "Wasn't one prison term enough?"

Baptist former prisoner of conscience Zaur Balaev has been summoned and threatened with a new prison term, he has told Forum 18 News Service. "Haven't you learnt from your imprisonment?" Balaev quoted police officers as telling him. "Wasn't one prison term enough for you?" One officer added: "You may not be afraid, but you've forgotten you've got a wife, daughter and a son." Police banned Balaev's church from meeting, a ban the congregation has defied. Kamandar Hasanov, the deputy police chief in Azerbaijan's north-western Zakatala region, denied to Forum 18 that he had threatened Balaev. Hasanov also refused to discuss with Forum 18 the harassment of Balaev's Baptist congregation, why Muslim men with beards were forcibly shaved and banned from Zakatala's mosque in recent years, and why religious books were confiscated in a raid on a Jehovah's Witness home. A local resident told Forum 18 that the pressure to shave off beards has at present halted.

AZERBAIJAN: Conscientious objector prisoner freed

Azerbaijan has freed a Jehovah's Witness conscientious objector prisoner, Samir Huseynov, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Huseynov was freed from jail on 1 May, despite his appeal against his sentence being refused. "Because I have not been cleared, I now have a criminal record," Huseynov complained. "If I want to get a job, any employer will find this out and will treat me with more caution." He insisted that "the state one hundred percent had no right to imprison me," telling Forum 18 that "I have rights guaranteed under the European Convention of Human Rights." Jehovah's Witnesses state that no other of their young men are facing prosecution for refusing compulsory military service on religious grounds, although several have this year been harassed by military conscription offices. When it entered the Council of Europe in 2001, Azerbaijan promised to introduce an Alternative Service Law by January 2003. But it has not done this. An official claimed that an Alternative Service Law "will be adopted this year."

KAZAKHSTAN: Alarm at state-backed planned new Religion Law

Kazakhstan is planning more restrictions on freedom of thought, conscience and belief, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Human rights activists and some religious communities have expressed alarm at a planned new Religion Law penalising "unapproved" religious activities. The proposals include banning missionary activity by people who do not both represent registered religious communities and have state accreditation, and banning small religious communities from maintaining public places of worship or publishing religious literature. Prime Minister Karim Masimov has backed the latest draft, writing that "perfecting" legislation at the "contemporary phase of state-confessional relations" is "timely and necessary." Fr Aleksandr Ievlev of the Russian Orthodox Church vigorously defended the proposals, telling Forum 18 that "the current Law has allowed sectarians to spread in the country." He complained that "the proposed amendments do not at all restrict the rights and freedoms of religious organisations – those that say otherwise are lying." Accompanying the draft Law, the mass media is being used by officials and parliamentary deputies to promote intolerance of religious communitioes they dislike.

NAGORNO-KARABAKH: Jailed religious conscientious objector must undergo "re-education"

Jehovah's Witness Areg Hovhanesyan, who has served more than three years of a four-year jail sentence for refusing compulsory military service on religious grounds, must remain in jail and undergo "re-education", Forum 18 News Service has learnt. The internationally unrecognised entity of Nagorno-Karabakh's has rejected his appeal for early release, a Supreme Court official told Forum 18. Albert Voskanyan of the Centre for Civilian Initiatives – who attended the court hearing - told Forum 18 that the court had ordered the prison leadership to "re-educate the prisoner". Ashot Sargsyan, head of the Department for National Minorities and Religions, defended the jail sentence. "He's not dangerous, but how can he be a well-behaved person if he breaks the law by refusing to do military service?" A previous conscientious objector, who did military service without bearing weapons, was a Baptist, Gagik Mirzoyan. He refused to swear the military oath or bear arms, for which he was beaten up and imprisoned, but was eventually released from military service in January.

AZERBAIJAN: Pastor threatened with jail for allowing children in church

Police in Azerbaijan's second city Gyanja have threatened Adventist pastor Elshan Samedov with prison, if he refuses to ban children from attending worship services and does not halt worship in two church-owned properties. "People don't have the right to meet for religious purposes just where they want," Major Alovset Mamedov told Forum 18 News Service, "they need to have permission." Mamedov "threatened to imprison me for turning people into Christians," Samedov stated. "He violates our rights to worship God – and he insulted my personal dignity. Who gave him the right to violate my rights?" Major Mamedov demanded that Pastor Samedov sign a statement that he would prevent children from attending services in future, but he refused to do this. Following a separate raid in the capital Baku, police tried to pressure eight Adventists into giving up their faith and fined them under the Administrative Code for holding meetings "not connected with the conducting of religious rituals with the aim of attracting young people and youth."

ARMENIA: 82 religious prisoners of conscience is new record

With 82 Jehovah's Witnesses imprisoned for refusing military service and the military-controlled alternative service on grounds of religious conscience, the Armenian authorities have reached a new record. Jehovah's Witnesses told Forum 18 News Service that 73 of them are serving terms of 18 to 36 months' imprisonment, while nine more are awaiting trial. Seven are due for trial on 15 October, while the new call-up about to begin is likely to bring more arrests. "Alternative service is under the control of the Defence Ministry – I believe this should not be the case," Armen Harutyunyan, Armenia's Human Rights Ombudsperson, told Forum 18. But Artur Agabekyan, chair of the parliamentary Defence Committee, rejects this. "The alternative civilian service has no connection with the Defence Ministry," he claimed to Forum 18. Local journalist Vahan Ishkhanian says there is no appetite for change within Armenia. "They say we already have a law that meets European standards. I believe any change depends on the Council of Europe."

ARMENIA: 72 religious prisoners of conscience is new record

Armenia has a record number of religious conscientious objectors to military service in jail, despite a 2004 promise to free these prisoners of conscience, Forum 18 News Service has found. 72 Jehovah's Witnesses are now in jail. Four of these prisoners have been jailed within the past month, with an average jail sentence for each of the four young men of just under two and a half years. Armenia claims to have a civilian alternative service, but the allegedly "civilian" service is under the complete control of the Armenian General Staff, supervised by the Military Police under military law, and pacifists are forced to wear uniform provided by the military. Jehovah's Witnesses and Molokans insist that they would be happy to perform a genuinely civilian alternative service – but Armenia does not allow this. The father of a Molokan Protestant Christian conscientious objector told Forum 18 that "we're not satisfied with the current alternative service. It's against our faith to take weapons and to kill people."