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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

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AZERBAIJAN: Strasbourg Court rules long pre-trial detention "excessive"

The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg has ruled in three cases in 2020 that Azerbaijan violated the rights of 13 individuals by subjecting them to excessively long pre-trial detention, and ordered compensation. Five of these had been detained for exercising freedom of religion or belief. Imam Taleh Bagirov – who was tortured in pre-trial detention – and Zakir Mustafayev are still serving jail terms.

AZERBAIJAN: Will fired parliamentary staffer be reinstated?

Former parliamentary staffer Rahim Akhundov says he was fired in December 2018 on secret police orders as he is a Christian. Courts – most recently Baku Appeal Court on 10 June 2020 - rejected arguments that his unsigned dismissal letter is illegal, and he could not appeal earlier as Parliament sent the letter nine months late. He will appeal to the Supreme Court when he receives the written appeal rejection.

AZERBAIJAN: Will regime implement alternative service commitment?

Ruling party deputy Siyavush Novruzov told parliament on 30 March that an Alternative Service Law should be adopted. Parliament's Defence Committee is handling this, he told Forum 18. The government has not made public any draft. Azerbaijan committed to the Council of Europe to have alternative service by 2003 but failed to meet its obligation. Jehovah's Witnesses say criminal cases against their conscientious objectors are not being pursued.

AZERBAIJAN: "No objection" to limited worship, but no legal right

After 25 years, Aliabad's Baptist community, denied legal status the longest, finally began open worship in January. The State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations wrote that it had "no objection" to meetings once a week for two hours. Shia Imam Sardar Babayev, freed after a three-year sentence for preaching in a mosque with foreign education, will not resume preaching for fear of renewed criminal prosecution.

AZERBAIJAN: European court fines regime for religious censorship

The European Court of Human Rights ordered Azerbaijan to compensate Jehovah's Witnesses over an import ban on three publications. Muslim theologian Elshad Miri lodged a case to the Court over the 2018 ban on his book on Islam. The State Committee – which implements the compulsory prior religious censorship – allowed Miri to publish only 3,000 copies of his next book. Customs destroyed a Georgian Orthodox book.

AZERBAIJAN: Large fine amid continuing religious censorship

A Baku court fined Kamran Huseynzade four months' average wages for selling religious books outside a mosque without state permission. The head of the censorship department at the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations lamented that only 42 of 100 places selling religious literature have the required state licence. All published and imported religious literature is subject to prior compulsory censorship.

AZERBAIJAN: Censorship case to join 41 other ECtHR cases?

After failing in the Supreme Court to overturn a state ban on his book on Islam, Elshad Miri is preparing a case to the European Court of Human Rights. It would join 41 existing cases at the Strasbourg court (involving 76 individuals and 7 communities) over Azerbaijan's repeated freedom of religion or belief violations.

AZERBAIJAN: Appeal court upholds couple's massive fines

Shirvan Appeal Court rejected the appeals by a Baptist husband and wife against fines of more than three months' average wages each for having religious literature and holding a New Year children's meeting without state permission. Three Protestants were fined for a study meeting in a Sheki home. A Muslim in Sheki failed to overturn a fine for teaching Islam.

AZERBAIJAN: Appeals fail against illegal raids, fines

Baptist Pastor from Aliabad Hamid Shabanov has failed to overturn a fine for hosting religious meetings without compulsory state permission. The Constitutional Court again rejected his appeal. Four Jehovah's Witnesses failed in their civil suit seeking redress for the police's illegal entry without a court order or search warrant, their "detention, verbal insults and humiliation", and literature seizure.

AZERBAIJAN: Book censorship appeal still in Supreme Court

Theologian Elshad Miri's Supreme Court suit to overturn the state's ban on publishing his book on Islam resumes on 25 June. At a May hearing, the state lawyer "was unable to give a reasoned refutation of our arguments", Miri's lawyer said. Mammad Ramazanov lost his appeal against a large fine for "illegal" distribution of religious books.

AZERBAIJAN: Supreme Court rejects conscientious objectors' appeals

Two Jehovah's Witnesses – given one-year suspended prison terms and living under restrictions for refusing compulsory military service on grounds of conscience – failed to overturn their criminal convictions at the Supreme Court in April. Shia Imam Sardar Babayev, jailed for leading Muslim worship after gaining religious education outside Azerbaijan, awaits a European Court of Human Rights decision.

AZERBAIJAN: Six years already, nearly six months more

Rearrested days before a six year jail term for protesting against a ban on schoolgirls wearing headscarves ended, Telman Shiraliyev was sentenced to an additional nearly six month term. "The trial was short and took place without a lawyer as his family is too poor to afford one," human rights defender Elshan Hasanov told Forum 18.

AZERBAIJAN: Religious freedom survey, November 2018

Azerbaijan restricts freedom of religion and belief, with interlinked freedoms of expression, association, and assembly. Forum 18's survey analyses violations including prisoners of conscience jailed and tortured for exercising freedom of religion and belief, strict state literature censorship, and regime claims of its "tolerance".

AZERBAIJAN: Fines, censorship amid state control of Islam

Agsu court fined three Muslims after state religious affairs officials and secret police raided a home religious meeting. A Baku court rejected theologian Elshad Miri's appeal against a state ban on his book on Islam. The government must explain to the European Court of Human Rights why it jailed Sardar Babayev for leading mosque prayers.

AZERBAIJAN: Second 2018 conscientious objector conviction

On 6 September, a court in western Azerbaijan handed a criminal conviction to a second Jehovah's Witness conscientious objector. Vahid Abilov received a one-year suspended prison term and will be under probation for one year. He is planning to appeal. Three more similar cases might follow.

AZERBAIJAN: Heavy fines for selling unapproved literature

Samad Alikhanov and Zahir Mirzayev were fined up to five months' average wages for offering religious literature for sale without state permission. The literature was confiscated. On 18 September a Baku court resumes hearing theologian Elshad Miri's suit against the State Committee pre-publication ban on his book on Islam.

AZERBAIJAN: Conscientious objector's criminal conviction – more to follow?

18-year-old Jehovah's Witness Emil Mehdiyev repeatedly expressed willingness to perform a civilian alternative to compulsory military service. Instead he was given a criminal conviction, a one-year suspended prison term, and will be under probation for one year. Seven similar criminal cases against other young men are with Prosecutor's Offices.

AZERBAIJAN: Theologian challenges state's book ban

Muslim theologian Elshad Miri is challenging in court the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations decision to ban one of his books on theological grounds. The Committee operates the prior compulsory censorship of all religious materials. A court fined another bookshop owner for selling religious literature without permission.

AZERBAIJAN: Raids on mosques, jailings, fines

Secret police, police and religious affairs officials raided and closed another "illegal" mosque in Baku, complaining that young people "were involved in religious ceremonies". The secret police are investigating the owner. A Sheki court issued four one-month jailings and fines for protests against a plan to turn a mosque into a museum.

AZERBAIJAN: Extra prison term for Koran micro-discs

A Court added 10 weeks to prisoner of conscience Taleh Bagirov's 20-year prison term for having micro-discs of the Koran in his cell. The Supreme Court rejected Sardar Babayev's appeal against a three-year prison term for leading mosque prayers while having foreign religious education. Six months after a Court ordered compensation for illegal imprisonment, two Jehovah's Witnesses have received nothing.

AZERBAIJAN: State's theological review bans book on Islam

The State Committee for Work With Religious Organisations – which implements the state's prior compulsory censorship of all religious literature – banned a book on Islam by Muslim theologian Elshad Miri. An official deemed it "unsuitable for publication" because he disagreed with it theologically.

AZERBAIJAN: Sufis raided, initial fine, Protestants raided

Sufi Muslim Rashad Abidov was fined in Sheki for hosting a religious meeting raided by police, but managed to overturn the fine on appeal. Police raided Star in the East Pentecostal Church in Gyanja during Sunday worship. Police phoned the schools of children present. Fines might follow.

AZERBAIJAN: Four state agencies raid religious communities

Alongside police, secret police and State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations, a growing role in raids on religious communities and prosecutions seems to be played by Religious Affairs Commissions attached to local administrations. Fines of three months' average wages often follow raids.

AZERBAIJAN: Fines follow police raids on worship

Azerbaijan continues to raid religious communities meeting without state permission, and large fines are normally then imposed. After one such raid an Aliabad Baptist has been told he must pay a fine of over three months average salary by the end of 2017.

AZERBAIJAN: Torture unpunished; compensation for imprisonment

Muslim Unity Movement deputy leader Abbas Huseynov was beaten and handcuffed "as if crucified" in Qobustan Prison's punishment cell. Appeals brought "no result". Movement leader Taleh Bagirov was sent to punishment cell for requesting a doctor. A Baku court compensated two Jehovah's Witnesses for their year's imprisonment.

AZERBAIJAN: Three years' jail for leading prayers

Sardar Babayev was jailed for three years for leading mosque prayers because he was educated abroad, the first known punishment for this "crime". Religion Law amendments now allow state exceptions to the ban. Two acquitted Jehovah's Witnesses, who spent a year in prison, offered no compensation.

AZERBAIJAN: Fined for home religious meetings, picnic

More than 20 Muslims, fined three months' average wages for a religious meeting in a home in Quba, failed in their appeals. A Baptist Pastor similarly fined will appeal to the Constitutional Court. A Muslim was fined for reading religious books aloud at a picnic.

AZERBAIJAN: Fined for selling religious books

Kifayat Maharramova was fined four months' average wages in Gyanja in early May for selling religious books and discs without the state permission required to sell religious books or items. Police and State Religion Committee officials often confiscate religious books in raids.

AZERBAIJAN: Five years' jail for leading worship?

In the first known use of punishments on foreign-educated Muslims for leading worship, Shia Imam Sardar Babayev faces up to five years' imprisonment if convicted. Educated in Iran, he led Friday prayers at a Masalli mosque. Arrested on 22 February, he is in pre-trial detention.

AZERBAIJAN: Regime jails Muslims, doesn't arrest torturers

Eighteen people accused of association with the Muslim Unity Movement have been given long jail terms on fabricated charges. Other trials are continuing. Despite Azerbaijan's binding international human rights obligations, no officials have been arrested or put on criminal trial for torturing those convicted.

AZERBAIJAN: Police claim "everything was done well"

Three Jehovah's Witnesses, two Baptists, and a bookseller have each been fined three to four months' average wages. Their "offences" include discussing beliefs, offering religious literature, and meeting for prayer. And an unlicensed mosque has been raided and had allegedly "superstitious" items confiscated.

AZERBAIJAN: Raids, fines enforce state religious censorship

At least 26 shops and 6 homes raided for religious literature sold or distributed without having undergone compulsory censorship by or in places not licensed by State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations. Some individuals already punished. UN Human Rights Committee concerned over religious censorship.

AZERBAIJAN: 34 fines for "illegal" religious meeting

34 attendees at an "illegal" home meeting for worship on the most sacred annual observance for Jehovah's Witnesses were fined nearly a year's official minimum wage. The leader of a Sunni mosque in Baku forcibly closed in July has failed to overturn his fine.

AZERBAIJAN: Police, officials close Sunni home mosques

Police, SSS secret police, State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations and local administration officials forcibly closed a home Sunni mosque in Qobustan near Baku, the latest Sunni Mosque closed. The mosque leader is appealing against a large fine for leading an unregistered community.

AZERBAIJAN: Prisoners tortured, authorities deny torture happened

The trial of 18 Muslims accused of serious violent crimes, which they and human rights defenders deny, began on 3 August. Many encouraged Islam outside state control. They have testified to being tortured, but the authorities have not arrested and tried the officials concerned.

AZERBAIJAN: Imprisonments, trial and torture of Muslims

The criminal trial of Shia Muslim Elshan Mustafaoglu Mustafayev for treason has begun, and Imam Elchin Qasimov (arrested after protesting against torture) has been tortured during his pre-criminal trial imprisonment. Shia Muslim Inqilab Ehadli remains in prison hospital in Baku in a "poor state".

AZERBAIJAN: Mosques ordered to close for "repairs"

Two Baku mosques abruptly closed for "repairs". A Quba mosque is restricted to Friday prayers only after an official thought replacing a window was "Salafi activity". Army and police are outside Nardaran's mosques. But the Georgian Orthodox are after a year allowed a priest.

AZERBAIJAN: One more sentenced prisoner of conscience

Shia Muslim imam and prisoner of conscience Nuhbala Rahimov has been given an 18-month sentence and his mosque taken over, and Taleh Bagirov faces more criminal charges. The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention and the Committee Against Torture have condemned the government's record.

AZERBAIJAN: Fines for religious meetings "correct"?

The judge who upheld a large fine on a Jehovah's Witness for attending a worship meeting rejects the victim's argument that the fine violates the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), telling Forum 18 his "decision is correct". Azerbaijan is obliged to implement the ECHR. And in March 2016 a new Administrative Code retaining fines and punishments for exercising freedom of religion and belief came into force.

AZERBAIJAN: State tells Muslims when to pray

"If we pray according to the calendar we believe is correct, they'll arrest us," one Muslim tells Forum 18 about the Shia-oriented unified calendar the state imposes on all Muslims. Azerbaijan's Georgian Orthodox – after nearly a year – should soon have a resident priest again.

AZERBAIJAN: Shia Muslim prisoner – one of many – reported close to death

Inqilab Ehadli, one of the dozens of Shia Muslims imprisoned as an alleged supporter of the Muslim Unity Movement, is believed to be close to death in prison hospital in the capital Baku, human rights defender Elshan Hasanov told Forum 18 News Service. Ehadli, who is 58, was already in poor health when arrested in January and transferred to the secret police Investigation Prison. "In his home town of Salyan he had authority. Young people came to him with questions about their faith and Islamic law, even members of the clergy," Hasanov noted. At least 68 supporters of the Movement have been arrested since an armed assault by security forces on the village of Nardaran in November 2015, including its leader Taleh Bagirov and mosque prayer leader Nuhbala Rahimov. Meanwhile, two female Jehovah's Witnesses – freed after 50 weeks' imprisonment, mostly by the secret police - have failed to overturn their criminal convictions on appeal. The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention found in December 2015 that the two were being punished for exercising their right to freedom of religion or belief and called for them freed and compensated. The Working Group is due to visit Azerbaijan in mid-May.

AZERBAIJAN: Convicted and freed, but no compensation for 50 week imprisonment

Two female Jehovah's Witnesses, Irina Zakharchenko and Valida Jabrayilova, were convicted yesterday (28 January) of offering one religious booklet without the compulsory state permission needed in Azerbaijan to distribute religious literature. Judge Akram Qahramanov of Baku's Pirallahi District Court gave each a large fine, but waived the fines as they had spent nearly a year in prison, a court official told Forum 18 News Service. The two were freed in the courtroom. "The decision completely disregards a United Nations [Working Group on Arbitrary Detention] ruling that directed Azerbaijan to compensate the women for their unjust imprisonment," Jehovah's Witnesses complained to Forum 18. The court official said Judge Qahramanov was hearing another case, and she could not comment on why he had ignored the UN decision that the two women – far from being convicted of any crime – should be compensated. The secret police spokesperson claimed to Forum 18 the case was not within its competence, even though it had led the investigation and held the prisoners of conscience for nearly a year. Many other prisoners of conscience are still being held to punish them for exercising the right to freedom of religion or belief.

AZERBAIJAN: Prisoner of conscience tortured – with impunity?

Shia Muslim theologian and prisoner of conscience Taleh Bagirov was subjected to "severe torture" and a broken nose while in detention at the Interior Ministry's Main Directorate for the Struggle with Organised Crime in December 2015. No official at the Main Directorate would explain why Bagirov was tortured, what punishment those responsible will face or how such torture can be prevented. "No-one here gives information," the duty officer told Forum 18 News Service. Rashid Rumzada, head of Azerbaijan's National Preventive Mechanism which is supposed to help prevent torture, told Forum 18 that confidentiality meant he could not discuss individual cases. Shia Muslim cleric Nuhbala Rahimov is in four months' pre-trial detention facing possible criminal trial. The criminal trial of two female Jehovah's Witnesses – one of whom is very ill - is due to resume in a Baku court tomorrow (28 January). And the appeal by five Sunni Muslims against long prison terms is due to resume at Baku Appeal Court on 2 February.

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 "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.

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