AZERBAIJAN: Will Presidential Administration explain why it thinks amendments needed?
The Presidential Administration produced controversial amendments limiting freedom of religion or belief, but has not explained why it thought they were needed, or why it proposed amendments violating Azerbaijan's international human rights commitments. Parliamentary deputy Rabiyyat Aslanova told Forum 18 News Service that the amendments are due to be sent to President Ilham Aliyev for signature on 18 May. "We have approved a lot of laws this week, but we may get these amendments to him on Saturday [16 May] if the final version is complete by then," she said. Human rights defenders and religious leaders condemned the secrecy and lack of public discussion which accompanied the amendments. Ilya Zenchenko of the Baptist Union told Forum 18 that he wants the President "to look at our Constitution which guarantees freedom of religion and reject the Law as it violates the Constitution."
Although unable to see the final text of the amendments approved by Parliament as they have not been made public, religious communities have already given detailed criticism of what is reported to be in the amendments (see F18News 14 May 2009 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=1295).
Rabiyyat Aslanova, a Parliamentary deputy who chairs the Human Rights Committee, told Forum 18 on 13 May that the amendments are due to be sent to President Aliyev for signature on 18 May. "We have approved a lot of laws this week, but we may get these amendments to him on Saturday [16 May] if the final version is complete by then."
Azerbaijan's Constitution gives the President 56 days from the date of receipt to sign or return a Law to Parliament.
Deputy Aslanova declined to speculate on whether President Aliyev will sign the amendments to the Religion Law, the Criminal Code and the Code of Administrative Offences. "That is his prerogative," she told Forum 18. "He could sign or not, or amend them. We tried to do what we could to do what was necessary."
The amendments to the Religion Law, the Criminal Code and the Code of Administrative Offences each needed only one Parliamentary vote, Jeyhun Guliev of the Milli Mejlis press service told Forum 18 on 13 May. "New laws require three readings, but these were merely amendments." Asked how many deputies had voted in favour in each vote and how many against, he said he did not have the information. "For us this information is not important."
No explanation why amendments needed
The proposed amendments to the Religion Law were prepared in the Presidential Administration. President Aliyev signed and sent them to Parliament on 4 March 2009 in a letter seen by Forum 18.
Shahin Aliyev, the head of the Department of Legislation and Legal Expertise at the Presidential Administration, confirmed to Forum 18 on 14 May that his department had participated in drawing up the amendments, but declined to answer any questions on them. He referred all enquiries to Ali Hasanov, who heads the Public and Political Department in the Administration, which also includes a two-person section on ethnic and religious affairs. However, Hasanov's office told Forum 18 that he was away in Moscow.
Forum 18 sent written questions on 13 May to Azer Gasimov, spokesperson for President Aliyev, asking:
- why the President believes that the Religion Law needs to be changed yet again;
- why the President proposed changes to the Religion Law that violate Azerbaijan's international human rights commitments (such as by making registration of religious communities compulsory and restricting the locations where religious literature can be sold);
- what help, if any, Azerbaijan sought from international organisations like the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and the Council of Europe's Venice Commission to ensure that the revisions to the law are in line with Azerbaijan's international human rights commitments;
- if no such help was sought, why not;
- why registered religious communities will yet again be required to undergo re-registration, given that each time this has happened it was very difficult and expensive for religious communities to regain registration and many of them were unable to do so;
- and what the authorities will do with religious communities that continue to meet for worship and other religious activities without state registration.
Forum 18 had not received any response from the Presidential spokesperson by the end of the working day in Baku on 14 May.
Speedy adoption of amendments
Muslim rights activist Ilgar Ibrahimoglu Allahverdiev and Ilya Zenchenko of the Baptist Union are among religious leaders who told Forum 18 of their surprise that the first they learned of the draft amendments was when their existence was reported in the press just days before they were finally adopted in Parliament.
"There should have been public debates, and independent experts should have been able to check that the drafts were in accordance with Azerbaijan's Constitution and international human rights norms," Ibrahimoglu told Forum 18.
He was echoing comments made to Forum 18 on 6 May by Eldar Zeynalov, the head of the Baku-based Human Rights Centre of Azerbaijan, that the draft of these amendments should have been opened up to public discussion before being considered in Parliament (see F18News 6 May 2009 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=1291).
Asked what he wants President Aliyev to do when he receives the amendments for signature, Zenchenko responded: "I want him to look at our Constitution which guarantees freedom of religion and reject the Law as it violates the Constitution." (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=1192.
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.
6 May 2009
Azerbaijan is apparently rushing restrictive amendments to its Religion Law through parliament, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. "Only the parliamentary deputies have the text, and it will only be published after its adoption," a parliamentary aide told Forum 18. The amendments - which reportedly include a ban on unregistered religious activity - have not been made public, and the full parliament is due to begin consideration of them on Friday 8 May. The refusal to make the text public denies the opportunity for public discussion of the proposals, complains Eldar Zeynalov of the Human Rights Centre of Azerbaijan. "Everything prepared in top secrecy is bad for human rights," he told Forum 18. Parliamentary Deputy Rabiyyat Aslanova, who chairs one of two committees which prepared the draft, told Forum 18 that state registration will be compulsory, but claimed that: "No one will be punished for practicing without registration, as long as they don't preach against the national interest or denigrate the dignity of others." She declined to discuss what this means, and confirmed that religious communities will have to re-register. Religious communities - especially of minority faiths – have struggled to re-register after previous changes.
4 May 2009
A Protestant community, Revival Fire Evangelical Church, has become the first and so far only religious community to be denied legal status by the unrecognised entity of Nagorno-Karabakh, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. It is uncertain what practical impact this will have. Ashot Sargsyan, head of the state Department for Ethnic Minority and Religious Affairs, told Forum 18 that "they can continue to pray, but won't have the right to meet together for worship as before." Asked what would happen if they do meet for worship, he responded: "The police will fine them and if they persist they will face Administrative Court." This was contradicted by Yuri Hairapetyan, the Human Rights Ombudsperson, who claimed that "they will be able to function but simply won't have legal status." Sargsyan claimed that "the church worked against the Constitution and against our laws," but when asked what court decisions had determined this replied that "no court has reviewed this issue."
16 April 2009
Azerbaijan's Interior Ministry has issued – but apparently not published - a "Plan to Prevent the Spread of Religious Extremism by Radical Sects", Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Senior Ministry officials have refused to say what is in the Plan, however police in Gyanja have claimed that a raid on a Jehovah's Witness meeting marking their most important festival is part of the Plan. Police insisted that the meeting was "illegal" as the community does not have state registration in the city. Asked why this makes their meeting "illegal", officers – who did not give their names – only repeated the "illegal" claim. It is unclear whether a raid on a Baptist meeting, publishing full names, addresses and birthdates of victims of such raids, and refusal to allow a mosque in the capital Baku to reopen are also linked to the Plan. Human rights defenders and religious communities are especially concerned about officials publicising the personal details of their victims, one defender stating it could be regarded as "a kind of hate speech". No official has been able to explain to Forum 18 how these official actions "prevent the spread of religious extremism".