AZERBAIJAN: Independent Muslim leaders "safe", but pressure continues
Prominent independent Muslim leaders Ilgar Ibragimoglu and Azer Ramizoglu have not been detained and are safe in hiding, one of their colleagues reported. Seymur Rashidov, spokesman for religious freedom group Devamm, told Forum 18 News Service that on 20 October Ibragimoglu, imam of the Juma mosque in Baku's old city, left the Norwegian embassy where he had sought refuge to avoid arrest after the police raided Friday prayers on 17 October. Rashidov complained of continuing media attacks on Ibragimoglu and his colleagues and the continued denial of registration for three Muslim and religious freedom organisations. "The authorities don't want anyone in the country to investigate religious freedom because there are so many violations." He said tens of thousands of Muslim women who had refused to be photographed without headscarves for their identity documents were denied the ability to vote in the 15 October presidential election.
The attempt to arrest Ibragimoglu and Ramizoglu came amid a brutal government response to widespread demonstrations against the way the government manipulated voting in the 15 October presidential election. The authorities have arrested several hundred opposition leaders, journalists and human rights activists. Rashidov said two Devamm activists detained in the raid on the Juma mosque, Azad Narimanoglu and Najaf Allahverdiyev, were held and questioned by the police for only some 20 minutes before being freed. "No action has been taken against them since."
Rashidov also highlighted the impossibility for Muslim women who refused to be photographed for their identification documents without headscarves to vote. "Tens of thousands of devout Muslim women were denied the right to vote," he told Forum 18. "Only those who had old Soviet-era identity documents could vote." The problems came amid a long-running dispute over the authorities' refusal to allow devout Muslim women to be photographed in the hijab. Devamm (Centre for the Protection of Freedom of Conscience and Religion) has long campaigned for the many thousands of women who have been refused identity documents and passports as a result. Rashidov said his group had appealed in vain to the Interior Ministry, the procuracy and international organisations to allow such women to obtain official identity documents.
Rashidov also complained of the continuation of what Devamm regards as the officially-approved slander campaign against it and associated organisations. He said the private television station ANS-TV, which he described as "pro-government", had attacked Ibragimoglu and the Juma Mosque in a broadcast on 21 October, accusing the mosque of – among other alleged crimes - harbouring "unknown groups". "These charges of course had no foundation," he insisted. He said that lawyers for the Islam-Ittihad society have taken two other television stations – Space TV and Lider TV - to court accusing them of slandering the society in broadcasts of 11 October.
The authorities – who have long been running a campaign against Ibragimoglu and Ramizoglu and the organisations they are involved in – were angered that they had spoken up in favour of presidential candidate Isa Gambar, who came second according to the contested official results of the presidential poll. The president-elect according to the official results, Ilham Aliyev, had received open backing from Sheikh-ul-Islam Allahshukur Pashazade, the head of the Spiritual Administration of Caucasian Muslims, without any complaint from officials. Among those congratulating Ilham Aliyev was Russian Orthodox Patriarch Aleksy, who wrote to him on 20 October to offer his "heartfelt congratulations" and to affirm his conviction that he would "expend all his strength and talents for the good of the people of Azerbaijan".
Rashidov believes the authorities will continue to deny recognition to three organisations connected with Ramizoglu and Ibragimoglu. Ramizoglu is leader of Devamm (Centre for the Protection of Freedom of Conscience and Religion) and chairman of the Islam-Ittihad Society, which works for inter-religious dialogue and tolerance. As well as being imam of the Juma Mosque, Ibragimoglu is a board member of the Islam-Ittihad Society, leading coordinator of Devamm and Secretary General of the Azerbaijani Chapter of the International Religious Liberty Association (IRLA).
Rashidov said that Islam-Ittihad had lodged a challenge at the Appeal Court to the 28 August Sabail district court decision to liquidate the organisation in a suit brought by the Justice Ministry. He complained that the registration department of the Justice Ministry had consistently refused to register Devamm or the Azerbaijani IRLA Chapter. "The justice ministry refused and returned the Devamm application," he told Forum 18, "but they have been sitting on the IRLA application for exactly a year – without any response. The authorities don't want anyone in the country to investigate religious freedom because there are so many violations."
Fazil Mamedov, head of the justice ministry registration department, appears indifferent to whether Islam-Ittihad challenges its liquidation. "Let them appeal," he told Forum 18 from Baku on 22 October. He said he had "no time" to explain to Forum 18 why he had initiated its liquidation, muttering only that it "created armed groups". He said he had denied Devamm registration "because it was the same organisation as Islam-Ittihad". As to IRLA, he said initially that "there is no such organisation", then declared that he had handed over the registration issue to the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations. He declined to discuss anything further and put the phone down.
20 October 2003
Amid the widespread violence in the wake of the 15 October presidential elections, police swooped on the Juma Mosque in the capital Baku during Friday prayers on 17 October and tried to arrest the imam Ilgar Ibragimoglu and one of his close colleagues Azer Ramizoglu. "They wanted to arrest me and radicalise the believers," Ibragimoglu told Forum 18 News Service from the Norwegian embassy in Baku, where he has taken refuge. He said he was "very worried" about Ramizoglu, who has not been seen since 17 October. "I don't know if he is in hiding or if he has been detained by the authorities." The two – both supporters of failed presidential candidate Isa Gambar - are leading members of religious freedom group Devamm, which has long been denied official registration, and the Islam-Ittihad society, whose registration was stripped from it by a Baku court in August. "Ibragimoglu will be a guest of the Royal Norwegian embassy until the matter is resolved," an embassy official told Forum 18.
29 September 2003
Fr Daniel Pravda, head of the small Catholic community in Azerbaijan, said he is shocked by the reported warning by the government's senior religious affairs official that he has been conducting "illegal religious propaganda", an offence under Azerbaijani law punishable by deportation. "I don't know what Rafik Aliev means by propaganda, but all I do is serve our Catholics," Fr Pravda told Forum 18 News Service. According to the local media, Aliev issued the warning to visiting Vatican foreign minister Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran on 24 September. Forum 18 was unable to reach Aliev to find out whether he had indeed warned Fr Pravda, if so why he had done so and why Azerbaijani law bans foreigners and people without citizenship from conducting "religious propaganda" in defiance of international human rights conventions.
4 September 2003
Local police chief Mukhtar Mukhtarov used "Soviet, KGB methods" in breaking up the Sunday school attached to Baku's Greater Grace Protestant Church on 31 August, one of the church's pastors complained. "Mukhtarov said we do not have the right to teach kids and convert Azeri children," Pastor Fuad Tariverdi told Forum 18 News Service. But Mukhtarov rejected any criticism and blamed the church. "They're acting illegally," he told Forum 18. "There was nothing bad, but this must be done with the permission of the Committee for Work with Religious Organisations." The director of the club where the Sunday school met has told church leaders that he has been threatened that if he lets them in again he will be imprisoned.