AZERBAIJAN: Baptist and Adventist support for Imam at trial
At the opening of the trial today (22 March) of jailed religious freedom activist Ilgar Ibrahimoglu, Azerbaijan's Baptist leader Pastor Ilya Zenchenko and Adventist leader Pastor Yahya Zavrichko have spoken out in support of the Imam, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Baptist Pastor Zenchenko told Forum 18 that "the trial is a spectacle, a show. There is no basis for the charges against him. He is a victim." Adventist Pastor Zavrichko was as forthright. "I believe he is innocent. He only spoke up for people's religious rights." The Imam's brother, Najaf Allahverdiev, is not optimistic about the trial's outcome, speaking of "the usual procedural violations" and fearing that Imam Ibrahimoglu might be sentenced to several years' jail, possibly suspended if there is great international pressure. Meanwhile, members of Imam Ibrahimoglu's 1,000 year old Juma mosque are still fighting the authorities' attempts to evict them and turn the mosque into a carpet museum.
The hearing in the case of Ibrahimoglu, which has been joined together with the cases of seven others, began on 22 March at Baku's Court for Especially Serious Crimes, with Judge Eynulla Veliev presiding. Ibrahimoglu, who was arrested on 1 December after being accused of organising protest demonstrations against the way last October's presidential election was manipulated, has been charged under Criminal Code Articles 220 part 1 (participation in mass disorder) and 315 part 2 (resisting the authorities). (See F18News 8 January http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=223 ).
Najaf Allahverdiev, the imam's brother, reported that two police officers appeared for the prosecution, claiming that Ibrahimoglu spoke up in the Juma mosque on 16 October for everyone to join the street protests. Allahverdiev insists his brother was not at the mosque that day at all, and that prayers were led by another imam, Adil Huseinov. "We have numerous people who can attest to that," he told Forum 18 from Baku on 22 March. Prosecutors also claimed Ibrahimoglu had called on his supporters to vote against corruption which, Allahverdiev reported, the procuracy experts had themselves found not to be anti-government.
Ibrahimoglu's lawyer, Elton Kuliev, appealed to the court for the investigation into his client to be closed due to lack of evidence, but the court rejected this. It also rejected Kuliev's appeal for Ibrahimoglu to be freed from prison while the trial continues.
"Unfortunately the trial began with the usual procedural violations," Allahverdiev complained. "We are not optimistic about the outcome." He said he feared Ibrahimoglu might be given a sentence of several years' imprisonment, though that sentence might be suspended if there is great international pressure.
Allahverdiev said his brother looked well at the trial. "This is the first time I have seen him in all the 115 days he has been held," he told Forum 18. Since his arrest and court-ordered three-month pre-trial detention, Ibrahimoglu has been held with dozens of other opposition activists in Baku's Bayil prison. "My brother was optimistic, even if we are not," Allahverdiev added.
The trial was attended by officials from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the Council of Europe and the Royal Norwegian and United States embassies.
Meanwhile, members of the Juma mosque are still fighting the authorities' attempts to oust them from the historic mosque they have been using for the last twelve years in Baku's Old City and turn the building back into a carpet museum, as it was in the later Soviet period. Allahverdiev told Forum 18 they have no date yet for the hearing of their appeal against the 1 March decision by Baku's Sabail district court that they must leave the mosque (see F18News 5 March 2004 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=269 ).
Judge Yusif Kerimov ruled on 1 March that the community had to leave the building "immediately", but after international protests he suspended his own verdict on 11 March, allowing the Muslims to remain in the building pending the appeal decision. After that the Old City authorities that have been seeking to oust the community appealed against the suspension of the verdict, but Judge Kerimov rejected this appeal on 18 March, allowing the Muslims to continue to use the mosque. Allahverdiev told Forum 18 that prayers are continuing as usual.
Among the many international representatives who have been following the case against the Juma Mosque and its imam is Solomon Passy, the OSCE's Chairman-in-Office. On 16 March he met Najaf Allahverdiev in Baku to discuss the cases.
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9 March 2004
Adventists and Muslims have rejected as "slander" accusations by Azerbaijan's senior religious affairs official that an Adventist pastor, Khalid Babaev, tried to gain converts through bribery, that the Adventist relief organisation ADRA is seeking to attract converts "at all costs" and that religious liberty group IRLA is an "Adventist organisation" funded by the United States "special services". Rafik Aliev made the claims in television interviews, but Forum 18 News Service has been unable to reach him to find out why he made the allegations. Babaev was forced to flee the Nakhichevan exclave after receiving death threats. IRLA's secretary general in Azerbaijan, Ilgar Ibrahimoglu, imam of Baku's Juma Mosque, is awaiting trial while a court has ordered the community expelled from the mosque.
5 March 2004
Muslims of Baku's historic Juma mosque are continuing to reject the 1 March court order that they must leave "immediately" the place of worship they have been using for the past twelve years. A court executor visited yesterday (4 March) and warned that next time he will come with police to expel them by force. "This has put the believers into a state of fear," mosque spokesman Seymur Rashidov told Forum 18 News Service. The Muslims have not been told when the police will arrive, but pledge they will greet the police with flowers. The planned expulsion has been widely condemned, with the US Helsinki Commission calling it "a page out of Azerbaijan's communist past".
1 March 2004
A court has decided today (1 March) to "immediately" expel the Muslim community of the 1,000 year-old Juma mosque in Baku's Old City, Forum 18 news Service has learnt. This is an apparent punishment for the community's independence from the authorities, and for its stance defending human rights, including religious freedom, for all in Azerbaijan. The Muslims now fear that police could expel them at any moment. Ilya Zenchenko, head of Azerbaijan's Baptist community, called the ruling a "blatant injustice". "The government fights not only against dissidents, like Christians and others, but even against Muslims, its own," he told Forum 18. "It is not even a Muslim government. It is against God." He said the government wants everyone to worship and fear it, and not to speak out. "It is trying to take the place of God."