AZERBAIJAN: "Half-free" imam to challenge suspended jail sentence
A five year suspended jail sentence has been given to Ilgar Ibrahimoglu Allahverdiev, imam of Baku's historic Juma Mosque and a leading religious freedom advocate, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. He was accused of associating with Iranian revolutionaries and al-Qaida, and later accused of supporting Protestants and the West, and preaching radicalism. The verdict has been widely condemned by Azerbaijani human rights activists, the Baptist Church and the rapporteur of the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly monitoring group on Azerbaijan. However, the state-approved Caucasian Muslim Board told Forum 18 it welcomed the sentence. Azerbaijan insists that every Muslim community must belong to the Caucasian Muslim Board, which has been accused of being "packed with KGB officers". The Juma Mosque has refused to submit to the board's authority and the 1,000 year old mosque is also fighting an attempt by the authorities to evict worshippers and turn the mosque into a carpet museum.
Also questioning the verdict is Andreas Gross, a Swiss parliamentarian who is co-rapporteur of the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly monitoring group on Azerbaijan. "The credibility of such a verdict is not so high," he told Forum 18 from Switzerland on 5 April. He said Ibrahimoglu was arrested in the context of the violence that followed the "fraudulent" presidential election of last October and added that until this violence is thoroughly investigated by an independent international committee such verdicts would not be "credible". "The risk that this verdict has been handed down as a result of his political opinions is too great."
However, the deputy head of the state-approved Caucasian Muslim Board welcomed the sentence. "There is the law, and all citizens – regardless of their religious affiliation or social position - must abide by it," Haji Akif Agaev told Forum 18 from Baku on 5 April. Although Azerbaijan claims not to interfere in the internal running of religious communities, it insists that every Muslim community must belong to the Caucasian Muslim Board.
The Juma Mosque has refused to submit to the authority of the Muslim Board, arguing that Azerbaijan's religion law has no right to require this. As well as being imam of the Juma Mosque, Ibragimoglu is a board member of the Islam-Ittihad Society, leading coordinator of religious freedom group Devamm and Secretary General of the Azerbaijani Chapter of the International Religious Liberty Association (IRLA). The 1,000 year-old mosque is also fighting an attempt by the authorities to evict worshippers and turn the mosque into a carpet museum (see F18News 22 March http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=284 ). Sadiqli of the Religion and Democracy group – which like IRLA and Devamm has been seeking registration as a non-governmental organisation in vain for the past three years – said the authorities want to strip the community of its mosque in retaliation for its public activity. "The authorities don't want people to strive for human rights – they don't like alternative views," he told Forum 18. "It's like in the Soviet period."
Sadiqli said he agreed with Ibrahimoglu that it is unjust for the religion law to demand that all mosques be subject to the Muslim Board. "There is no hierarchy in Islam," he explained. "Independent mosques must have the right to function." He said the Muslim Board was a creature of the Soviet system designed to maintain control and was packed with KGB officers.
But Haji Agaev of the Muslim Board rejected these views. "The law requires all mosques to be subject to our authority and everyone is obliged to follow this law," he told Forum 18. "All Russian Orthodox Churches must be part of the Moscow Patriarchate, and all Catholic Churches under the Pope. There must be no double standards." He insisted that such control by the Muslim Board prevented "instability and anarchy".
Ibrahimoglu was arrested on 1 December after being accused of organising protest demonstrations against the way last October's election was manipulated, and he finally went on trial on 22 March with eight opposition activists at Baku's Court for Especially Serious Crimes (see F18News 22 March 2004 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=284 ). On 2 April Judge Eynulla Veliev found all nine guilty, sentencing Ibrahimoglu to five years' imprisonment, suspended, under Criminal Code Articles 220.1 (participation in mass disorder) and 315.2 (resisting the authorities).
Ibrahimoglu complained that his case had nothing to do with those of the other eight defendants. "I was absolutely not connected with them," he insisted to Forum 18. "I did not know them." Some 130 people were arrested in connection with the post-election violence, and some have already been sentenced at controversial trials. He dismissed his trial as "a spectacle and a farce". "Nothing was proved against me – the charges were just fantasy," he told Forum 18. He said his presence on the streets of central Baku during the post-election violence did not prove that he was involved in it. "I was conducting monitoring," he insisted. "I had the right to do this." He believes the whole case was brought against him to try to halt his religious and human rights work."
He said the investigation had initially been wide-ranging, with investigators accusing him of providing information used by foreigners for their reports on human rights and religious freedom situation in Azerbaijan. He said he had been accused of associating with Iranian revolutionaries and al-Qaida, but gradually the accusations had changed to supporting Protestants and the West, and preaching radicalism.
Ibrahimoglu said he had not yet received the verdict in writing, but would be appealing against the sentence, "even to the European Court of Human Rights". "I will challenge not just the sentence, but why I had to spend four months in jail awaiting trial, during which I was deprived of the right to conduct my human rights and religious work."
He said that while he was in Baku's Bayil investigation prison he was allowed to pray in his cell and could receive religious literature from outside. "At least with me there was no censorship of literature." However he complained that he was not allowed to visit the prison mosque. "No prisoners awaiting trial are allowed to visit the mosque – and some prisoners are held there for more than a year." He said prison conditions failed to meet international norms.
Both Ibrahimoglu and the mosque community have been subjected to repeated attacks in the pro-government media in recent months.
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22 March 2004
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.
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".