AZERBAIJAN: Police disperse and harass academic religion researchers
Azeri authorities have repeatedly broken up meetings of a local academic research group investigating the state of religious freedom across the country, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Project leader Hikmet Hajizade told Forum 18 that "we wanted about eight people in each group, but even such a small group was not allowed to meet – the police often drove us out of town." Police told FAR Centre researcher Haji Hajili that "they had received instructions to drive us out and said it would be better if we left peacefully of our own accord." The researchers faced such problems as the cancellation of premises' availability, police breaking up meetings, obtrusive eavesdropping by police informers, widespread fear of the authorities' reaction amongst local participants, police surveillance of participants' homes, some Muslim participants accusing researchers of working with "enemies of Islam" and then calling police to meetings, as well as threatening other participants.
The research on the state of religion and relations between religion and the state in Azerbaijan in the wake of the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States is being conducted by the FAR Centre under a grant from the US-based National Endowment for Democracy. The project began this summer with focus groups made up of local religious leaders and non-governmental group activists in Baku and in other towns across the country, to be followed up by a public opinion survey with 1,000 respondents and finishing with scholarly conferences on the state of religious freedom.
Haji Hajili, a FAR Centre researcher who led many of the focus groups, told Forum 18 that his centre wanted the authorities to know about the project and the way it was proceeding. "Each time they gave verbal permission, but when we began to discuss the religious situation the police arrived," he reported. "They told us unofficially they had received instructions to drive us out and said it would be better if we left peacefully of our own accord. The government is very sensitive on religious questions."
He insists their survey questions are "normal, simple enquiries", such as how many members there are in a participant's religious community, whether the authorities intervene in communities' religious life, how believers regard other faiths and how local people regard them. Hajili told Forum 18 that many respondents were often afraid to respond openly even to such apparently innocuous questions.
Hajili pointed out that research was not too difficult in Baku, but was obstructed almost everywhere else. He believes the real power on the ground in the regions is the local executive authority, and it was these leaders who organised the breaking up of focus groups in their towns.
As Hajizade and Hajili told Forum 18, problems began with the first focus group meetings outside Baku, held in July in central Azerbaijan in the second city Gyanja [Gänca], as well as Shamkir [Simkir], Tovuz and Kazakh [Qazax]. When the eight focus group members arrived with the moderator at the House of Culture in Kazakh on 21 July as arranged, an employee of the venue informed them that only the day before the local authorities had instructed the House of Culture not to make its premises available.
Participants then decided to talk in a nearby teahouse in a park. "However, it soon became clear that participants' words were being listened to by people nearby who had quietly sat themselves as close as they could to our table," survey organisers reported. Of the three apparent eavesdroppers, one participant recognised one as a well-known local informer for the authorities. When the moderator remarked to them that it was not polite to listen to other people's conversation, the eavesdroppers responded that they were interested in what was going on. "It became clear that the local authorities were interested in the identity of the focus group participants and the theme of the discussion." Participants then decided to cancel the focus group meeting and resume elsewhere.
When the group reconvened in the chess school in the nearby town of Shamkir, several participants refused to attend further, fearing retaliation from the authorities, Hajili told Forum 18. The rump focus group was in mid-discussion when the director of the chess school told them that the authorities had demanded that he should immediately halt the meeting. Organisers were forced to meet individual participants privately.
Even at this early stage of the research, FAR organisers noticed that participants were afraid to speak freely and responded with terse answers. "It was obvious that they were afraid." Some even believed it was a trap devised by the authorities. "They all demanded that the content of the meetings and their names be kept confidential." Participants later told the researchers that on their return home they were immediately subjected to police surveillance.
Between August and October focus groups were due to take place in northern Azerbaijan, but with even less success. "Despite our approaches to the executive authorities of four northern regions – Balakan , Zakatala [Zaqatala], Oguz and Sheki [Saki] – not even in one of them were we given permission to hold meetings with representatives of religious communities and other interested individuals," the organisers report sadly. "Therefore, as on previous occasions we had to work without official permission." Organisers were finally able to hold meetings in the local administration building in one village in Sheki region, though the administration leader asked the organisers to keep the meeting secret. "The representatives of the clergy present at the meeting refused point-blank to give their names, citing the unfriendly attitude towards them of the law-enforcement and state security agencies." (For an example of the local authorities' hostile attitude see F18News 1 December 2004 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=466).
When the focus group attempted to meet to discuss attitudes to religious freedom among participants in the town of Ali-Bairamali [Ali Bayramli] in south eastern Azerbaijan, Muslim participants accused FAR Centre organisers of working with "enemies of Islam" and threatened to call the police. Twenty minutes later the police duly appeared outside the Shirvan human rights resource centre where the meeting was taking place. A man in civilian clothes came into the room and ordered the organisers to leave the town immediately. "The frightened participants dispersed." When the meeting was reconvened a week later, the police gave verbal approval, but begged the organisers not to inform the "official organs". Participants again gave terse answers to survey questions, apparently fearing official retaliation. NGO participants reported that they received threats from local supporters of an Islamic state in Azerbaijan.
Few religious believers or human rights activists were surprised to learn of the problems the survey organisers had encountered, telling Forum 18 in late November that the very subject of religion was so sensitive that any investigation into it, even on an academic level, would be obstructed. While agreeing with this, Ilgar Ibrahimoglu Allahverdiev, the imam of the Muslim community forcibly ousted in June by the police from Baku's Juma mosque (see F18News 2 July 2004
http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=354), pointed to the researchers' affiliation with the opposition Musavat party as a further reason why the authorities might be obstructing their survey. "Even if Hikmet Hajizade went out onto the street to play rock and roll he would have problems from the authorities," Ibrahimoglu told Forum 18 in Baku on 24 November. (END)
For more background information see Forum 18's Azerbaijan religious freedom survey at http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=92
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1 December 2004
18-month-old Luka Eyvazov does not officially exist, Forum 18 News Service has found, because local authorities refuse to issue birth certificates for children with Christian names. "We have letters from village residents and 98 per cent are opposed to registering Christian names," local registration official Aybeniz Kalashova told Forum 18. Mehman Soltanov of the Justice Ministry asked Forum 18 "why did they choose a religious name?" and then speculated that it was not Luka's parents who chose his name but "some religious sect". Luka's father, Novruz Eyvazov, insists that children are from God and told Forum 18 that "We went many times to ask what basis they had to interfere in our family life. They indicated there was pressure on them from on high. When they told me to choose the name of a famous Azerbaijani poet or writer instead," he told Forum 18, "I responded that Luke, as one of the Gospel-writers, will still be famous when all the poets and writers are long forgotten." This is the latest of case of official refusal to register Christian names. Without birth certificates, people cannot go to kindergarten or to school, get treatment in a hospital or travel abroad.
22 November 2004
AZERBAIJAN: Police raid Adventist service, fine and threaten leader, connive at hostile TV interviews of children
While a Council of Europe delegation was examining whether Azerbaijan meets human rights commitments, police in the country's second city, Gyanja [Gäncä], raided a worship service being held by a registered Adventist congregation, arrested and interrogated two leaders, fining and threatening one with deportation, and connived at a local TV crew conducting hostile interviews with children against the protests of their parents. Interviewed by Forum 18 News Service, Firdovsi Kerimov, local representative of the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations, who took part in the interrogations and TV interviews, claimed that he defends the rights of believers, "but only if they act in accordance with the law" and insisted that "everything was done in accordance with the law." The Azeri ban on foreigners conducting "religious propaganda" violates international human rights law, which does not distinguish between anyone legally resident in a country.
7 October 2004
Azerbaijan has for the second time in a month stopped religious freedom activist and imam Ilgar Ibrahimoglu Allahverdiev from taking part in an Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) conference. Azerbaijan is a member of the OSCE, which aims to promote democracy and human rights. "He would have informed people about the real situation of religious freedom in Azerbaijan," human rights activist Eldar Zeynalov told Forum 18 News Service, from the conference in Warsaw. "That's why our government didn't want him here." Ibrahimoglu intended to tell the conference about the experience of the Juma mosque congregation, whose imam he is, which was forcibly expelled from its mosque in June. Eldar Zeynalov told Forum 18 that an Azerbaijani government representative at the conference said that Ibrahimoglu "has some freedom of movement but not freedom to leave the country." Zeynalov commented to Forum 18 that this "is a return to Soviet times when there was no freedom of movement and no freedom of speech."