AZERBAIJAN: Religious conscientious objector in jail
A Jehovah's Witness, Mushfiq Mammedov, is to be tried for refusing military service on grounds of religious conscience, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. This is despite guarantees in Azerbaijan's Constitution of the right to perform alternative service. Mammedov has been in detention since 28 April, and the authorities are refusing to allow his family to visit him. "We're not allowed any meetings until the investigation is over," she told Forum 18. "We don't know how long that will go on." Azerbaijan promised the Council of Europe that it would establish alternative civilian service by January 2004. "No progress has been registered on adopting a law on alternative service," Krzysztof Zyman, of the Council of Europe's Directorate General of Human Rights told Forum 18. "The fact that the law has not been adopted is in clear violation of the commitments Azerbaijan undertook when it joined the Council of Europe." Azerbaijan joined the Council of Europe in 2001.
"The HRCA urges the authorities to implement promptly Azerbaijan's obligation to establish alternative service and to end the prosecutions of citizens for their religious beliefs," Zeynalov added.
Mammedov's mother, Sevil Najafova, said she has not been allowed to see her son in prison since his arrest on 28 April. "We're not allowed any meetings until the investigation is over," she told Forum 18 from Baku on 12 May. "We don't know how long that will go on."
Although Azerbaijan committed itself to the Council of Europe to establish alternative service by January 2004, the government and parliament show no inclination to do so. "No progress has been registered on adopting a law on alternative service," Krzysztof Zyman, an official of the Council of Europe's Directorate General of Human Rights who has been handling this issue, told Forum 18 from Strasbourg on 12 May. "The fact that the law has not been adopted is in clear violation of the commitments Azerbaijan undertook when it joined the Council of Europe." Azerbaijan joined the Council of Europe on 25 January 2001.
"The current draft law is due to be considered by the Milli Mejlis [parliament], but some parliamentary deputies are very strongly against," Teymur Malik-Aslanov, who is working with the Baku office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights on strengthening human rights protection in Azerbaijan's legal system, told Forum 18 from Baku on 11 May. "No final date has yet been set for adopting the law, but I don't expect it in the near future."
Mammedov was called up by Sabail District Military Commissariat, within Baku, after graduating last year from Baku's International Institute, but in July 2005 refused military service. He demanded instead to be allowed to perform alternative service guaranteed by Article 76 part 2 of the Constitution, which states: "If beliefs of citizens come into conflict with service in the army then in some cases envisaged by legislation alternative service instead of regular army service is permitted." This was refused, but initially the military commissariat took no further moves against him.
However, a case was finally launched against Mammedov on 28 April under Article 321.1 of the Criminal Code, which punishes evasion of military service with a sentence of up to two years' imprisonment. He was arrested the same day by officers of the Sabail Military Commissariat, who tried to force him to sign documents and submit to the medical examination. Mammedov refused and was transferred to a police station. He is now being held in the city's Bayil investigation prison.
On 29 April, his arrest was approved by a judge at Sabail district court, and on 8 May, the Court of Appellate Jurisdiction refused his appeal against being held in prison. "Although formally it was an open hearing, relatives and representatives of the religious community were forcibly removed from the courtroom," Zeynalov reported. He said after the two sides discussed the case, the judge told Mammedov's lawyer that a decision would be delivered on 10 May. However, that same day, 8 May, in the absence of the lawyer, the judge delivered his decision rejecting an appeal.
Adil Gadjiev, who works on alternative service at the Human Rights Ombudsperson's office, said Mammedov has not appealed to his office for help. "We can get involved if we are given documents on his case," he told Forum 18 from Baku on 11 May.
Gadjiev said that in the absence of a law establishing a mechanism for alternative service, young men have no choice but to serve in the army. "Of course this is bad," he told Forum 18. "If a right is in the Constitution there should be a mechanism for enforcing it."
He said his office had helped in the case of a previous Jehovah's Witness conscientious objector, Mahir Bagirov (see F18News 10 February 2005 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=507). "Bagirov has so far been the only conscientious objector to have appealed to the ombudsperson's office," Gadjiev told Forum 18. "We didn't allow the military police to hold him and we recommended that he appeal to a court. I don't know what happened further in his case." (Bagirov, who lost all cases in court, left Azerbaijan in 2005 to avoid further legal moves against him.)
The authorities have long regarded the Jehovah's Witnesses with suspicion. The local paper Baki Habar reported on 9 May that attempts by the Jehovah's Witnesses to "activate" their work in Yevlakh [Yevlax] and Shamkir regions of north-western Azerbaijan and the nearby city of Gyanja were "prevented".
Police launched two raids on Jehovah's Witness communities in Baku in June 2005, with a further raid in August. Elsewhere in Azerbaijan, individual Jehovah's Witnesses were questioned, detained and threatened. A number of Protestant communities faced similar police raids (see F18News 16 November 2005 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=689).
Although far fewer police raids on Protestants and Jehovah's Witnesses have been reported this year, Forum 18 has learnt that in late April, police raided a Protestant house church in Baku.
Azerbaijan already has tight restrictions on religious activity which violate the country's international human rights obligations. However Rafik Aliev, head of the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations, is determined to tighten government controls still further, telling the press in recent months that amendments to the religion law are already being drafted. "Giving an exact date for the adoption of there amendments is impossible," he told the Baku paper Ekho on 22 April. "However, parliamentarians believe that it will happen by the end of the year." Forum 18 has been unable so far to get the text of the proposed amendments.
Amongst the other problems religious communities of all faiths in Azerbaijan face, due to state hostility and intolerance, are: non-return of confiscated buildings (see F18News 23 November 2005 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=694); use of the state registration system to discriminate against communities (see F18News 3 November 2005 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=681); and selective obstruction of foreign religious workers invited by local communities (see F18News 1 November 2005 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=680). (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=92
A printer-friendly map of Azerbaijan is available at http://www.nationalgeographic.com/xpeditions/atlas/index.html?Parent=asia&Rootmap=azerba
22 March 2006
Fellow Baptists fear that Gagik Mirzoyan could face new charges when his current sentence for refusing to perform military duties expires on 5 September. "All kinds of officials have told us he will be sentenced again – and that next time the sentence will be harsher," Baptist pastor Garnik Abreyan told Forum 18 News Service from Stepanakert, capital of the unrecognised republic of Nagorno-Karabakh in the South Caucasus. A Karabakh native, Mirzoyan was imprisoned after refusing on grounds of religious faith to swear the military oath and handle weapons when conscripted into the army in 2004. Despite being beaten in prison in February and sent to the punishment cells, Mirzoyan told visiting civil society activist Albert Voskanyan that he has "no complaints" about his current treatment. Jehovah's Witness Areg Hovhanesyan is serving a four-year sentence in the same prison for refusing Karabakh's compulsory military service.
10 March 2006
Although freed from jail three and a half years after his arrest on trumped-up charges, Imam Kazim Aliyev is unable to return to his Sunni Muslim mosque in Azerbaijan's second city, Gyanja [Gäncä]. "The whole mosque community wants him to return, but he is not being allowed – we don't know why," current prayer leader Ilham Ibrahimov told Forum 18 News Service. Human rights activist Eldar Zeynalov, who has been helping Aliyev refute charges of organising an armed uprising, told Forum 18 that the Gyanja police have warned Aliyev "unofficially" not to return to the city if he wants to avoid arrest. Imam Aliyev categorically denied to Forum 18 the claims of the Military Counter-intelligence Service. "How can three people organise an uprising? All our group did was to discuss Islam." He noted sadly to Forum 18 that he has given up trying to return to his old mosque as he knows "one hundred percent" that if he returned he would be sent back to prison.
17 February 2006
The recent murder of an ethnic Kyrgyz convert to Christianity, Saktinbai Usmanov, was the culmination of a long series of intolerant incidents, Forum 18 News Service has found. Usmanov was the only Christian in his village. The intolerance was encouraged by the village Mullah, Nurlan Asangojaev, although most of the attackers were themselves drunk, which is forbidden in Islam. Asangojaev arranged for Usmanov to be banned from community events after his conversion, which is very painful for the traditionally community-centred Kyrgyz. He has also barred Usmanov from being buried in the village cemetery. Mullah Asangojaev has since Usmanov's murder told Forum 18 and others that "I can't offer any convincing proof, but I am sure that Saktinbai was killed by Protestants because he wanted to return to Islam." This is strongly denied by Saktinbai Usmanov's son, Protestant Pastor Ruslan Usmanov, who told Forum 18 that this is a "monstrous slander." There are numerous incidents of intolerance, including official hostility, towards Christian converts from Muslim backgrounds throughout Central Asia, Forum 18 has found.