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The right to believe, to worship and witness
The right to change one’s belief or religion
The right to join together and express one’s belief

AZERBAIJAN: Harsh fines cancelled, banned books list publication soon?

Two Baptists in Azerbaijan's north-western Zakatala District - Pastor Zaur Balaev and Hinayat Shabanova – have had harsh fines overturned on appeal, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Both had been punished for participating in unregistered religious meetings in their home village of Aliabad. The State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations has announced that it will make a list of banned books public, but without giving a date for this. And more changes to the Religion Law restricting where religious literature and other materials can be sold, and requiring such items to be marked with special stickers before they can be sold, have been approved by President Ilham Aliyev. Religious literature is often confiscated in raids on religious meetings and at the border, in mid-March Customs officers confiscating works by Muslim theologian Said Nursi at Gyanja Airport. Also, concern has been expressed about a school textbook that denigrates some faiths.

AZERBAIJAN: Heavy fines follow police raids and confiscations

Judge Imanverdi Shukurov in Zakatala in Azerbaijan has fined two Baptists, Pastor Zaur Balaev and Hinayat Shabanova, more than a year's average local wages for a manual worker to punish them for exercising their right to freedom of religion or belief. "I can't pay this amount," Shabanova told Forum 18 News Service. Judge Shukurov, as well as the local police chief and the local official of the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations, refused to discuss the fines with Forum 18. Balaev and Shabanova's husband have both served prison sentences for their faith and their church has been denied legal status since 1994 – an Azerbaijani record. Meanwhile, Baku-based Muslim Zeka Miragayev is lodging a further appeal in his case against the police and NSM secret police who raided his home and seized religious literature.

AZERBAIJAN: No legal place of worship for 40,000-strong town

The stripping of state registration from a Muslim community through the court leaves the 40,000 residents of Hirdalan near the Azerbaijani capital Baku with no legal place of worship of any faith, Forum 18 News Service notes. Neither the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations – which brought the suit - nor the Justice Ministry would explain how one agency could seek the liquidation of legal status granted by the other. After a similar liquidation, Baku's Greater Grace Protestant Church, failed in its last-ditch Supreme Court challenge on 9 January. Meanwhile, Baku's Baha'i community is lamenting the demolition of a building in Baku significant to the early years of their faith, whose return they had repeatedly sought in vain. Imprisoned Jehovah's Witness conscientious objector Fakhraddin Mirzayev has been transferred to a prison near Salyan after he lost his appeal against his one year sentence.

AZERBAIJAN: Accountability for raiders through Baku and Strasbourg courts?

Baku-based Muslim Zeka Miragayev – whose home was raided by police and secret police without a warrant in May 2012 during which Korans and other religious books were seized – is seeking through a Baku court to have the raids declared illegal. Local police chief Lt-Colonel Hakani Mammadov denied to Forum 18 News Service that any literature had been taken in the raid. The secret police denied to the court that it had been involved at all. The OSCE Office in Baku told Forum 18 it will monitor the case when it resumes in court on 22 January. Gyanja-based Rashad Niftaliyev – who has been fined three times in as many years after police raids on unregistered meetings for worship – is the most recent Jehovah's Witness from Azerbaijan to lodge a case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg over such raids. Four other groups of Jehovah's Witness victims have lodged raid-related cases to the Strasbourg court since 2007, though no verdicts have yet been issued.

ARMENIA: Two new imprisonments as Strasbourg again fines government

Two young men who refused military service and military-controlled alternative service were imprisoned in November, bringing the current total to 31, all of them Jehovah's Witnesses, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Anania Grigoryan and Artsrun Khachatryan were sentenced in the summer, but were imprisoned only after their appeals failed. A further 15 already convicted are likely to be imprisoned if their appeals fail. The new imprisonments come as Armenia has been fined for the fourth time by the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights in a conscientious objection-related case. For the first time in such cases, Armenia's European Court Judge, Alvina Gyulumyan, did not dissent from the judgment. A judge in Yerevan today (3 December) postponed the handing down of a sentence in the criminal trial of conscientious objector Vartkes Sahakyan, saying he needed time to study the latest Strasbourg judgment.

AZERBAIJAN: Censorship "to create an environment of freedom of conscience"

For the second time a court in the Azerbaijan's capital Baku has backed State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations' decisions on both what religious literature can and cannot be imported into the country, and also what quantities can be imported. Baku Appeal Court rejected the Jehovah's Witness community's appeal on 1 November, Forum 18 News Service has learned. Jehovah's Witnesses told Forum 18 they will continue their legal challenge. State Committee spokesperson Orhan Ali insisted that the literature in question was "harmful". When Forum 18 pointed out that the State Committees' own "expert analysis" had not found any harmful material, Ali put the phone down. An earlier lower court decision claimed that "in order to create an environment of freedom of conscience, putting limitations upon the import of a sufficient amount of literature is normal for all communities." Azerbaijan is the only Council of Europe member state to impose such compulsory censorship, against its human rights obligations.

AZERBAIJAN: Former prisoners of consciences' homes raided, literature confiscated

Police in Azerbaijan raided a meeting for Baptist worship in the home of former prisoner of conscience Zaur Balaev on 7 November, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. The raid in Aliabad took place as Balaev and his wife Nunuka were in Moscow, where she is undergoing cancer treatment. Police detained and questioned one Baptist, as well as seizing religious literature including New Testaments. In a simultaneous raid on another home in the village, police seized more religious literature and questioned another former prisoner of conscience, Hamid Shabanov. Local police refused to discuss with Forum 18 why they had raided the two homes and seized literature including New Testaments. State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations spokesperson Orhan Ali claimed that if nothing illegal is found in the books, they will be returned. "This is not censorship," he insisted to Forum 18.

AZERBAIJAN: Is confiscating religious literature censorship?

Azerbaijani customs and secret police officers spent more than six hours searching a family minibus returning from Russia in late September, seizing religious literature they found hidden and confiscating the van and the driver's passport, members of the Byakov family told Forum 18 News Service. One copy of each book and magazine has been sent to the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations in Baku for "religious expert analysis". Azerbaijan bans the import of religious literature without State Committee permission. After five months, a car confiscated from other Baptists after religious literature was found in it has been returned, but a criminal case against the three for "illegal" religious literature distribution continues. Claiming that censorship has been abolished in Azerbaijan, Prosecutor Zahid Valiyev denied to Forum 18 that confiscating religious literature represents censorship.

AZERBAIJAN: Government blames "errors" for negative Venice Commission/OSCE Opinion

Following serious criticism of Azerbaijan's Religion Law by the Council of Europe's Venice Commission and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), Ali Hasanov of the Presidential Administration blamed this on "translation errors" in an "unofficial translation" he claimed had been used for the legal Opinion. However, a Venice Commission spokesperson told Forum 18 News Service that the translation on which the Opinion was based was an official translation supplied by the Government. Hasanov claimed that as soon as the Opinion was released, the Presidential Administration had immediately sent an "official translation" to the Venice Commission. However, the Venice Commission spokesperson told Forum 18 that it has received no new translation from the Azerbaijani government. Hasanov also claimed that the Venice Commission "now considers that the Law .. completely reflects European standards." The Commission's Opinion found that the Law contains "restrictive provisions which are against international standards". The Venice Commission spokesperson told Forum 18 that it fully stands by its Opinion.

AZERBAIJAN: One conscientious objector jailed, others called up

The latest conscientious objector to be jailed in Azerbaijan is a 19-year-old Jehovah's Witness, Forum 18 News Service has learned. Fakhraddin Mirzayev was given a one-year prison sentence on 25 September by a court in Gyanja. He has lodged an appeal. "This is the first criminal prosecution of a Jehovah's Witness conscientious objector in Azerbaijan since Farid Mammedov was imprisoned in September 2010," Jehovah's Witnesses told Forum 18. "Others have been investigated, but their cases were never referred to court." Jehovah's Witnesses told Forum 18 that up to 20 others have been called up in the latest conscription round. Asked if the young men fear being prosecuted and possibly imprisoned, one Jehovah's Witness responded: "I'm not sure they're afraid – it's just a reality. They are aware of this when they become Jehovah's Witnesses. They are not afraid just because they are following their consciences." In January 2001, Azerbaijan promised the Council of Europe that it would within two years pardon all jailed conscientious objectors and introduce alternative civilian service.

ARMENIA: Jailings of conscientious objectors resume

With two new jailings of conscientious objectors in August – both Jehovah's Witnesses – Armenia has resumed such jailings after a break of a year, bringing prisoner numbers to 32, Forum 18 News Service notes. In addition, 16 young Jehovah's Witnesses so far in 2012 have been given jail terms which have not yet been enacted, five of them in September. And cases of a further 23 are in court or with prosecutors. "The law is the law and we have to enforce it," the General Prosecutor's Office insisted to Forum 18. The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe and the UN Human Rights Committee have both condemned Armenia's failure to free imprisoned conscientious objectors and introduce a genuinely civilian alternative service. Deputy Justice Minister Ruben Melikyan was unable to say when the proposed new Alternative Service Law will be made public. "The Justice Ministry talks a lot but does nothing," human rights defender Artur Sakunts told Forum 18.

AZERBAIJAN: Ramadan mosque bans, JW jailed, Church ban upheld

An official in Azerbaijan's second city Gyanja has admitted to Forum 18 News Service that only one of the city's six permitted mosques is allowed by the state to hold iftar meals at the end of each day's Ramadan fast. Ruslan Kardashov, whose role includes overseeing religious communities, also repeatedly refused to discuss local Muslims' complaints about a ban on the mosques holding Ahya night prayers. Also, one Jehovah's Witness from Gyanja spent three days in prison and another received an official warning in July, for being unable to pay massive fines imposed for exercising their freedom of religion or belief. Elsewhere, a Jehovah's Witness conscientious objector was forcibly conscripted into the army, but was allowed home after two weeks. And an appeal against state liquidation by Baku's Greater Grace Protestant Church has failed.