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The right to change one’s belief or religion
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AZERBAIJAN: "Illegal liquidation"

Azerbaijan's State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations has moved to close down Greater Grace Church in the capital Baku for failing to regain the compulsory re-registration, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. This is thought to be the first attempt to compulsorily close a religious community through the courts since compulsory re-registration was imposed by the harsh 2009 Religion Law. If successful the Church would lose the legal right to exist. The unregistered exercise of freedom of religion or belief is illegal under the Religion Law, against international human rights standards. Church members reject the suit, insisting to Forum 18 that "illegal liquidation" of its legal status – which it has had since 1993 – would violate the "Constitutional rights to freedom of religion" of members. "The case begins properly on 15 March at 4 pm," Judge Tahira Asadova told Forum 18. Commenting on the state-imposed closure of a Muslim prayer room in a building rented out by a charity for deaf people, a charity official told Forum 18 that: "It's not a bad thing if people pray – indeed it's good. But they need registration. The government doesn't like it otherwise."

ARMENIA: After Strasbourg punishment, will government resolve alternative service issue "for ever"?

On 10 January the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) again ordered Armenia to pay compensation to two Jehovah's Witness conscientious objector former prisoners for violating their rights to religious freedom. The punishment followed two critical Opinions from the Council of Europe's Venice Commission and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) of the 2011 proposed amendments to the Alternative Service Law. They say these do not go far enough to bring in a fully-civilian alternative to military service which is not punitive in length. But Deputy Justice Minister Ruben Melikyan told Forum 18 News Service that a government Working Group is already preparing new amendments to the Alternative Service Law "fully taking into account the OSCE and Venice Commission views" and the ECtHR rulings. He said it would be adopted "this year". However, he said until it is adopted, the courts cannot free the 57 imprisoned conscientious objectors nor halt the prosecution of a further 14.

NAGORNO-KARABAKH: Conscientious objector jailed for 30 months

Jehovah's Witness Karen Harutyunyan has been sentenced in the unrecognised entity of Nagorno-Karabakh to 30 months' imprisonment, for refusing compulsory military service. Even before his trial, he had been transferred to the prison in the hilltop town of Shusha where he will serve his sentence, Forum 18 News Service has learned. The entity's latest prisoner of conscience, who refused military service because of his religious beliefs, is intending to appeal against the sentence. However, the entity's Human Rights Ombudsperson Yuri Hairapetyan insisted Harutyunyan broke the law, and doubted that anyone could refuse the entity's compulsory military service. He asked Forum 18: "How can this be justified? Maybe he's not even a Jehovah's Witness." Ashot Sargsyan, Head of the government's Department for Ethnic Minority and Religious Affairs, described the jail sentence as "absurd" because he claimed it is too mild. He has called for the Criminal Code to be changed to make anyone refusing military service pay a massive fine and do some form of alternative service. Harutyunyan's imprisonment comes as revisions to the Religion Law are being prepared, which could make the restrictive Law even harsher.

AZERBAIJAN: "Without registration you can't pray"

Following a police raid on Baptists meeting for worship in Neftechala in Azerbaijan, Pastor Telman Aliyev, his wife (who was not present during the raid), and all the Church members have been summoned for police questioning on 23 December, after threats of criminal prosecution have been made against the pastor. The authorities declared the Church "closed" and sealed its building (though it was later unsealed), and confiscated all the books they could find, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Officials also asked for the full addresses of all Church members, and what ethnicity they are. The State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations official responsible for the area, who took part in the raid and would not give his last name, insisted to Forum 18 that: "Without registration you can't pray. We close any place of worship that isn't registered, including mosques." He then insisted: "We don't ban, we just demand documents." The Church has applied for re-registration, but like very many communities of all faiths its application has not been answered. Exercising the right to freedom of religion or belief without state permission is illegal in Azerbaijan, in defiance of international human rights standards.

AZERBAIJAN: Latest repressive laws signed by President

Following Azerbaijan's passage of its latest set of legal changes restricting and punishing the exercise of freedom of religion or belief, groups of people who produce or distribute religious literature or objects without going through the compulsory prior state censorship now face prison terms of two to five years, or maximum fines equivalent to nearly nine years' official minimum wage per person. Azerbaijan has been steadily increasing restrictions on freedom of religion or belief and punishments for exercising this human right in recent years, Forum 18 News Service notes. Censorship-related "crimes" have mainly been moved from the Code of Administrative Offences to come under the Criminal Code, and in the Administrative Code an "offence" of leading Islamic prayers by those who have studied abroad has also been introduced. Particularly significant is a wide range of massively increased fines for exercising the right to freedom of religion or belief, which many "offenders" would struggle to pay.

AZERBAIJAN: Massive fines and warnings for meeting for worship

Six Jehovah's Witnesses in Azerbaijan's second city Gyanja have been given heavy fines for meeting for worship without the compulsory state registration, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Only one of the fines was reduced at Gyanja Appeal Court today (14 December), leaving the total of the fines at 9,500 Manats (72,330 Norwegian Kroner, 9,300 Euros, or 12,090 US Dollars). This was described to Forum 18 as a "massive sum" by local standards. One of those fined, Rashad Niftaliyev, has within a twelve-month period now been fined a total of 3,650 Manats for exercising his freedom of religion or belief. Meanwhile, in Absheron District near the capital Baku, two Muslims were given official warnings for similarly meeting to discuss their faith in a private home without state registration. Responding to criticism of its restrictions on the exercise of freedom of religion or belief by Thomas Hammarberg, the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Azerbaijan has claimed that "the Government supports all efforts to protect religious freedoms in the country and all over the world".

AZERBAIJAN: Up to five years' imprisonment for uncensored religious literature?

Prison terms of up to five years or maximum fines equivalent to nearly nine years' official minimum wage are set to be adopted by Parliament in mid-November for groups of people who produce or distribute religious literature without going through Azerbaijan's compulsory prior state censorship of all religious literature. Also due are new punishments for those who lead Muslim worship if they have gained their religious education abroad, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. The punishments are included in proposed amendments to the Criminal and Administrative Codes prepared by the powerful Presidential Administration, and approved by two parliamentary committees on 28 October. Parliamentary officials told Forum 18 they are set to be adopted in one reading, probably on 15 November. "Insanity is only increasing," one member of a religious community who asked not to be identified told Forum 18.

RUSSIA: "Unfortunately the judge did not agree with the prosecutor"

Rashid Abdulov, a Muslim who reads the works of theologian Said Nursi, told Forum 18 News Service he was pleased to have been freed on 7 September after nearly eight months' detention. But he rejects the extremism-related charges on which he was convicted and handed a one-year sentence of compulsory work. However, Ulyanovsk Regional Prosecutor's Office told Forum 18 the sentence is too "mild" and will appeal "as we believe he deserves a four-year term in a labour camp". Fellow Nursi reader Asylzhan Kelmukhambetov's appeal is continuing in Orenburg against his 18-month prison term. A diabetes sufferer, he is in the prison hospital. His lawyer told Forum 18 that the judge rejected her request for him to be freed while the appeal is heard. Eight criminal cases on extremism-related charges are underway against Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia, four of the cases against named individuals. One is already on trial, while the cases of two more have just been handed to court.

AZERBAIJAN: Victims to challenge "exorbitant" fines to Strasbourg?

Jehovah's Witnesses have described as "exorbitant" the administrative fines handed down to three of their members in Gyanja for holding a religious meeting. One was given a fine of nearly 18 months' official minimum wage, while the other two were each fined nearly six months' minimum wage. A fourth was officially warned. They are considering appeals to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. Forum 18 News Service notes that this is the first time the higher fines for religious activity introduced in December 2010 are known to have been imposed. Two Muslims who read the works of Said Nursi were acquitted of similar charges in August after a police raid on their meeting. Meanwhile, Hidayat Orujev, head of the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations, has instructed the Muslim Board to amend its statute. He also warned that it is "unacceptable" for mosques to follow religious calendars that they choose and to decide whether to hold only Shia or Sunni prayers and events. The spokesperson for the State Committee denied to Forum 18 that this represents interference in the Muslim community's internal affairs.

AZERBAIJAN: Warned for meeting without state permission, legal status applications still delayed

After a police raid in Azerbaijan's port city of Sumgait in mid-June, a judge gave the leader of a Baptist church, Pavel Byakov, a verbal warning not to meet for worship without state permission. The judge also warned that for a second "offence" Byakov will be fined, church members who asked not to be named for fear of state reprisals told Forum 18 News Service. A large quantity of literature confiscated in the raid has been given to the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations, to decide whether the material is legal. Prolonged delays in dealing with applications for legal status still continue, over one and half years after the deadline for processing applications. In defiance of Azerbaijan's international human rights commitments unregistered religious activity is illegal. Two religious communities – Cathedral of Praise Protestant Church and Baku's Jehovah's Witness community - have challenged the State Committee's failure to re-register them through the courts, and Cathedral of Praise today (27 July) gained a court ruling that they should be re-registered. But it still remains unclear when or if this will happen.

COMMENTARY: Bayatyan – a European Court judgment with an impact far beyond Armenia

The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) has unequivocally declared that conscientious objection to military service is protected under Article 9 ("Freedom of thought, conscience and religion") of the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. Derek Brett of Conscience and Peace Tax International http://www.cpti.ws/ argues, in this personal commentary for Forum 18 News Service, that the ECtHR judgment in favour of Vahan Bayatyan, an Armenian Jehovah's Witness jailed for conscientious objection to compulsory military service has implications far beyond Armenia. He notes that the judgment also has implications for Azerbaijan and Turkey within the Council of Europe, and for states outside the organisation such as Belarus. He suggests that the ECtHR may develop its thinking to directly address the problem of coercion to change a belief such as conscientious objection, as well as to follow the UN Human Rights Committee in strengthening the protection of conscientious objection.

ARMENIA: "A kind of theatrical farce - I see no progress"

Human rights defenders and some religious communities have expressed concern over provisions of a proposed new Religion Law and amendments to the Law on the State and the Armenian Church, and to the Criminal and Administrative Codes. They told Forum 18 News Service of their concerns over: the ban on "soul-hunting", defined as "improper proselytism", which could be punished by up to two months' imprisonment (up to two years' if done by more than one person); compulsory religious registration for communities of more than 25 adults; and vague formulations which some religious communities fear could be used against them. The Justice Ministry published the drafts on 12 July. "These proposed amendments are repressive and a lot worse than the previous version," Stepan Danielyan of the Collaboration for Democracy Centre told Forum 18. But Russian Orthodox priest Fr Arseni Grigoryants welcomed the drafts' "harsh attitude to incidents of proselytism" and "attempts to provide [juridical] mechanisms" to punish them.