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The right to believe, to worship and witness
The right to change one’s belief or religion
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RUSSIA: European Court of Human Rights "obviously ignored"

Russian Jehovah's Witnesses and Armenian Catholics continue to struggle to gain registration – and so legal status – from the authorities of the capital Moscow, Forum 18 News Service has learned. A court has decided not to change a decision to close the Jehovah's Witnesses Moscow branch – despite a European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) ruling against this. Jehovah's Witnesses lawyer Artur Leontyev said this "obviously ignored the ruling of the European Court", and said an appeal will be made. ECtHR mandated damages and costs have also not been paid to the Jehovah's Witnesses. Also Moscow's Armenian Catholic congregation continues to be unable to gain registration. A court hearing was postponed until 11 April, when the authorities failed to appear. The Armenian Catholics' lawyer, Vladimir Ryakhovsky of the Slavic Centre for Law and Justice, told Forum 18 beforehand that a negative ruling "would give us the chance to take the issue to the Constitutional Court and challenge the Religion Law". His colleague Inna Zagrebina told Forum 18 that nationwide illegal state interference in communities' internal life is "an integral part of life for religious organisations".

ARMENIA: Pastor prosecuted after journalists refuse to leave church

Following false claims in the Armenian media that an alleged murderer in Sevan is a Jehovah's Witness, a Pentecostal Pastor faces criminal trial for "obstructing the lawful professional activities of a journalist". Priests of the Armenian Apostolic Church took a Shant TV crew to the Pentecostal Church in Sevan. The TV crew did not seek permission to enter private property where the Church meets, and refused to leave when asked, so the Pastor then tried to stop them filming. After the TV station broadcast a report claiming that the Pastor attacked journalists, a criminal investigation was opened. Police refused to tell Pastor Bagdasaryan what was "lawful" about the journalists' activities. The Yerevan Press Club told Forum 18 that prosecutors are not usually so quick to defend journalists and start criminal proceedings. Asked by Forum 18 whether any journalist has the right to come into Shant TV's private property and to film, a Shant TV journalist told Forum 18: "That is not the same situation". Also, Armenian Justice Minister Hrair Tovmasyan has promised that controversial draft legal amendments will be re-drafted. However, a Ministry spokeswoman would not tell Forum 18 whether re-drafted amendments would be made available for public discussion before, after, or at the same time as they are sent to the Council of Europe's Venice Commission for review.

AZERBAIJAN: Continued defiance of UN and Council of Europe

Azerbaijan marked the tenth anniversary of its accession to the Council of Europe by rejecting a prisoner of conscience's appeal against his conviction. On 25 January Jehovah's Witness conscientious objector Farid Mammedov's appeal against his nine month jail term was rejected by the Supreme Court. He is now preparing a case at the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) in Strasbourg, Jehovah's Witnesses told Forum 18 News Service. Continued conviction of conscientious objectors breaks Azerbaijan's international – including Council of Europe - human rights obligations. Less than a month beforehand, the Supreme Court also rejected the final appeal against a fine imposed for conscientious objection from fellow Jehovah's Witness Mushfiq Mammedov (no relation of Farid). He and a former Jehovah's Witness prisoner of conscience, conscientious objector Samir Huseynov, lodged a joint application (No. 14604/08) on 7 March 2008 to the European Court of Human Rights. "This application is pending before the Court and no date has yet been fixed for its examination," a Court spokesperson told Forum 18.

AZERBAIJAN: Why a fine with no notice of a trial?

In the second such case known to Forum 18 News Service so far in 2011, Azerbaijan has imposed a fine for religious activity without state permission - without informing the victim she was being tried for this "offence". Jehovah's Witness Rasmiyya Karimova was warned by police in Gakh in north-western Azerbaijan not to conduct religious activity after a raid on her home in November 2010. However, although she was verbally told by a police officer that she would be fined 100 Manats, or three week's average wages, the first time she knew of a trial was when she received a court document informing her that she had been found guilty under Article 299.0.2 of the Code of Administrative Offences ("Infringement of the regulations on organising religious meetings or events"). The court document said that if she failed to pay the fine within the next ten days, bailiffs would seize property from her home to meet the fine. She has appealed, but has yet to receive an answer. The first such victim of a "trial" without notification was a Protestant fined for leading unregistered worship.

AZERBAIJAN: Schoolboy prayer ban leads to two-day prison sentence

Boys of school age were prevented from attending Friday prayers at the Juma Mosque in the central town of Yevlakh on 21 January, local Muslims complained to Forum 18 News Service. Barring entry was a town administration official and the head teacher of a local school, but both refused to explain to Forum 18 why they had done so. A young man, Elvin Mamedov, was given a two-day prison sentence for failing to abide by police orders after he protested against the local police officer forcing entry into the home of a father who had defied the ban and taken his son to pray. Meanwhile, Seventh-day Adventist Gheorghiy Sobor was allowed to return to his family and home after being barred for eight weeks from returning to Azerbaijan. A Moldovan citizen, he and his wife have been required to pledge in writing that he will not conduct religious activity. "Of course we are not happy about this," Aida Sobor told Forum 18. "It's like living without an arm or a leg."

RUSSIA: "It is, in my opinion, religious persecution"

Russia continues to raid meetings of readers of the works of Muslim theologian Said Nursi in 2011, Forum 18 News Service has found. Azerbaijani national Rashid Abdulov was arrested in Ulyanovsk on 20 January and is still in detention awaiting charge. Other Muslims gathered in the same flat were briefly detained in a raid in which police reportedly used physical violence was used against them, including against children present. Abdulov's lawyer Vladimir Zavilinich told Forum 18 that: "It is, in my opinion, religious persecution, and fits in with the trend of arrests in Novosibirsk and Krasnodar". Abdulov was found to be in possession of materials listed on titles which feature on the Federal List of Extremist Materials, and his lawyer expects him to come to trial in "a maximum of six to nine months, during which time Abdulov will remain in prison". Fellow Nursi reader Bobirjon Tukhtamurodov from Uzbekistan also remains in prison in Russia. This follows an extradition request from his home country and a request he filed to receive refugee status in Russia. Jehovah's Witnesses are also subject to such raids.

AZERBAIJAN: "There is no discrimination"?

After Azerbaijan's deportation of a former leader of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, Russian citizen Ivan Uzun, and the denial of re-entry to Moldovan citizen Gheorghiy Sobor, Adventists have told Forum 18 News Service they are trying to resolve problems with the government through dialogue. Sobor lives in the capital Baku with his Azerbaijani wife and their three young children. He thinks he may have been denied re-entry as he helped Adventists gain state permission to import books. His wife Aida told Forum 18 that: "Without any court decision and without the possibility for him to respond, they have separated Gheorghiy from his family and children. Such an action contradicts basic human rights and international law at the same time as Azerbaijan considers itself a democratic country". Yusif Askerov of the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations claimed that "there is no discrimination". Adventists stress that they have been present in the country for more than a century. An Adventist told Forum 18 that: "We're working to build bridges with the government".

AZERBAIJAN: Pressure and punishments for worship without state permission increasing?

Azerbaijan appears to be increasing raids on and threats to religious communities for worshipping without state permission, Forum 18 News Service notes. An imam near the capital Baku, Mubariz Gachaev, received threats in late December 2010 that he would be imprisoned if his mosque continues to hold unregistered worship. A Protestant in northern Azerbaijan, Ilham Balabeyov, was in mid-January 2011 fined three weeks' average local wages for leading unregistered worship. Police also summoned him to a police station and detained him there for all of the day his church marks Christmas. Members of a forcibly closed Sunni mosque in Gyanja have told Forum 18 that the only religious activity they are now allowed to conduct is to meet in small groups, under police surveillance, to pray in private homes. As of today (24 January) only 510 religious communities are registered. It seems that many applications are either being denied or left without answer. No legal challenges to re-registration denials have yet succeeded. All unregistered religious activity is illegal, against international human rights law.

ARMENIA: "Why does the government keep pushing laws that get negative reviews?"

Nora Sargsyan of Armenia's Justice Ministry has stated that draft Amendments restricting freedom of religion or belief will be changed to reflect the recommendations of a Council of Europe / Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) legal review. This found that the Amendments do not comply with international human rights law. However, Vardan Astsatryan of the Ethnic Minorities and Religious Affairs Department claimed "the draft Amendments were in accordance with international human rights standards". Many human rights defenders and religious communities are concerned at what Pastor Ren̩ Leonian described as "limitations on freedom of conscience, freedom of expression of our faith and limitation on human rights generally". Stepan Danielyan of the Collaboration for Democracy Centre thinks the Amendments "had the strong backing of Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisyan". But, "why does the government keep pushing laws in this area that get negative reviews?" Maria Aghajanyan of the Open Society Foundations asked. Danielyan and Aghajanyan are organising a civil society-government round table "to get the government talking Рthis is a question of transparency", Aghajanyan told Forum 18.

AZERBAIJAN: "Massive" increased fines for exercising freedom of religion or belief

Just before Azerbaijan increased penalties for exercising the internationally-recognised right to freedom of religion or belief, six Jehovah's Witnesses were punished in Gyanja for exercising their human rights. Under the Code of Administrative Offences, three were fined, one was warned and two – both Georgians – were deported, Jehovah's Witnesses told Forum 18 News Service. Had they been fined ten days later, they would have faced far higher penalties. Amendments to increase fines under two Articles of the Administrative Code that create offences for exercising freedom of religion or belief – Article 299 and Article 300 - were signed into law by President Ilham Aliyev on 29 December 2010. "These Articles punish what can be considered as normal religious activity," Eldar Zeynalov, head of the Human Rights Centre of Azerbaijan, told Forum 18. He said that the increased fines are "massive", and those fined, especially those without access to higher-paid work, will struggle to pay them. Zeynalov also warned that finding defence lawyers for those accused could be difficult.

AZERBAIJAN: "You don't need a licence to talk about chess or football, but you do about religion"

More than 15 police officers, as well as journalists with a video camera and a state religious affairs official raided the Saturday morning worship service of the Seventh-day Adventist congregation. Police questioned the ten church members present how much they were paid to be Christians, and two were given heavy fines, Protestants complained to Forum 18 News Service. Police insisted to Forum 18 the meeting had been illegal as the congregation is waiting for registration: "You don't need a licence to talk about chess or football, but you do about religion." Protestants complained about an Interior Ministry press release on the raid which said Adventists represent "a faith prohibited by law". "Adventists have lived in Azerbaijan for more than 100 years and have never been banned," Protestants told Forum 18. Fines for religious activity seem set to rise sharply if proposed amendments are approved in Parliament on 21 December. And a Muslim's legal attempt to recover books confiscated by the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations has been dismissed - despite the confiscations being against the Constitution and law.

AZERBAIJAN: Harsher punishments for religious activity "a question of national security"?

Minimum fines for those who conduct religious worship without state approval could rise 15-fold, if proposed amendments to the Code of Administrative Offences now awaiting consideration by Azerbaijan's full parliament are approved. "It's so that they realise the responsibility for their actions," Rabiyat Aslanova, chair of parliament's Human Rights Committee, told Forum 18 News Service. "People are not fined just for praying to God. This is a question of national security." Human rights defenders and religious communities which are regularly penalised under the Code are concerned. A reader of the works of the Muslim theologian Said Nursi told Forum 18 that "we will suffer even more" if these increased fines are approved – "and so will others". Ali Huseynov, chair of parliament's Legal Policy and State Building Committee, told Forum 18 that Azerbaijan will not seek a legal review of the proposed amendments from the Council of Europe. "Why should we? We have our own experts."