11 December 2008
Armenia's Foreign and Justice Ministries have denied to Forum 18 News Service that the country's alternative to military service is also under military control. Karine Soudjian, who heads the Human Rights Department in the Foreign Ministry, insisted to Forum 18 that the current Alternative Service Law has "no contradiction" with Armenia's international human rights obligations, including to the Council of Europe. But the Council of Europe's Human Rights Commissioner Thomas Hammarberg says the Law "does not provide for a genuine civilian service as the service is still managed and supervised by the Ministry of Defence". Soudjian says the imprisonment of some 80 Jehovah's Witness conscientious objectors – a figure she disputes – "is not a human rights issue". Parliamentary deputy David Harutyunyan told Forum 18 the Law has "room for improvement" and is being discussed in two parliamentary committees, but declined to spell out what changes are being discussed. Jehovah's Witnesses fear that if the system does not change, at least a further 15 young men will face trial from January.
4 December 2008
President Bako Sahakyan of the internationally unrecognised entity of Nagorno-Karabakh is considering a restrictive new Religion Law, Forum 18 News Service has found. The new Law imposes vaguely formulated restrictions, including: an apparent ban on unregistered religious activity; state censorship of religious literature; an undefined "monopoly" given to the Armenian Apostolic Church over preaching and spreading its faith, while banning "soul-hunting" and restricting others to undefined "rallying their own faithful". Garik Grigoryan, head of the parliamentary Commission on State Legal Issues, claimed to Forum 18 that "it will be a more liberal, democratic Law." Members of religious communities have expressed serious concerns to Forum 18. One member of the Armenian Apostolic Church rhetorically asked Forum 18: "Where's the freedom?" Another described the Law as "like rubber," noting that "you can't see exactly how it's going to be put into practice." The Law also does not resolve the issue of a civilian alternative to compulsory military service.
13 November 2008
Azerbaijan continues to obstruct religious worship, Forum 18 News Service has found. Police in the capital Baku have put forward new claims as to why the Abu-Bekr mosque cannot be reopened. The latest police claims, for which no evidence has been produced, are that there is a threat of terrorist attack, that local people object to the mosque, and that it was built illegally. However, Deputy Police Chief Alekper Ismailov claimed to Forum 18 that the authorities do not want to keep the mosque closed. A nationwide "temporary" ban on praying outside mosques also remains in force. Separately, Baku police have also raided a legal Jehovah's Witness meeting for worship, confiscated legally imported literature, and detained two people for five hours as part of a "passport check." Police Chief Firuddin Jamalov initially claimed to Forum 18 that "it was not us", but in the face of evidence changed his claim to "this is not the subject of a phone conversation." Meanwhile, the trial of Baptist pastor Hamid Shabanov is due to resume in Zakatala on 17 November.
6 November 2008
Baptist pastor Hamid Shabanov – on trial since July for allegedly possessing an illegal gun – was transferred from prison to house arrest at a hearing in Zakatala on 5 November, church members told Forum 18 News Service. He had been detained for twenty weeks. His next hearing is due on 17 November. He insisted that the accusation against him is fabricated. "The police came into my house back in June and placed the pistol there," he told Forum 18. "The first time I saw it was when they claim to have found it." He believes he will eventually be cleared. "The Word of God is stronger than a pistol." Shabanov's church has been denied legal status since the 1990s, one of three Baptist congregations whose applications have failed. Also denied registration is an Assemblies of God congregation in Baku, whose pastor insisted to Forum 18 that the authorities simply do not want to register any more Christian churches. The State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations refused to discuss registration denials with Forum 18, but its head Hidayat Orujev told the local media on 5 November: "Not one religious organisation applying recently for registration was denied it."
3 November 2008
The long-delayed trial of Baptist pastor Hamid Shabanov in Zakatala on charges of possessing an illegal weapon is due to resume on 5 November, his lawyer and family told Forum 18 News Service. The charges carry a maximum penalty of three years in prison. Church members say police planted the weapon in the pastor's home to punish him for his leadership of the church. Meanwhile, four days after ruling that the closed Abu-Bekr mosque in Baku should be allowed to reopen, the same judge overturned his own decision, the mosque's lawyer Javanshir Suleymanov told Forum 18. He says police claim the mosque faces a threat of a second attack. "This is just stupid. They don't have the right to scare people like that," Suleymanov told Forum 18. He pointed out that if such a serious threat exists it would be investigated by the NSM secret police, not the ordinary police. The State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations refused to discuss these cases with Forum 18.
29 October 2008
Baptist pastor Hamid Shabanov is due in court in Zakatala again on 31 October to face charges of illegal possession of a weapon. Church members insist the accusation is fabricated. Neither he nor his lawyer have been given the indictment as required in law. Nor has there been any explanation of why Shabanov is still being held when the court-ordered detention period expired on 21 October, nor why the police did not bring him to the court for a scheduled hearing on 28 October. "They are deliberately drawing this out as they don't want Shabanov to go to court," his lawyer Mirman Aliyev told Forum 18 News Service. "They want to hold him for as long as they can." He complained of the "crude violations" of the law. Shabanov's brother complains of the authorities' attempt to prosecute the second of the church's pastors. "They want to imprison the leader and see the community fall apart." Meanwhile, although the Abu-Bekr mosque community in Baku won its case in court challenging its enforced closure, it remains unclear when it will be allowed to reopen for prayers. "We need a special instruction from the Interior Ministry before we can allow it to reopen," an official of the local police insisted to Forum 18.
17 October 2008
Azerbaijan continues to maintain the closure of Baku's Abu-Bekr Mosque, Forum 18 News Service has found. The closure was imposed after a 17 August bomb attack on the mosque, and a nationwide "temporary" ban – still in force – on people praying outside mosques was also imposed. The authorities have caught the alleged attackers, but "the decision not to allow the mosque to reopen offends the community," Imam Gamet Suleymanov told Forum 18. The ordinary police, the Interior Ministry, the Prosecutor's Office, the National Security Ministry (NSM) secret police, and the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations all deny that their agency is responsible. Similarly, the authorities also refuse to release the text of the ban on praying outside mosques. Elsewhere, Baptist prisoner of conscience Hamid Shabanov remains in jail, with his latest detention period due to end on 21 October. It is unclear what the authorities plan to do, even though he is held on charges his church and family insist are fabricated.
24 September 2008
In its survey analysis of religious freedom in Azerbaijan, Forum 18 News Service has found continuing violations of freedom of thought, conscience and belief. The state attempts to control or limit the majority Muslim and minority religious communities, including imposing strict censorship, violating its international human rights commitments. The situation in the Nakhichevan exclave is worse than the rest of the country. Officials often claim that Azerbaijan is a state of religious tolerance – a view promoted by government-favoured groups – but the state promotes intolerance of some minorities and has not introduced the genuine religious freedom necessary for genuine religious tolerance to flourish. Many officials are convinced that ethnic Azeris should not be non-Muslims, and act on this conviction. In practice, many violations of the human rights of both Muslims and non-Muslims – such as the detention of Baptist prisoner of conscience Hamid Shabanov and a ban on Muslims praying outside mosques - are based on unwritten understandings and even violations of the written law.
19 September 2008
Azerbaijan's Baptist prisoner of conscience Hamid Shabanov has been ordered – in a closed hearing he and his defence lawyer were not informed of – to be detained for another two months, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. "The judge called the latest hearing without even informing Hamid's lawyer," Ilya Zenchenko of the Baptist Union told Forum 18. "This was a clear violation." The defence's request that Shabanov be freed pending possible trial was rejected. However, Baptists have welcomed his transfer to Balakan District, in north-western Azerbaijan, which is next to Pastor Shabanov's home Zakatala District. In a separate case, Muslim prisoner Said Dadashbeyli has failed in his appeal to the Supreme Court, the last possible avenue of appeal within Azerbaijan. His family told Forum 18 that they will now take the case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. Difficulties continue for religious communities, a Baku Protestant church, Cathedral of Praise, having had its place of worship confiscated.
18 September 2008
A ban on worshipping outside mosques in Azerbaijan, imposed after an August bomb attack on a mosque which killed three people, is still in force Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Some Muslim men have also had their beards forcibly shaved off by police. "With the rise in the number of Muslims performing the namaz [Islamic prayers] the numbers who cannot fit inside mosques and have to pray outside has been rising in Baku," a Muslim who preferred not to be identified told Forum 18. "The authorities want total control of the situation – and this could be a challenge. They fear it could lead to the destruction of social order." Also, NSM secret police and the ordinary police have raided another Jehovah's Witness meeting. The NSM filmed those present, saying they would show the film on television to "disgrace" them. Those present, including a young child, were detained and questioned for five and a half hours, as well as being pressured to become Muslims. Two women were fined without being allowed legal representation. No official has been willing to talk to Forum 18 about either matter.
4 September 2008
Two monasteries of Georgian Orthodox monks and nuns in the Upper Kodori Gorge, captured by Abkhaz forces from Georgian forces in mid-August, are being pressured by the Abkhaz Orthodox Church to change their jurisdiction. "They must submit to the authority of our Church or leave Abkhazia," the head of the Abkhaz Orthodox Church, Fr Vissarion Aplia, who visited the monks and nuns within days of the fighting, told Forum 18 News Service. Asked who had given him the right to pressure members of a different religious jurisdiction to submit to his authority, Fr Aplia responded angrily: "It's not your business. It's our territory." Abkhaz Deputy Foreign Minister Maxim Gvinjia backs the right of the Abkhaz Church to enforce its will on the monks and nuns. "Of course we won't defend their rights, given the context of current developments," he told Forum 18. "Abkhazia is a Christian Orthodox country and the Abkhaz Orthodox Church is the main church." Since the expulsion of a Georgian Orthodox priest in April, the two monasteries are the only remaining Georgian Orthodox institutions left in Abkhazia.
27 August 2008
On 22 August Russian citizen Imamzade Mamedova was deported from Azerbaijan to Russia for talking to nearby residents in the north-western town of Zakatala about her faith as a Jehovah's Witness. She is the ninth Jehovah's Witness to be deported from Azerbaijan for religious reasons in the last two years. Detained with her was Gamar Aliyeva, who had been "forbidden" by a local police officer back in 2000 from speaking about her faith. The same officer threatened the two women that the police "would punish us in such a way that we would stop talking about God," Aliyeva complained. Vali Aslanov of the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations in Baku dismissed complaints over the treatment of the two women. "What the Jehovah's Witnesses did was wrong, but then they blame the authorities," he told Forum 18 News Service. Zakatala is also where Baptist pastor Hamid Shabanov is in the police cell awaiting the resumption of his trial on charges of possessing a weapon, which his congregation insists was planted by police. However, the regional official of the State Committee rejects any suggestion that religious rights are violated in north-western Azerbaijan. "Here we have freedom of conscience and tolerance at the highest level throughout the world," Nizami Mamedov claimed to Forum 18.