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AZERBAIJAN: Imprisoned pastor's lawyer "optimistic" over appeal

The lawyer for imprisoned Baptist pastor Zaur Balaev is hopeful about his appeal, which began at Sheki Appeal Court today (6 September) and resumes on 19 September. "Of course I'm optimistic," Gazalfar Rzaev told Forum 18 News Service. Also hopeful that the two year sentence imposed on charges of assaulting five police officers will be overturned was Ilya Zenchenko, head of Azerbaijan's Baptist Union. But he fears Balaev may not be fully exonerated. "This is a dilemma for the court. Clearing Balaev would mean incriminating the police officers who falsely testified against him," Zenchenko told Forum 18. The State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations insists the prosecution had nothing to do with Balaev's religious affiliation but refused to explain why the verdict speaks of Balaev's "illegal religious activity" when the concept does not exist in Azerbaijani law. "This case has given a bad impression of Azerbaijan around the world," an official of the OSCE in Baku told Forum 18.

AZERBAIJAN: Two-year prison term for Baptist pastor

Baptist Pastor Zaur Balaev was yesterday (8 August) sentenced to two years in jail, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. The Pastor from Aliabad in northern Azerbaijan was convicted of using violence against a state representative, and was also accused of holding "illegal meetings under the guise of religious activity without concrete authority and without state registration," attracting young people to worship services and playing loud music at services. Azerbaijan's authorities have changed their accusations whilst Balaev has been held, initially claiming that he set a dog on police during a raid on a Sunday worship service. After more than 50 people signed a written statement testifying to Balaev's innocence, the dog disappeared from the authorities' claims and Balaev was instead accused of attacking five policemen and damaging a police car door. The authorities' claims are strongly disputed. Prosecution witnesses admitted that they had not witnessed the alleged assault by Pastor Balaev. They stated that they had only heard about it from people at the market, teahouse, or because police pressured them into testifying. "We're preparing to submit an appeal," Ilya Zenchenko of the Baptist Union told Forum 18. A court official told Forum 18 that Judge Seifali Seifullaev was not available for comment and had been transferred to a new position.

AZERBAIJAN: 20 July trial of Pastor who led "illegal meetings"

The trial of Pastor Zaur Balaev of a Georgian-speaking Baptist congregation in the village of Aliabad in the far north of Azerbaijan is to begin on 20 July, Judge Seifali Seifullaev, who will hear the case, told Forum 18 News Service. He refused to explain why he rejected Balaev's appeal to be transferred from prison to house arrest as he awaits trial. Balaev was arrested on 20 May and is charged with beating up five policemen and damaging a police car, charges he and church members reject. The indictment complains that Balaev "conducts illegal meetings under the guise of religious activity without concrete authority and without state registration", attracts young people to services and plays loud music at services. Ilya Zenchenko of the Baptist Union told Forum 18 that "this is the opinion of the police and representatives of the authorities, not of the [ethnic] Georgian residents of the village, who support Zaur and do not regard him as a 'dangerous person'."

AZERBAIJAN: Did "thin" Pastor beat up five "strong" policemen?

The hearing of the case against detained Baptist pastor Zaur Balaev begins tomorrow (13 July) at 10 am, Forum 18 News Service has been told by Judge Seifuli Seifullaev. Azerbaijan's Baptist leader, Ilya Zenchenko, insists the charges are false – as do over 50 other people, including 25 who were present at the service, other villagers who are not Christians, and the leaders of eight Christian churches in Azerbaijan. "Zaur is accused of beating up five policemen and damaging the door of a police car," Zenchenko stated. "But how could a thin man like Zaur beat up five strong policemen?" Police initially alleged that Balaev had resisted being taken to a police station by setting a dog onto them. "The dog has completely disappeared from the accusation," Zenchenko told Forum 18. However, during the investigation, the Prosecutor stated verbally that Balaev is a Christian and therefore a threat to society and to social security. The date for the formal trial is due to be set at tomorrow's preliminary hearing.

AZERBAIJAN: Baptist pastor still held on false charges

Imprisoned Baptist pastor Zaur Balaev has been held for over a month by Azerbaijan, on charges which witnesses insist are false, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Pastor Balaev was arrested on 20 May, and the authorities intend to bring criminal charges of resisting officials with violence. The arrest took place during a police raid on a worship service which they insist – against Azerbaijan's international human rights commitments – was illegal as the church does not have state registration. The authorities have been denying the church legal status for 13 years. Since being detained over a month ago, "Zaur's health has deteriorated seriously" the head of the Baptist Union Ilya Zenchenko told Forum 18. Zenchenko also stated that police had hit Balaev in the face and that since his arrival in prison he has been threatened with violence. The Balaev family has had to go into debt to pay to take food to Zaur Balaev, who has been held over 250 km. (150 miles) from his home. The authorities have denied Balaev's family the opportunity to meet him since his arrest. Officials have refused to discuss the charges with Forum 18.

AZERBAIJAN: Arrested Baptist pastor to face three years in prison?

Police have verbally told members of the embattled Baptist church in the remote village of Aliabad in north-western Azerbaijan that their pastor Zaur Balaev is to face a criminal charge of "resisting government representatives", which carries a maximum three year prison term. The authorities claim he set a dog onto police who raided the church's Sunday service on 20 May. The church's deacon, Ramiz Osmanov, insisted to Forum 18 News Service that the accusation is based on "false testimony". "I was there – I saw." After two weeks in police custody, Balaev was today (4 June) transferred to the prison in Gyanja [Gäncä]. Ilya Zenchenko, head of the Baptist Union, told Forum 18 the region around Aliabad is the worst in Azerbaijan for Baptists. "It is a place where officials insult our believers, won't allow them to gain legal status and deny birth certificates to their children." Hidayat Orujev, the chief state religious affairs official, rejected Baptist claims of persecution. Balaev's arrest "has no relation to his faith", he told Forum 18.

AZERBAIJAN: Baptist Pastor arrested / Another Protestant child denied birth certificate

Baptist pastor Zaur Balaev has been detained by police in Azerbaijan since Sunday (20 May), when police raided his church's worship service, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Police claim that Balaev was arrested as he resisted them, but this is strongly denied by witnesses. The police also claim – in defiance of the right to freedom of thought, conscience and belief – that the church has no right to meet, as it is not registered. The authorities have put Pastor Balaev's church under strong pressure since its foundation. "We are immensely humiliated as human beings in a country which pretends to be democratic," one congregation member told Forum 18. "We are discriminated against in many ways." It has been suggested that the raid and detention is in retaliation for protests against the authorities' attempts to demolish a church member's home. Also, in their latest refusal to register the birth of a Protestant family's child, the authorities are refusing to register the birth of Ilya Eyvazov – who officially does not exist and so cannot have health care.

ARMENIA: 72 religious prisoners of conscience is new record

Armenia has a record number of religious conscientious objectors to military service in jail, despite a 2004 promise to free these prisoners of conscience, Forum 18 News Service has found. 72 Jehovah's Witnesses are now in jail. Four of these prisoners have been jailed within the past month, with an average jail sentence for each of the four young men of just under two and a half years. Armenia claims to have a civilian alternative service, but the allegedly "civilian" service is under the complete control of the Armenian General Staff, supervised by the Military Police under military law, and pacifists are forced to wear uniform provided by the military. Jehovah's Witnesses and Molokans insist that they would be happy to perform a genuinely civilian alternative service – but Armenia does not allow this. The father of a Molokan Protestant Christian conscientious objector told Forum 18 that "we're not satisfied with the current alternative service. It's against our faith to take weapons and to kill people."

AZERBAIJAN: Biggest expulsion in eight years

In the biggest expulsion of foreigners involved in religious activity in Azerbaijan since 1999, two Georgian and two Russian Jehovah's Witnesses have been deported, with a Dutch and a British citizen about to follow, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. The administrative deportation orders – which do not require any court proceedings – followed a massive police raid on a Jehovah's Witness meeting, which only four of the six foreign residents were attending. Jeyhun Mamedov of the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations claimed to Forum 18 that "it wasn't a raid – you can't call it that." He refused to state what law the Jehovah's Witnesses had allegedly broken. Mamedov claimed on local public TV – which accompanied the raid - that "specialised equipment" was confiscated which "could be used for communicating secretly with secret services of other countries". Jehovah's Witnesses totally reject these allegations. A steady trickle of foreigners have in recent years been deported for their religious activity.

AZERBAIJAN: Raid on Jehovah's Witnesses deliberately timed?

Azerbaijan's latest manifestation of hostility to Protestant Christian and other religious minorities, such as Jehovah's Witnesses, is a 24 December raid on the Kingdom Hall in the capital, Baku, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. "We suspect that the police and prosecutor used the holiday season - when foreign representations obviously have only minimum staff - to make this attack," Jehovah's Witnesses told Forum 18. Property was confiscated, money was apparently stolen by police, congregation members were detained and at least two were beaten up. In a repeated pattern during police raids on religious minorities, a local TV station which encourages religious intolerance was present. Six foreign attendees – three of whom grew up in Azerbaijan - may be deported. Forum 18 was able to speak to the Migration Police, but not to Hidayat Orujev, chair of the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations, or other officials there, for comment.

GEORGIA: Little justice yet for victims

Patman Tabagari lost her sight in one eye after being kicked in the head by a mob, led by a Georgian Old Calendarist priest, that stormed a Jehovah's Witness meeting. Yet in the cases of this and more than 800 other attacks on religious minorities, Forum 18 News Service has found that their attackers have almost never faced justice. Only nine perpetrators have been tried and found guilty, and only two of them have received prison sentences. Georgian politicians, officials and the Georgian Orthodox Patriarchate seem to try to ignore the problem. But Baptist Bishop Malkhaz Songulashvili argues that "the crimes committed must be identified, condemned and only then can they be forgiven. If we forgive without identifying the crimes there is no clarity on what is being forgiven. We will only create an atmosphere where these crimes have a longer life." Manuchar Tsimintia, a lawyer for the Jehovah's Witnesses, agreed, telling Forum 18 that "if there is no punishment for all those people who conducted aggression against religious minorities, there could be a return to the old times."

NAGORNO-KARABAKH: No guarantees for religious conscientious objectors

The proposed Nagorno-Karabakh Constitution may have little practical impact. However, human rights activists and religious believers are concerned, they have told Forum 18 News Service, about the absence of any guarantee of alternative non-military service. "If alternative service is not there in the constitution, it doesn't make it impossible for it to be introduced later - the Constitution is not dogma. But it does make it more difficult," Albert Voskanyan of the Centre for Civilian Initiatives told Forum 18. "It is bad that such a provision is not there, just as it is bad it is not there in the Armenian Constitution," Jehovah's Witness lawyer Lyova Markaryan told Forum 18. Two Jehovah's Witnesses and one Baptist have been jailed in recent years for refusing military service on grounds of conscience. Some have also expressed concern about the draft Constitution's recognition of the Armenian Apostolic Church's "exclusive mission" as the "national church."