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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

ARMENIA: Appeal court doubles Jehovah's Witness sentence

The lawyer for Jehovah's Witness Hambartsum Odabashyan, whose sentence for refusing military service on grounds of his faith was doubled today (1 April) to three years in labour camp, has described the sentence as "illegal". "The court took no account of Armenia's obligations to the Council of Europe to end the sentencing of conscientious objectors," Razmik Khachaturyan told Forum 18 News Service. But foreign ministry spokeswoman Dziunik Agadjanian denied that the continuing sentencing of conscientious objectors has caused conflict with the Council of Europe. "It does not violate our commitments," she told Forum 18 and pledged that a "full stop" would be put to the practice of imprisoning conscientious objectors by the end of 2003. A Council of Europe official told Forum 18 that the Armenian authorities' claim that imprisoning conscientious objectors did not violate their commitments was "absurd". "It is unacceptable. How can this continued sentencing be in line with the commitments Armenia made?"

AZERBAIJAN: Destruction for Krishna books as religion chief denies censorship

Twenty thousand copies of a Hare Krishna booklet imported into Azerbaijan in 1996 and held by customs ever since have been earmarked for destruction by the State Committee for Relations with Religious Organisations. "Maybe they have already been destroyed," the head of the Hare Krishna community Babek Allahverdiev told Forum 18 News Service. The order to destroy the books comes as Rafik Aliev, the chairman of the State Committee, flatly denied that there is censorship of religious literature in Azerbaijan. Allahverdiev rejected Rafik Aliev's claims that there is no censorship of religious literature as "untrue". Equally blunt was Baptist leader Ilya Zenchenko. "He's lying," he told Forum 18. "He says one thing but the facts tell another story."

GEORGIA: Scepticism greets new pledges to end religious violence

Minority religious leaders and human rights activists remain sceptical that new pledges from political leaders to end the long-running religious violence and punish the perpetrators will bring justice to the victims. Pledges made by President Eduard Shevardnadze have been echoed by Security Council secretary Tedo Japaridze. "I have no doubt that the perpetrators of this violence will be punished," he told Forum 18 News Service. Prosecutor general Nugzar Gabrichidze was equally confident. "The perpetrators are not above the law," he told Forum 18. "I give a guarantee that if the victims of the violence go to court the perpetrators will be sentenced within one or two days." Levan Ramishvili of the Liberty Institute was highly sceptical. "President Shevardnadze's apology at the ecumenical service was positive, but came too late," he told Forum 18. "There is no willingness on the part of the government to end the persecution."

GEORGIA: President pledges punishment for religious violence

Seven weeks after an ecumenical service was broken up by a mob led by violent Old Calendarist priest Basil Mkalavishvili, President Eduard Shevardnadze attended the re-run of the event on 14 March amid tight security at the Central Baptist Church in Tbilisi. "Today I cannot help expressing my great sorrow and even anger that our unity, mutual respect and liberty of faith have been violated by some aggressors," Shevardnadze told the congregation. "I would like you to believe: the aggressor will be punished." Bishop Malkhaz Songulashvili, head of the Baptist Union in Georgia, told Forum 18 News Service he believed the service would be "a milestone in the development of the religious life of Georgia". But others remain sceptical of the authorities' promises to end the years of religious violence, for which none of the known perpetrators have been sentenced.

AZERBAIJAN: Baptist warned not to hold home meetings

Anzor Katsiashvili, a Baptist in Belokani in north western Azerbaijan, was summoned by the local procurator on 13 and 14 March and warned not to hold religious meetings in his home. "He told me I don't have the right to preach as I'm not an Azerbaijani citizen," Katsiashvili told Forum 18 News Service. "At the same time I've been denied citizenship for the past few years because I preach. It's a vicious circle." However, Ilham Babayev, head of the local passport department, denied that his office had obstructed Katsiashvili's application for Azerbaijani citizenship and local registration. "As soon as he comes in we'll give it to him – tomorrow if necessary," he told Forum 18. Katsiashvili rejects the procurator's claim that he cannot gather fellow believers for religious meetings: "I believe I have the right to preach God's word in my own home."