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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

AZERBAIJAN: Four days incommunicado at secret police – so far

The NSM secret police has been holding two Muslims incommunicado since 12 April, including a man who offered his Baku home for a Muslim study session, Muslims who know them told Forum 18 News Service. Eldeniz Hajiyev and fellow Nursi reader Ismayil Mammadov were seized after an armed police raid on the meeting. Forum 18 was unable to reach anyone at the NSM secret police in Baku to find out where the men are being held and why. Nine others present were fined more than three months' average wages each. Fined the same day by the same court was a Shia Muslim theologian who had been teaching his faith in the same Baku district. Azerbaijan has tight government controls on exercising the right to freedom of religion or belief. Meetings for worship or religious education, or selling religious literature without state permission are banned and punishable.

AZERBAIJAN: Conscientious objector's trial to begin after 4 months' detention

Four months after being forcibly detained in October 2013 and sent to a military unit, conscientious objector to military service 18-year-old Kamran Shikhaliyev is due to go on trial at a military court in southern Azerbaijan on 13 February. His fellow-Jehovah's Witnesses told Forum 18 News Service that "despite physical abuse, verbal humiliation, and psychological pressure, Shikhaliyev has refused to wear a military uniform, perform military duties, or take the military oath". The head of the Conscription Office which forcibly seized him claimed to Forum 18 that "he wasn't detained, just sent to a military unit". Elsewhere, after a Gyanja Police raid on a Jehovah's Witness meeting, five of those present were fined the equivalent of one year's teacher's salary. "More than 40 people were gathered in the flat," police complained to Forum 18. "That's banned. They had no permission from the state organs to meet." And the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations has declined to tell Forum 18 what measures are planned against the unregistered Sunni mosque in Mushfiqabad, as "work in this direction is in progress". Many such mosques have been forcibly closed by the state.

AZERBAIJAN: Fined for praying for deceased

Tural Kuliyev, a Muslim, was fined the equivalent of a year's salary for a local state employee in the central town of Mingechaur for praying at people's request for their deceased relatives in the town's Ali cemetery. The punishment was for "violating legislation on holding religious meetings, marches, and other religious ceremonies". "Other imams who pray in the cemetery and read the Koran complained about him. He didn't have permission," Police Captain Anar Kadimov, who prepared the case, insisted to Forum 18 News Service from Mingechaur. He said another man had similarly been fined at the same time. Meanwhile, the authorities have reportedly destroyed a mosque being built in a remote village in southern Azerbaijan. Villagers began construction after waiting in vain for permission. An official of the state-backed Caucasian Muslim Board told Forum 18 that "houses of God should never be closed or destroyed," but he said it was for the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations to decide when the many state-closed mosques will be allowed to reopen for worship.

AZERBAIJAN: "I want my rights to be protected by our government, not violated"

Seven Jehovah's Witnesses in northern Azerbaijan were in November and December each fined the equivalent of one year's salary for a teacher for exercising their freedom of religion or belief, Forum 18 News Service has learned. The fines followed a police raid on a Jehovah's Witness family, which took place without a search warrant. Police forced their way into the family's home and confiscated books including personal Bibles, money, and personal medical and financial documents. Against the law, police gave the family no record of their confiscations. One of the women present was injured by police, and she had to be hospitalised when she later during detention had an epileptic fit. Police detained those present at a police station for 12 hours, claiming that they were terrorists, and repeatedly threatened detainees with sexual violence and loss of employment. Police also pressured detainees to give up their faith. Following a similar raid in May 2012 a Muslim from Baku, Zeka Miragayev is preparing a case for the European Court of Human Rights. "I want my rights to be protected by our government, not violated," he told Forum 18.

ARMENIA: Building places of worship "not appropriate"

Two of three applications by the Jehovah's Witness community in Armenia's capital Yerevan to build places of worship were deemed "not appropriate" because of "precedents" of "complaints and intolerance" from the public. The third was rejected because of unresolved "construction concerns" on the street. Andranik Kasaryan, head of the city's Architecture Department, told Forum 18 News Service the applications had been rejected because of "earlier complaints about sects" after the Department had given building permission. "Residents complained to us that they don't want a religious organisation next door to them." One Armenian Catholic told Forum 18 of the "unwritten rule" that Catholicos Karekin, head of the dominant Armenian Apostolic Church, must give permission before non-Armenian Apostolic places of worship can be built. And human rights defender Stepan Danielyan told Forum 18: "Officials try not to allow non-Armenian Apostolic religious communities to have officially-recognised visible places of worship".

ARMENIA: Jailed conscientious objectors freed - but alternative service applications missing?

Armenia's Jehovah's Witness community has welcomed the freeing from prison of all conscientious objectors jailed for refusing military service, and the approval of 71 applications for the new civilian alternative service. However, Jehovah's Witnesses expressed concern over 41 further applications to the government's Alternative Service Committee – many lodged in July – which officials claimed to Forum 18 News Service have not been received. 12 of those waiting for a Committee decision have criminal cases against them, and have been deprived of passports. This means, among other things, that they cannot travel abroad, legally work, or marry. Artur Sogomonyan – secretary of the Alternative Service Committee – insisted to Forum 18 that no applications had been lost. The Territorial Administration Ministry spokesperson claimed she could not answer Forum 18's question as it had not been formulated in accordance with the law.

AZERBAIJAN: "Tragicomedy and mockery of justice"

Islamic theologian Taleh Bagirov has been given a two-year strict regime prison sentence on 1 November by a court in Azerbaijan. He was found guilty of possessing just over one gram of heroin, a fabricated accusation his supporters insist. As well as politically opposing the state, Bagirov and other Muslims had opposed the Caucasian Muslim Board's attempt to impose an imam on the Hazrat Abulfaz Aga Mosque. The authorities attempted to use a sermon to prosecute him, but "they realised they would have made themselves a laughing stock if they had pursued these charges" lawyer Javad Javadov told Forum 18 News Service. In August Bagirov's driver, Anar Melikov, was given a 19-month prison term. His lawyer Anar Kasimov denounced this "tragicomedy and mockery of justice". Among other recent cases, two Jehovah's Witnesses - Reza Babayev and Ilham Hasanov - were discussing their faith in Barda when a local man gathered a crowd of about 20 men who insulted and assaulted the two, and tore some of their religious literature. Police took no action against the crowd, but Babayev and Hasanov have been convicted of "violating legislation on holding religious meetings, marches, and other religious ceremonies". Their appeals were rejected today (7 November).

ARMENIA: "Imprisoned conscientious objectors should be immediately and unconditionally released"

Armenian Jehovah's Witnesses have welcomed the release from jail of eight conscientious objectors to military service. The men all had less than six months of their sentences to run. However, 20 prisoners of conscience remain in jail. "Our position is that the 20 imprisoned conscientious objectors should be immediately and unconditionally released", they told Forum 18 News Service. The government has now introduced alternative civilian service and set up an Alternative Service Committee to decide on applications for alternative service. It is due to hold its first full meeting to consider 65 applications – from Jehovah's Witnesses and others - in the week of 21 to 25 October. Yet Jehovah's Witnesses state that 97 of their young men, including the 20 prisoners of conscience, have applied to have their cases considered. Questions also remain over how the Committee will make decisions. Stepan Danielyan of Collaboration for Democracy notes that only during the November call-up will it be clear whether the new system will allow individuals to choose which type of service to do in accordance with their conscience.

GEORGIA: Will police protect Muslim prayers from mobs?

Since late May, mobs of non-Muslims have obstructed Muslims in the eastern Georgian village of Samtatskaro from praying freely, human rights defenders have told Forum 18 News Service. The mob threatened to burn down the imam's home and drive him from the village. Guliko Nadirashvili, head of the village, "mentioned publicly that if the majority decides that there must not be a mosque in the village, that this is Christian land and the whole village is against Muslims' prayer, we won't allow them to pray," a human rights defender told Forum 18. Nadirashvili claimed to Forum 18 that Muslims have "no problems praying". The local police chief refused to discuss the violence and threats with Forum 18 and the Interior Ministry in the capital Tbilisi was unable to say if anyone has been prosecuted over this and two similar mob attacks on Muslims in late 2012.

AZERBAIJAN: Conscientious objectors amnestied, imam and driver not freed

Azerbaijan's two known imprisoned conscientious objectors – both Jehovah's Witnesses - have been freed as part of a prisoner amnesty, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. However, prisoners of conscience Imam Taleh Bagirov and his driver Anar Melikov have not been freed. Imam Bagirov is known for his political opposition to the government, and also openly opposed the imposition of an imam from the state-backed Caucasian Muslim Board to lead his mosque near the capital Baku. All mosques are required by the Religion Law to be controlled by the Board, which is required to appoint their religious leadership. On 27 June a Baku court ordered the extension of Imam Bagirov's pre-trial detention by one month, while Melikov's trial is expected to begin in a different Baku court in mid-July. Both men have been detained since 31 March. They insist that state claims that they possessed heroin, a pistol, and bullets are false.

ARMENIA: New legal amendments to end conscientious objector jailings?

Nine and a half years, and about 275 prisoners of conscience, after Armenia should have by January 2004 introduced a civilian alternative to compulsory military service, human rights defenders and conscientious objectors are hoping this Council of Europe commitment will be met. The change comes in new amendments to the Alternative Service Law, and to the Law on Implementing the Criminal Code, which come into force on 8 June. "Our main concern was that alternative civilian service should not be under military control," Jehovah's Witness lawyer Artur Ispiryan told Forum 18 News Service. "This appears to have been resolved." Ispiryan and human rights defenders Stepan Danielyan of Collaboration for Democracy and Avetik Ishkhanyan of the Armenian Helsinki Committee stress that how the legal changes are implemented will be crucial. "This will need close monitoring", Ishkhanyan told Forum 18. Concerns include the Defence Ministry's role in decisions on applications for alternative service, unclear wording of some articles, and the length of alternative service.

AZERBAIJAN: Imam and driver in pre-trial detention, conscientious objector imprisoned

Imprisoned Jehovah's Witness conscientious objector Kamran Mirzayev is due to hear tomorrow (15 May) if his appeal has overturned his nine-month prison sentence, Jehovah's Witnesses told Forum 18 News Service. He is one of two known conscientious objectors imprisoned for refusing Azerbaijan's compulsory military service. Azerbaijan committed itself to adopting an alternative civilian service by January 2003, but failed to do so. Meanwhile, Imam Taleh Bagirov – who led prayers and preached at a Shia mosque near Baku in defiance of the authorities' pressure – is in his second month of pre-trial detention, together with his driver. Community members insist the accusations against them are fabricated. The investigator leading the criminal case, Vusal Salehov from the Police Department for the Fight Against Organised Crime, refused to discuss the case with Forum 18.