18 May 2012
At least 20 police officers – including the local police chief – took part in a raid on a Seventh-day Adventist Church in Gyanja in Azerbaijan on 12 May, Forum 18 News Service has learned. The local head of the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations took part in the raid, but denied this to Forum 18. Police initially searched for foreigners in the congregation, and when they found none then started checking whether all the approximately 50 children present had written permission to be present from both their parents. After questioning church members and children for several hours, police warned those they questioned that prosecutions would follow with fines. At least one congregation member has been heavily fined, without going through a court trial. The raid came two weeks after the home of a Jehovah's Witness in Sumgait was also raided and religious literature confiscated. Sumgait Police told Forum 18 that "no-one was raided". Baptists have also been stopped while sharing their faith, and a court in the capital Baku has handed down a verdict liquidating Greater Grace Protestant Church. The Church will appeal against this, the first enforced liquidation of a religious community since a harsh Religion Law was adopted.
26 April 2012
A court in the Azerbaijani capital Baku has ruled to liquidate the Greater Grace Protestant Church, the Judge's assistant told Forum 18 News Service. At a 15-minute final hearing on 25 April in the Church's absence, Judge Tahira Asadova upheld the suit lodged by the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations. Asked how the Judge could have taken a decision which means that any activity the Church engages in would be illegal and subject to punishment, Judge Asadova's secretary Sevinj Ahmedova told Forum 18: "The court has decided." She said the decision will enter into force a month after the written verdict is issued, unless the Church lodges an appeal. Church members told Forum 18 they intend to challenge the decision through every court, even to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. Ilya Zenchenko, head of Azerbaijan's Baptist Union, says he is troubled by the decision. "I protest against it – it is not just," he told Forum 18.
25 April 2012
An official of the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations – which operates Azerbaijan's harsh religious censorship system – admitted in mid-April that about 100 shops wishing to sell religious books are still waiting for the necessary licences. Only 16 such licences have been issued since the system's introduction in 2009. Forum 18 News Service notes that selling religious books without a licence risks a maximum punishment for a first offence of two years' imprisonment. Baku's Metro banned the sale of religious books in early April. One religious publisher told Forum 18 that after the compulsory licensing system was introduced, several bookshops returned books as they were too afraid to sell them without a licence. Jehovah's Witnesses have failed in about 15 legal cases challenging State Committee religious censorship decisions.
17 April 2012
Ahead of Azerbaijan's hosting of the Eurovision Song Contest, Forum 18 News Service notes that freedom of religion or belief and related human rights such as the freedom of expression and of assembly remain highly restricted. Among issues documented in Forum 18's religious freedom survey are: state attempts to counter discussion of violations with claims of inter-religious harmony and religious tolerance; officials behaving as if the rule of law places no limitations on their actions; unfair trials lacking due legal process; steadily increasing "legal" restrictions on and punishments for exercising freedom of religion or belief, often prepared in secret, forming a labyrinth of restrictive state controls; "legal" denials of international human rights standards Azerbaijan has agreed to implement; a highly restrictive censorship regime; enforced closures of places people meet for worship; a ban on praying outside mosques; jailing of prisoners of conscience exercising the right to conscientious objection to military service; arbitrary deportations of foreign citizens exercising the right to freedom of religion or belief; and severe denials of human rights in the Nakhichevan exclave. Azerbaijan is likely to remain a place where fundamental human rights are violated with impunity, and the state tries to make exercising human rights conditional upon state permission.
13 April 2012
A court in Azerbaijan's capital Baku is likely to decide on 19 April whether Greater Grace Protestant Church should be liquidated, a court official told Forum 18 News Service after the latest hearing on 12 April. If the court upholds the liquidation suit lodged by the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations, all the Church's communal activity will become illegal. "The conduct of the Judge during the hearing testifies that she has already decided in her own mind to liquidate us", church members complained to Forum 18. They note that the Judge has acted with the State Committee in trying to dismiss the Church's defence arguments. The authorities have already closed down Muslim mosques they do not like – mostly Sunni mosques. Police and the courts have raided and warned Muslims who continued to worship in private homes. Also, a "temporary" ban on Muslims praying outside mosques, imposed in 2008, is still being enforced. No text of the ban appears to have ever been made public.
30 March 2012
Judge Tahira Asadova at Baku's Administrative Economic Court No. 1 will hand down her decision on 12 April whether Greater Grace Protestant Church in the Azerbaijani capital is to be liquidated, her assistant told Forum 18 News Service. If she rules to liquidate the Church's legal status, all its activity will become illegal and its members will be liable to prosecution. The Church insists that one state agency – in this case the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations – cannot seek the liquidation of legal status granted by another – in this case the Justice Ministry, which registered the Church in April 1993. The Church insists it has never broken the law, but the State Committee told the Court it has "secret documents" – which it refused to reveal – testifying to violations. Meanwhile, the second known raid on a Muslim home in March has seen further works by the late Turkish Muslim theologian Said Nursi confiscated and handed to the State Committee for "expert analysis".
15 March 2012
Muslim and Christian meetings in Azerbaijan continue to face raids involving the ordinary police, NSM secret police, and officials of the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. A Baptist pastor working in Neftechala and two Muslims holding a religious meeting in Sumgait were fined in separate cases in February. The Baptist Pastor, Telman Aliyev, has not been told how much he is being fined, and the State Committee has stated that he cannot carry out religious activity in his church. Police and NSM secret police officers who raided Mehman Halilov's private home in Shamakhi in early March seized books by Muslim theologian Said Nursi. They are now with the State Committee for an "expert analysis", after which their fate will be decided. Halilov's home was raided because he is claimed to have distributed the books. The Interior Ministry's announcement increased the number of books seized, and a police officer denied that the raid took place. "I don't know and no-one here knows", he told Forum 18. Meanwhile, the State Committee's legal case to close Baku's Greater Grace Church has been adjourned until 29 March.
13 March 2012
Azerbaijan's State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations has moved to close down Greater Grace Church in the capital Baku for failing to regain the compulsory re-registration, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. This is thought to be the first attempt to compulsorily close a religious community through the courts since compulsory re-registration was imposed by the harsh 2009 Religion Law. If successful the Church would lose the legal right to exist. The unregistered exercise of freedom of religion or belief is illegal under the Religion Law, against international human rights standards. Church members reject the suit, insisting to Forum 18 that "illegal liquidation" of its legal status – which it has had since 1993 – would violate the "Constitutional rights to freedom of religion" of members. "The case begins properly on 15 March at 4 pm," Judge Tahira Asadova told Forum 18. Commenting on the state-imposed closure of a Muslim prayer room in a building rented out by a charity for deaf people, a charity official told Forum 18 that: "It's not a bad thing if people pray – indeed it's good. But they need registration. The government doesn't like it otherwise."
22 December 2011
Following a police raid on Baptists meeting for worship in Neftechala in Azerbaijan, Pastor Telman Aliyev, his wife (who was not present during the raid), and all the Church members have been summoned for police questioning on 23 December, after threats of criminal prosecution have been made against the pastor. The authorities declared the Church "closed" and sealed its building (though it was later unsealed), and confiscated all the books they could find, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Officials also asked for the full addresses of all Church members, and what ethnicity they are. The State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations official responsible for the area, who took part in the raid and would not give his last name, insisted to Forum 18 that: "Without registration you can't pray. We close any place of worship that isn't registered, including mosques." He then insisted: "We don't ban, we just demand documents." The Church has applied for re-registration, but like very many communities of all faiths its application has not been answered. Exercising the right to freedom of religion or belief without state permission is illegal in Azerbaijan, in defiance of international human rights standards.
15 December 2011
Following Azerbaijan's passage of its latest set of legal changes restricting and punishing the exercise of freedom of religion or belief, groups of people who produce or distribute religious literature or objects without going through the compulsory prior state censorship now face prison terms of two to five years, or maximum fines equivalent to nearly nine years' official minimum wage per person. Azerbaijan has been steadily increasing restrictions on freedom of religion or belief and punishments for exercising this human right in recent years, Forum 18 News Service notes. Censorship-related "crimes" have mainly been moved from the Code of Administrative Offences to come under the Criminal Code, and in the Administrative Code an "offence" of leading Islamic prayers by those who have studied abroad has also been introduced. Particularly significant is a wide range of massively increased fines for exercising the right to freedom of religion or belief, which many "offenders" would struggle to pay.
14 December 2011
Six Jehovah's Witnesses in Azerbaijan's second city Gyanja have been given heavy fines for meeting for worship without the compulsory state registration, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Only one of the fines was reduced at Gyanja Appeal Court today (14 December), leaving the total of the fines at 9,500 Manats (72,330 Norwegian Kroner, 9,300 Euros, or 12,090 US Dollars). This was described to Forum 18 as a "massive sum" by local standards. One of those fined, Rashad Niftaliyev, has within a twelve-month period now been fined a total of 3,650 Manats for exercising his freedom of religion or belief. Meanwhile, in Absheron District near the capital Baku, two Muslims were given official warnings for similarly meeting to discuss their faith in a private home without state registration. Responding to criticism of its restrictions on the exercise of freedom of religion or belief by Thomas Hammarberg, the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Azerbaijan has claimed that "the Government supports all efforts to protect religious freedoms in the country and all over the world".
1 November 2011
Prison terms of up to five years or maximum fines equivalent to nearly nine years' official minimum wage are set to be adopted by Parliament in mid-November for groups of people who produce or distribute religious literature without going through Azerbaijan's compulsory prior state censorship of all religious literature. Also due are new punishments for those who lead Muslim worship if they have gained their religious education abroad, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. The punishments are included in proposed amendments to the Criminal and Administrative Codes prepared by the powerful Presidential Administration, and approved by two parliamentary committees on 28 October. Parliamentary officials told Forum 18 they are set to be adopted in one reading, probably on 15 November. "Insanity is only increasing," one member of a religious community who asked not to be identified told Forum 18.