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The right to change one’s belief or religion
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AZERBAIJAN: Baptist prisoner of conscience and Muslim still jailed

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.

AZERBAIJAN: Muslims banned from praying outside mosques, Raids on Jehovah's Witnesses continue

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.

AZERBAIJAN: Threats and deportation "to stop us talking about God"

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.

AZERBAIJAN: The State Committee doesn't censor – it "merely checks" and bans literature

Azerbaijan's State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations has denied that the compulsory prior approval required for all religious literature is censorship. Asked by Forum 18 News Service how he would describe it, an official stated that the Committee "merely checks" to see which books were "not appropriate" for distribution. He also stated that it maintains a list of "banned" religious literature. On asking how religious communities could see this list, Forum 18 was told that "if it's published you'll hear about it." Censorship, the leader of an Azeri religious community told Forum 18, violates the Constitution. "I believe there should be no censorship, but if someone publishes something which, for example, incites law-breaking or violence they should be punished through the courts. It is illogical to say people are law-breakers before they speak. Let them speak first and then be responsible before the law. This is the only logical approach." Human rights activists and religious communities have expressed frustration about the highly restrictive censorship system – including postal censorship – and police confiscations of books, including the Bible, which are said to be "banned".

AZERBAIJAN: Baptist pastor still in jail, prosecution given second chance

The judge in the criminal trial of Baptist pastor Hamid Shabanov has not yet convicted him, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Defence lawyer Mirman Aliyev told Forum 18 that "we called for Shabanov to be acquitted, for an end to the criminal case and for him to be freed. But the judge was afraid to do so and instead sent the case back for further investigation." He said the judge ordered the re-investigation to be complete by 23 August, ready for a new trial. Officials were reluctant to discuss the case with Forum 18. After the trial, Zakatala Deputy Police Chief Kamandar Hasanov accused the head of the Baptist Union, Ilya Zenchenko, of being "an Armenian spy who acts only for money." Hasanov claimed that there is "a special instruction not to allow Baptists to function in Zakatala District." Defence lawyer Aliyev complained of "numerous, gross violations of procedure" including forged documents, with alleged interrogations of Shabanov on days when no interrogations took place. Police have also wrongly claimed that copies of the Bible in Azeri and Georgian are "illegal".

AZERBAIJAN: "Prosecutors very much want to sentence Hamid"

The criminal trial of Baptist pastor Hamid Shabanov began in the north-western town of Zakatala on 22 July, despite the fact that the prosecution had refused to hand the defence the case materials, Baptist Union leader Ilya Zenchenko told Forum 18 News Service. The trial resumes on 28 July. The same court sentenced fellow Baptist pastor Zaur Balaev to prison in 2007. Shabanov is being prosecuted on charges that he held an illegal weapon and faces up to three years' imprisonment. His church and family insist the weapon was planted during a massive raid on his home on 20 June during which he was arrested. They say he is being prosecuted to punish him for leading his congregation. "Prosecutors very much want to sentence Hamid," Zenchenko warned. "This whole case has been staged. We pray to God for him to come home," Shabanov's family told Forum 18. Meanwhile prosecutors in the capital Baku are trying to prosecute Jehovah's Witness conscientious objector Mushfiq Mammedov for a second time on charges of evading military service, although the Constitution and the Criminal Code ban this.

AZERBAIJAN: Imminent trial for Baptist pastor, final appeal for imprisoned Muslim

Baptist pastor Hamid Shabanov from the remote village of Aliabad is due to be transferred from investigation prison in the city of Gyanja back to Zakatala on 10 July, with a trial due soon after, his lawyer Mirman Aliyev told Forum 18 News Service. The 51-year-old pastor faces up to three years' imprisonment on a charge of holding an illegal weapon. "Hamid Shabanov does not consider himself guilty and insists the gun the police are claiming was his was planted by them," Aliyev reports. Ilya Zenchenko of the Baptist Union complains that Shabanov's arrest is part of a pattern of such government activity against Baptist and other religious communities across Azerbaijan. Fellow Aliabad Baptist pastor Zaur Balaev was freed from prison in March. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court has finally named a judge to hear the final appeal by Muslim teacher Said Dadashbeyli, imprisoned with eight others his family says are innocent. His lawyer told Forum 18 this could be held in late July or early August. Dadashbeyli's wife Ilhama says she wants one thing: "That the Supreme Court in Baku completes the case and frees these innocent men from prison, where they have been held with no proof."

AZERBAIJAN: "No new Religion Law," official states

Despite discussions in recent years, Azerbaijan does not now intend to change its Religion Law, a senior official of the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations told Forum 18 News Service. "There will be no new Religion Law," Jeyhun Mamedov stated categorically. "This is what we've been told from above." He declined to specify who made this decision. Current legislation, including the Religion Law, and the authorities' actions have long been criticised by religious communities. Complaints focus on: compulsory censorship of all religious texts; arbitrary denial of legal status to religious communities; restrictions on the role of foreigners; and the detention or imprisonment of individual religious believers. Fazil Gazanfaroglu Mustafaev, an opposition parliamentary deputy, is also troubled by the authorities' actions. "It is illegal when police raid religious communities," he told Forum 18. "Yet they do it. It is the same problem for political parties, journalists and non-governmental organisations. This is not a law-governed state."

AZERBAIJAN: Shock at second Baptist pastor arrest

Ilya Zenchenko, head of Azerbaijan's Baptist Union, has condemned the arrest yesterday (20 June) of Baptist pastor Hamid Shabanov after police claim to have found an illegal weapon in his home. "We're in shock," Zenchenko told Forum 18 News Service. "This was a provocation by the police, a deliberately targeted action." The pastor's brother told Forum 18 the police's aim is to halt Baptist activity. "Their target is the church." Pastor Shabanov is the second Baptist pastor in the remote village of Aliabad to face imprisonment on what local Baptists insist are trumped-up charges. His arrest comes three months after Pastor Zaur Balaev was freed from prison. Shabanov's family insist he has no weapon and that police planted the gun they claim to have found. But the local police chief appears to have made up his mind. "He's a criminal," the head of Zakatala regional police told Forum 18, even though under Azerbaijani law individuals are innocent until found guilty in court.

AZERBAIJAN: Second raid this month on Jehovah's Witnesses

Police in Azerbaijan have now raided two Jehovah's Witness communities this month, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. The second raid was on "a small peaceful religious meeting" in a home in the capital Baku. Fifteen police officers took part in this raid and detained all of the congregation, beating up three detainees. After the first raid, nine Jehovah's Witnesses caught up in it wrote to the General Prosecutor, pointing out that the raid was a violation of their rights to freedom of thought, speech and conscience guaranteed under the Azerbaijani Constitution and Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights. They asked for "urgent and effective measures" to halt such violations, for the actions of officials to be legally verified, and for criminal prosecutions of officials who have violated the law. The number of raids seems to have increased in the past year, primarily targeting Jehovah's Witnesses, Baptists, Adventists and other Protestants. Communities of other faiths have also been raided and warned by officials in 2008; these communities have asked Forum 18 not to identify them for fear of further repression.

AZERBAIJAN: "Wasn't one prison term enough?"

Baptist former prisoner of conscience Zaur Balaev has been summoned and threatened with a new prison term, he has told Forum 18 News Service. "Haven't you learnt from your imprisonment?" Balaev quoted police officers as telling him. "Wasn't one prison term enough for you?" One officer added: "You may not be afraid, but you've forgotten you've got a wife, daughter and a son." Police banned Balaev's church from meeting, a ban the congregation has defied. Kamandar Hasanov, the deputy police chief in Azerbaijan's north-western Zakatala region, denied to Forum 18 that he had threatened Balaev. Hasanov also refused to discuss with Forum 18 the harassment of Balaev's Baptist congregation, why Muslim men with beards were forcibly shaved and banned from Zakatala's mosque in recent years, and why religious books were confiscated in a raid on a Jehovah's Witness home. A local resident told Forum 18 that the pressure to shave off beards has at present halted.

AZERBAIJAN: Beatings, rape threats and pressure to renounce faith

The local police chief whose forces raided a Jehovah's Witness meeting in the capital Baku on 3 June insisted to Forum 18 News Service that the meeting had been "illegal" and that they should not meet in a private house. "They collect people together and teach them," Colonel Sahib Babaev complained to Forum 18. The Jehovah's Witnesses told Forum 18 that nine men who had been present were taken to the police station, beaten, threatened with rape and pressured to renounce their faith. Colonel Babaev denied this. But he said a Spanish Jehovah's Witness present at the meeting will "probably" be expelled from Azerbaijan. Muslim and Protestant communities have also seen intermittent police and NSM secret police raids on their meetings in recent years. One Protestant told Forum 18 that after their congregation in Sumgait was raided in autumn 2007, police brought in the local imam and pressured the 30 or so detained church members to renounce their faith under a copy of the Koran.