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The right to believe, to worship and witness
The right to change one’s belief or religion
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AZERBAIJAN: Raid, warnings, deportation

A court in Azerbaijan has officially warned 13 Jehovah's Witnesses after they were detained when 10 police raided a meeting in a Baku home to exercise freedom of religion or belief. One Jehovah's Witness – Georgian citizen Goderdzi Kvaratskhelia – was on 6 July ordered to be deported, Jehovah's Witnesses told Forum 18 News Service. One week later, a court in Sheki rejected appeals by two Jehovah's Witness sisters against fines of more than three months' average wages for discussing their faith on the street. They escaped criminal prosecution as the New Testament and Jehovah's Witness brochure they had with them had been imported with permission from the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations. A Baku resident who sold Muslim books without the required State Committee licence has lost his Supreme Court appeal against the fine of 18 months' average wages.

AZERBAIJAN: Religious freedom survey, July 2015

As increasing numbers of prisoners of conscience are jailed by Azerbaijan, Forum 18 News Service notes that freedom of religion or belief and related human rights such as the freedoms of expression and of assembly remain highly restricted. Among the regime's current prisoners of conscience are 14 Muslims and two Jehovah's Witnesses jailed for exercising freedom of religion or belief. There is also one Jehovah's Witness conscientious objector to compulsory military service in a disciplinary military unit. Other freedom of religion or belief issues documented by Forum 18 are: attempts to counter discussion of human rights violations with outright denials and claims of "inter-religious harmony", "religious tolerance" and similar assertions; officials behaving as if the rule of law places no limitations on their actions; unfair trials lacking due legal process; "legal" restrictions on and punishments for exercising freedom of religion or belief; arbitrary official actions denying fundamental rights to citizens and foreigners; a highly restrictive censorship regime, including pre-publication, bookshop, photocopy shop and postal censorship; an arbitrary compulsory state registration system, designed to make all exercise of freedom of religion or belief dependent on state permission; enforced closures of places people meet for worship, especially Sunni mosques; a ban on praying outside mosques; and severe denials of human rights in the Nakhichevan exclave.

AZERBAIJAN: Imam prisoner of conscience jailed for one year

Imam Mubariz Qarayev, who led prayers and preached at the Lezgin Mosque in Azerbaijan's capital Baku, was given a one-year prison sentence on 10 July, Forum 18 News Service has learned. He is the fourth from a group of five Sunni Muslim prisoners of conscience connected to the Mosque, which the authorities want to close, to receive a prison term. And in western Azerbaijan, Sabuhi Mammadov, the host of a group of Muslims who met to study the works of Islamic theologian Said Nursi, was given a massive fine in early June. "He had not gathered people correctly," police told Forum 18. Thirteen other Muslims were also fined after police broke up the meeting. And in late June, Azerbaijan denied entry to Georgian Orthodox priest Fr Demetre Tetruashvili, who has served the only two Georgian Orthodox parishes with state permission to exist in the country for the past four years. The local Georgian Orthodox community cannot now celebrate the liturgy or receive other sacraments.

AZERBAIJAN: Three Muslim prisoners of conscience jailed for 15 to 6 months for selling books

Three of five Sunni Muslim prisoners of conscience arrested in Azerbaijan's capital Baku in February have been jailed for selling books and other religious items which have not undergone state censorship. All five Muslims are associated with the Lezgin Mosque, which the government wants to forcibly close. Azad Qafarov was given a 15-month jail term, Habibullah Omarov a one-year jail term and Salim Qasimov a six-month jail term, fellow Muslims who know them told Forum 18 News Service from Baku on 8 July. The criminal trials continue of the other two prisoners of conscience of the group, Eyvaz Mammadov and Lezgin Mosque Imam Mubariz Qarayev. Including the five Sunni Muslims, eight prisoners of conscience are being held in the NSM secret police Investigation Prison because of their faith. The other three are Jehovah's Witnesses Irina Zakharchenko and Valida Jabrayilova – who on 4 July were ordered to be held for two more months - and Shia Muslim Jeyhun Jafarov, who was on 9 July ordered to be held for four more months.

AZERBAIJAN: "He was acting as a bookseller illegally"

On 14 July Azerbaijan's Supreme Court is due to hear a challenge by Kamran Abdiyev to a fine of 18 months' average wages, for distributing religious literature which has not undergone the compulsory state censorship. "He was acting as a bookseller illegally," an official of the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations told Forum 18 News Service. Judge Gulzar Rzayeva, who will be presiding over the appeal, rejected the last appeal of Jehovah's Witness conscientious objector and former prisoner of conscience Kamran Mirzayev, Forum 18 notes. He is now intending to lodge an appeal to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) in Strasbourg. And four of five planned criminal trials of imprisoned Sunni Muslim prisoners of conscience have begun at a court in the capital Baku. All face up to two years' imprisonment and all are associated with a Sunni mosque the government plans to forcibly close after the European Games. Like Abdiyev, the five prisoners of conscience are charged with selling uncensored religious literature.

AZERBAIJAN: Prisoners of consciences' detention extended, criminal cases imminent

Two Jehovah's Witness prisoners of conscience in Azerbaijan, Valida Jabrayilova and Irina Zakharchenko, have had their NSM secret police pre-trial detention extended, Forum 18 News Service has learned. Five Sunni Muslim prisoners of conscience – Imam Mubariz Qarayev, Habibullah Omarov, Salim Qasimov, Eyvaz Mammadov and Azad Qafarov - also in NSM pre-trial detention are apparently about to face criminal trial. All seven prisoners of conscience were arrested for allegedly distributing religious literature that has not passed state censorship. The eighth prisoner of conscience in NSM pre-trial detention, Shia Muslim theologian Jeyhun Jafarov held for alleged treason, continues to be imprisoned. The trial of another group of five Sunni Muslims, who were in 2014 held in the NSM prison, continues in the capital Baku. Elsewhere, Shia Muslim prisoner of conscience Taleh Bagirov is challenging his transfer to Qobustan Prison where torture has been documented. All these prisoners of conscience are being denied visits by relatives and friends, as well as religious literature.

AZERBAIJAN: Baku's pre-Olympic Mosque closure?

Mubariz Qurbanli, Head of Azerbaijan's State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations, visited the Lezgin Sunni Mosque in Baku's Old City at evening prayers on Friday 17 April to tell them they had three days to vacate the building. Qurbanli connected the demand to the European Olympic Games, which begin on 12 June. "We want fewer believers", mosque members quoted him to Forum 18 News Service as telling them. "If you don't go within three days we'll remove you by other means". At a meeting the following day, Qurbanli did not repeat the demand to leave immediately, but "openly stated that they want the Mosque to be closed for the European Games", Mosque members told Forum 18. "He didn't want people to be at our Mosque during it, claiming that the sight of bearded men will frighten Europeans". Officials of the State Committee and the Old City Reserve failed to respond to Forum 18's questions as to why officials want the Mosque to close for the Games. Officials of the National Olympic Committee and the Baku 2015 European Games Organising Committee told Forum 18 they had "no knowledge" of such plans. The authorities have long targeted the Lezgin Mosque and other Sunni mosques for enforced closure.

AZERBAIJAN: Transfer from detention for prisoners of conscience rejected

A request by a Jehovah's Witness prisoner of conscience, Valida Jabrayilova, to be transferred from pre-trial detention in the NSM secret police Investigation Prison to house arrest was refused on 4 April. Asked why she is detained and could face a five-year prison term for offering uncensored religious literature, Judge Elshad Shamayev replied "it's in the Criminal Code" to Forum 18 News Service. He refused to say why the government sees Jabrayilova – and seven other Muslim and Jehovah's Witness prisoners of conscience awaiting trial for exercising their freedom of religion or belief – as such a danger to the state that they must be detained by the NSM secret police. Asked why he also ordered Muslim prisoners of conscience to be held in pre-trial detention by the NSM, Judge Shamayev responded: "We're not obliged to account for our decisions". People continue to be prosecuted and punished for exercising freedom of religion or belief, for example in February for discussing their faith with others in public.

AZERBAIJAN: Six new freedom of religion or belief prisoners of conscience

On 10 March Shia Muslim theologian and translator Jeyhun Jafarov became the latest prisoner of conscience to be arrested and ordered held in pre-trial detention by Azerbaijan's NSM secret police, apparently to punish him for exercising his freedom of religion or belief, his friends told Forum 18 News Service. He has been ordered to be held for four months while being investigated for treason. Jafarov's arrest was two weeks after the arrest of five Sunni Muslim prisoners of conscience from Baku, including Mubariz Qarayev, imam of the Lezgin Mosque in Baku's Old City. The Lezgin Mosque is one of many Sunni Muslim mosques the government seeks to close. They five have been ordered to be held for three months by the NSM on criminal charges of selling religious literature which has not been censored by the state. Already held in the same NSM prison are two female Jehovah's Witness prisoners of conscience, Irina Zakharchenko and Valida Jabrayilova, whose appeal against being held in pre-trial detention for three months has been rejected.

AZERBAIJAN: Another Mosque forcibly transferred to new leadership

Anar Kazimov, of the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations, warned the leaders of a Sunni Mosque in Qobustan in Azerbaijan's capital Baku that if the leadership did not liquidate itself, hand back documents for the Mosque and allow the Mosque leadership to be replaced, the State Committee would go to court to enforce its liquidation. "Anar sounded threatening," one original community member told Forum 18 News Service. "He said they could easily find 50 new people to constitute the new leadership. They obviously wanted people closer to the authorities." The Mosque leadership complied reluctantly. Kazimov refused to discuss with Forum 18 why the authorities have yet again forcibly transferred a Sunni Muslim mosque to new, Shia-led leadership. Police have refused to explain why they raided the Mosque and seized religious literature weeks after the enforced transfer. In January a Jehovah's Witness was fined more than three months' average wage for discussing his faith on the street, the latest in a series of heavy fines for exercising the right to freedom of religion.

AZERBAIJAN: Latest secret police prisoners – two female Jehovah's Witnesses

In a sudden closed hearing on 17 February, a Judge in the Azerbaijani capital Baku ordered two female Jehovah's Witnesses to be held for three months in the National Security Ministry secret police investigation prison, according to the decisions seen by Forum 18 News Service. Irina Zakharchenko and Valida Jabrayilova face up to five years' imprisonment if convicted of offering religious literature without state permission. "Under our laws, spreading religious books is banned," Colonel Isfandiyar Mehbaliyev, head of the District Police in Pirallahi, where the women were initially detained, told Forum 18. He refused to say if this means that the state regards offering religious literature to others as dangerous and a threat to state security. On 18 February a Judge in Sumgait sentenced Sunni Muslim Zohrab Shikhaliyev to six months' imprisonment on weapons charges. His friends insisted to Forum 18 that police planted the weapons to punish him for maintaining a prayer room in his home. Sumgait has no Sunni Muslim mosque.

AZERBAIJAN: Nakhichevan detentions without trial, beatings and attempted kidnapping

Three Muslims who read the works of the late Turkish theologian Said Nursi were freed from prison on 11 February in the Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhichevan. Two were seized in Nakhichevan and the third in Baku and transferred to the exclave. All three were held without any court approval. They were beaten to force them to "confess" to a "crime" (distributing anti-government leaflets) one of their friends insisted to Forum 18 News Service they had nothing to do with. Police have confiscated passports from all three to prevent them leaving the exclave. A fourth fled to Turkey to evade possible arrest, though Azerbaijani police tried to kidnap him there. The Head of Nakhichevan's Department for Work with Religious Organisations Vuqar Babayev declined to discuss the cases with Forum 18. About six of the 200 or so Muslims arrested in November 2014 are still in detention, Yafez Akramoglu of Radio Free Europe told Forum 18. Several are being investigated on treason charges. Most of the 50 Nakhichevan mosques forcibly closed in November 2014 have reopened, but under new leadership "closer to the authorities".