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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

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AZERBAIJAN: "Torture is nothing new, but insulting Allah is crossing a red line"

After the jailing of a Muslim Unity Movement member for six years, police seized and tortured two of his supporters outside the Baku courtroom. "They put their hands through the sack and pulled out my beard. I was insulted with the crudest of obscene words. They also insulted Allah," one of the two, Suleyman Alakbarov, recounted. In protest, the Movement's leader, prisoner of conscience Taleh Bagirov, began a hunger strike. "Torture is nothing new, but insulting Allah is crossing a red line," said Bagirov's wife Leyla Ismayilzade.

AZERBAIJAN: Treason case against Imam Sardar Babayev "clearly fabricated"

The State Security Ministry secret police arrested Shia Muslim Imam Sardar Babayev in October 2021 on treason charges. On 14 April, a Baku court extended pre-trial detention for a further five months. Human rights defender Elshan Hasanov described the treason case against Imam Babayev as "clearly fabricated". "No one believes Sardar Babayev is an Iranian spy," said exiled human rights defender Arif Yunus. Imam Babayev has already served a three-year jail term for leading mosque prayers after gaining Islamic education outside Azerbaijan.

AZERBAIJAN: Direct regime employing and firing imams is "role of a religious organisation"

In the first known use of new powers for appointing, re-appointing every five years, and firing all Islamic clergy, in early May, the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations fired Imam Mirseymur Aliyev in Neftchala. He had held end of Ramadan prayers on 3 May, not the regime-enforced date of 2 May. Lawyer Asabali Mustafayev noted that the regime taking direct control of Islamic clergy means that "the state is now playing the role of a religious organisation."

AZERBAIJAN: State appointment of all imams now in law

On 11 March, President Ilham Aliyev signed further Religion Law amendments handing responsibility for naming prayer leaders in all mosques from the Caucasian Muslim Board to the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations. A State Committee official says "it has not yet been decided which [State Committee] Department will name imams". Told that Forum 18 was unaware of any Muslims demanding that the state name imams, the official responded: "How do you know?" Commentator Kanan Rovshanoglu says the amendments "mean that religious activity will increasingly be concentrated in the hands of the state". The UN Human Rights Committee issued two further rulings that Azerbaijan violated the rights of Jehovah's Witnesses to freedom of religion or belief.

AZERBAIJAN: Imam's pre-trial imprisonment extended in treason case

A Baku court has extended pre-trial imprisonment for Shia imam Sardar Babayev until April. The secret police arrested the former prisoner of conscience in October 2021 and is investigating him on criminal charges of treason. Six other arrested Shia preachers were freed and criminal cases dropped. "It's a question of relations between Azerbaijan and Iran," a commentator noted, but insists charges of treason are unfounded. "If someone has sympathy for Iran, does it make them an Iranian agent?" A Baku mosque police closed in October 2021 on alleged coronavirus grounds remains closed. A spokesperson said police close mosques, "but we do so when we get a request from the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations".

AZERBAIJAN: State takes direct control of mosque leadership

The State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations will take over naming imams in all mosques from the Caucasian Muslim Board if amendments to the Religion Law awaiting their second reading in Parliament are approved. The amendments would also give the State Committee the leading role in re-appointing all imams every five years. Commentator on religious issues Kanan Rovshanoglu notes that the Caucasian Muslim Board "will completely lose control over mosques", just as it has already lost control over Islamic higher education. He argues that Islamic communities themselves should choose their own imams. Another amendment would remove the possibility for non-Muslim communities to have a "religious centre" or headquarter body.

AZERBAIJAN: Alternative service "not under discussion" despite latest ECtHR decision

Despite another European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) decision that Azerbaijan violated the human rights of two more conscientious objectors, Saadat Novruzova of the Presidential Administration's Human Rights Protection Unit told Forum 18 that changing the law to introduce a civilian alternative to compulsory military service "is not under discussion". Azerbaijan committed to the Council of Europe to introduce an alternative service by January 2003. The 7 October ECtHR decision reminded Azerbaijan of a similar earlier decision that "calls in principle for legislative action" to satisfy "the obligations incumbent on it of assuring .. the right to benefit from the right to conscientious objection".

AZERBAIJAN: "They hold services and pray there, but without a congregation"

Azerbaijani military forces have blocked Armenian Apostolic Church pilgrims' access to Sunday worship at Dadivank Monastery since 2 May, citing first coronavirus, then a blocked road because of a landslip. "They do not want Dadivank to function as a Christian monastery, but they can't say directly that they don't want this," Nagorno-Karabakh's Bishop Vrtanes Abrahamian stated. "So they use technical issues." The Monastery, in Azerbaijani territory close to the ethnic Armenian-controlled unrecognised entity of Nagorno-Karabakh, is home to six monks and is protected by Russian peacekeepers.

AZERBAIJAN: Religion Law amendments "more controlling mechanisms"

On 16 June, President Ilham Aliyev signed into law Religion Law and Administrative Code changes introducing new restrictions on freedom of religion and belief. These include requiring the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations to approve the appointment of all non-Islamic religious leaders and to take part in the re-attestation of all clerics of the state-controlled Caucasian Muslim Board every five years. "Most provisions of the amendments are quite restrictive and raise the question as to whether they are the right policy," human rights defender Rasul Jafarov commented. "Our opinion is that they are not, as they violate all international standards."

AZERBAIJAN: 9 new Strasbourg judgments, 9 judgments awaited - list

The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) in Strasbourg issued judgments in May and June in eight freedom of religion or belief cases, finding that Azerbaijan had violated human rights and ordering compensation. One of the lawyers in seven of the cases, Asabali Mustafayev, said that all involved were "a little dissatisfied" with the ECtHR judgments, as the Court had not looked at all aspects of the violations included in the cases. The Court dismissed a ninth case. Nine other freedom of religion and belief cases from Azerbaijan are awaiting judgments.

AZERBAIJAN: A Strasbourg Court judgment alone "is not enough for justice"

After the latest European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) judgments that Azerbaijan violated freedom of religion and belief, the regime is imposing more restrictions in Religion Law changes. "The judgment of the Court alone is not enough for justice," a lawyer who wished to remain anonymous for fear of state reprisals told Forum 18. "The government's failure to fulfil its ECtHR obligations is a serious issue," says another lawyer, Asabali Mustafayev. "The Council of Europe and other international organisations are not insistent enough, so the government gets away with flouting [its obligations]."

AZERBAIJAN: Azerbaijan blocks ordination in Armenian monastery

Azerbaijan's military blocked Armenian pilgrims visiting Dadivank Monastery for Sunday worship on 25 April and the ordination of a priest. The monastery is in territory returned to Azerbaijani control after 2020 fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh. Russian peacekeepers accompany pilgrims to Dadivank, but "They too were surprised" by the sudden denial of access, says Nagorno-Karabakh's Ombudsperson, Gegham Stepanyan. The ordination had to be moved to another monastery. Azerbaijan's Defence Ministry has not responded on why it blocked access to Dadivank.

AZERBAIJAN: State to have veto on religious leader appointments?

The State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations would acquire a veto over non-Islamic religious communities' appointment of leaders under Religion Law amendments due for their first parliamentary reading on 23 April. It would also be involved in re-attesting Muslim Board clerics every five years. Only communities with a religious centre (headquarters) – requiring five state-registered communities in different locations – would be allowed to apply to have foreign citizens as religious leaders, establish religious educational establishments or organise visits by their adherents abroad.

AZERBAIJAN: Will regime implement UN, European Court of Human Rights decisions?

The UN Human Rights Committee adopted two decisions in favour of four Jehovah's Witnesses, requiring not only that Azerbaijan repay their fines and court fees but review "its domestic legislation, regulations and/or practices" to ensure similar violations cannot recur. Dozens of European Court of Human Rights judgments in freedom of religion or belief cases similarly require changes to law and practice to implement the decisions. The regime has given no public indication of any changes to law and practice to prevent further violations.

AZERBAIJAN: 37 freedom of religion cases pending at ECtHR

Pending at the European Court of Human Rights are 37 known cases relating to violations of freedom of religion or belief, involving 64 individuals (one twice) and 4 communities. A decision is expected on 22 October in the case of Nina Gridneva, fined for offering religious literature on the street. Other cases cover punishments for leading mosque prayers and holding religious meetings, refusing compulsory military service on grounds of conscience and the state's religious censorship.

AZERBAIJAN: Regime admits freedom of religion and belief violations to ECtHR

In nine cases concluded in September at the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), Azerbaijan admitted it violated freedom of religion or belief and the ECtHR has closed the cases. Yet, as lawyer Khalid Agaliyev noted, despite many ECtHR judgments against Azerbaijan, "we don't see any follow-up from these judgments. We want the general human rights situation to change under the influence of these judgments. Unfortunately, this is not happening".

AZERBAIJAN: Strasbourg Court rules long pre-trial detention "excessive"

The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg has ruled in three cases in 2020 that Azerbaijan violated the rights of 13 individuals by subjecting them to excessively long pre-trial detention, and ordered compensation. Five of these had been detained for exercising freedom of religion or belief. Imam Taleh Bagirov – who was tortured in pre-trial detention – and Zakir Mustafayev are still serving jail terms.

AZERBAIJAN: Will fired parliamentary staffer be reinstated?

Former parliamentary staffer Rahim Akhundov says he was fired in December 2018 on secret police orders as he is a Christian. Courts – most recently Baku Appeal Court on 10 June 2020 - rejected arguments that his unsigned dismissal letter is illegal, and he could not appeal earlier as Parliament sent the letter nine months late. He will appeal to the Supreme Court when he receives the written appeal rejection.

AZERBAIJAN: Will regime implement alternative service commitment?

Ruling party deputy Siyavush Novruzov told parliament on 30 March that an Alternative Service Law should be adopted. Parliament's Defence Committee is handling this, he told Forum 18. The government has not made public any draft. Azerbaijan committed to the Council of Europe to have alternative service by 2003 but failed to meet its obligation. Jehovah's Witnesses say criminal cases against their conscientious objectors are not being pursued.

AZERBAIJAN: "No objection" to limited worship, but no legal right

After 25 years, Aliabad's Baptist community, denied legal status the longest, finally began open worship in January. The State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations wrote that it had "no objection" to meetings once a week for two hours. Shia Imam Sardar Babayev, freed after a three-year sentence for preaching in a mosque with foreign education, will not resume preaching for fear of renewed criminal prosecution.

AZERBAIJAN: European court fines regime for religious censorship

The European Court of Human Rights ordered Azerbaijan to compensate Jehovah's Witnesses over an import ban on three publications. Muslim theologian Elshad Miri lodged a case to the Court over the 2018 ban on his book on Islam. The State Committee – which implements the compulsory prior religious censorship – allowed Miri to publish only 3,000 copies of his next book. Customs destroyed a Georgian Orthodox book.

AZERBAIJAN: Large fine amid continuing religious censorship

A Baku court fined Kamran Huseynzade four months' average wages for selling religious books outside a mosque without state permission. The head of the censorship department at the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations lamented that only 42 of 100 places selling religious literature have the required state licence. All published and imported religious literature is subject to prior compulsory censorship.

AZERBAIJAN: Censorship case to join 54 other ECtHR cases?

After failing in the Supreme Court to overturn a state ban on his book on Islam, Elshad Miri is preparing a case to the European Court of Human Rights. It would join 54 existing cases at the Strasbourg court (involving 89 individuals and 7 communities) over Azerbaijan's repeated freedom of religion or belief violations.

AZERBAIJAN: Appeal court upholds couple's massive fines

Shirvan Appeal Court rejected the appeals by a Baptist husband and wife against fines of more than three months' average wages each for having religious literature and holding a New Year children's meeting without state permission. Three Protestants were fined for a study meeting in a Sheki home. A Muslim in Sheki failed to overturn a fine for teaching Islam.

AZERBAIJAN: Appeals fail against illegal raids, fines

Baptist Pastor from Aliabad Hamid Shabanov has failed to overturn a fine for hosting religious meetings without compulsory state permission. The Constitutional Court again rejected his appeal. Four Jehovah's Witnesses failed in their civil suit seeking redress for the police's illegal entry without a court order or search warrant, their "detention, verbal insults and humiliation", and literature seizure.

AZERBAIJAN: Book censorship appeal still in Supreme Court

Theologian Elshad Miri's Supreme Court suit to overturn the state's ban on publishing his book on Islam resumes on 25 June. At a May hearing, the state lawyer "was unable to give a reasoned refutation of our arguments", Miri's lawyer said. Mammad Ramazanov lost his appeal against a large fine for "illegal" distribution of religious books.

AZERBAIJAN: Supreme Court rejects conscientious objectors' appeals

Two Jehovah's Witnesses – given one-year suspended prison terms and living under restrictions for refusing compulsory military service on grounds of conscience – failed to overturn their criminal convictions at the Supreme Court in April. Shia Imam Sardar Babayev, jailed for leading Muslim worship after gaining religious education outside Azerbaijan, awaits a European Court of Human Rights decision.

AZERBAIJAN: Six years already, nearly six months more

Rearrested days before a six year jail term for protesting against a ban on schoolgirls wearing headscarves ended, Telman Shiraliyev was sentenced to an additional nearly six month term. "The trial was short and took place without a lawyer as his family is too poor to afford one," human rights defender Elshan Hasanov told Forum 18.

AZERBAIJAN: Religious freedom survey, November 2018

Azerbaijan restricts freedom of religion and belief, with interlinked freedoms of expression, association, and assembly. Forum 18's survey analyses violations including prisoners of conscience jailed and tortured for exercising freedom of religion and belief, strict state literature censorship, and regime claims of its "tolerance".

AZERBAIJAN: Fines, censorship amid state control of Islam

Agsu court fined three Muslims after state religious affairs officials and secret police raided a home religious meeting. A Baku court rejected theologian Elshad Miri's appeal against a state ban on his book on Islam. The government must explain to the European Court of Human Rights why it jailed Sardar Babayev for leading mosque prayers.

AZERBAIJAN: Second 2018 conscientious objector conviction

On 6 September, a court in western Azerbaijan handed a criminal conviction to a second Jehovah's Witness conscientious objector. Vahid Abilov received a one-year suspended prison term and will be under probation for one year. He is planning to appeal. Three more similar cases might follow.

AZERBAIJAN: Heavy fines for selling unapproved literature

Samad Alikhanov and Zahir Mirzayev were fined up to five months' average wages for offering religious literature for sale without state permission. The literature was confiscated. On 18 September a Baku court resumes hearing theologian Elshad Miri's suit against the State Committee pre-publication ban on his book on Islam.

AZERBAIJAN: Conscientious objector's criminal conviction – more to follow?

18-year-old Jehovah's Witness Emil Mehdiyev repeatedly expressed willingness to perform a civilian alternative to compulsory military service. Instead he was given a criminal conviction, a one-year suspended prison term, and will be under probation for one year. Seven similar criminal cases against other young men are with Prosecutor's Offices.

AZERBAIJAN: Theologian challenges state's book ban

Muslim theologian Elshad Miri is challenging in court the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations decision to ban one of his books on theological grounds. The Committee operates the prior compulsory censorship of all religious materials. A court fined another bookshop owner for selling religious literature without permission.

AZERBAIJAN: Raids on mosques, jailings, fines

Secret police, police and religious affairs officials raided and closed another "illegal" mosque in Baku, complaining that young people "were involved in religious ceremonies". The secret police are investigating the owner. A Sheki court issued four one-month jailings and fines for protests against a plan to turn a mosque into a museum.

AZERBAIJAN: Extra prison term for Koran micro-discs

A Court added 10 weeks to prisoner of conscience Taleh Bagirov's 20-year prison term for having micro-discs of the Koran in his cell. The Supreme Court rejected Sardar Babayev's appeal against a three-year prison term for leading mosque prayers while having foreign religious education. Six months after a Court ordered compensation for illegal imprisonment, two Jehovah's Witnesses have received nothing.

AZERBAIJAN: State's theological review bans book on Islam

The State Committee for Work With Religious Organisations – which implements the state's prior compulsory censorship of all religious literature – banned a book on Islam by Muslim theologian Elshad Miri. An official deemed it "unsuitable for publication" because he disagreed with it theologically.

AZERBAIJAN: Sufis raided, initial fine, Protestants raided

Sufi Muslim Rashad Abidov was fined in Sheki for hosting a religious meeting raided by police, but managed to overturn the fine on appeal. Police raided Star in the East Pentecostal Church in Gyanja during Sunday worship. Police phoned the schools of children present. Fines might follow.

AZERBAIJAN: Four state agencies raid religious communities

Alongside police, secret police and State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations, a growing role in raids on religious communities and prosecutions seems to be played by Religious Affairs Commissions attached to local administrations. Fines of three months' average wages often follow raids.

AZERBAIJAN: Fines follow police raids on worship

Azerbaijan continues to raid religious communities meeting without state permission, and large fines are normally then imposed. After one such raid an Aliabad Baptist has been told he must pay a fine of over three months average salary by the end of 2017.

AZERBAIJAN: Torture unpunished; compensation for imprisonment

Muslim Unity Movement deputy leader Abbas Huseynov was beaten and handcuffed "as if crucified" in Qobustan Prison's punishment cell. Appeals brought "no result". Movement leader Taleh Bagirov was sent to punishment cell for requesting a doctor. A Baku court compensated two Jehovah's Witnesses for their year's imprisonment.

AZERBAIJAN: Three years' jail for leading prayers

Sardar Babayev was jailed for three years for leading mosque prayers because he was educated abroad, the first known punishment for this "crime". Religion Law amendments now allow state exceptions to the ban. Two acquitted Jehovah's Witnesses, who spent a year in prison, offered no compensation.

AZERBAIJAN: Fined for home religious meetings, picnic

More than 20 Muslims, fined three months' average wages for a religious meeting in a home in Quba, failed in their appeals. A Baptist Pastor similarly fined will appeal to the Constitutional Court. A Muslim was fined for reading religious books aloud at a picnic.

AZERBAIJAN: Fined for selling religious books

Kifayat Maharramova was fined four months' average wages in Gyanja in early May for selling religious books and discs without the state permission required to sell religious books or items. Police and State Religion Committee officials often confiscate religious books in raids.

AZERBAIJAN: Five years' jail for leading worship?

In the first known use of punishments on foreign-educated Muslims for leading worship, Shia Imam Sardar Babayev faces up to five years' imprisonment if convicted. Educated in Iran, he led Friday prayers at a Masalli mosque. Arrested on 22 February, he is in pre-trial detention.

AZERBAIJAN: Regime jails Muslims, doesn't arrest torturers

Eighteen people accused of association with the Muslim Unity Movement have been given long jail terms on fabricated charges. Other trials are continuing. Despite Azerbaijan's binding international human rights obligations, no officials have been arrested or put on criminal trial for torturing those convicted.

AZERBAIJAN: Police claim "everything was done well"

Three Jehovah's Witnesses, two Baptists, and a bookseller have each been fined three to four months' average wages. Their "offences" include discussing beliefs, offering religious literature, and meeting for prayer. And an unlicensed mosque has been raided and had allegedly "superstitious" items confiscated.

AZERBAIJAN: Raids, fines enforce state religious censorship

At least 26 shops and 6 homes raided for religious literature sold or distributed without having undergone compulsory censorship by or in places not licensed by State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations. Some individuals already punished. UN Human Rights Committee concerned over religious censorship.

AZERBAIJAN: 34 fines for "illegal" religious meeting

34 attendees at an "illegal" home meeting for worship on the most sacred annual observance for Jehovah's Witnesses were fined nearly a year's official minimum wage. The leader of a Sunni mosque in Baku forcibly closed in July has failed to overturn his fine.

AZERBAIJAN: Police, officials close Sunni home mosques

Police, SSS secret police, State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations and local administration officials forcibly closed a home Sunni mosque in Qobustan near Baku, the latest Sunni Mosque closed. The mosque leader is appealing against a large fine for leading an unregistered community.

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