April 8, 2009
AZERBAIJAN (ANS) -- Police in the central town of Agdash, near Göycay in Azerbaijan, have refused to explain why eight officials, including their officers, raided a peaceful religious meeting in a private home.
Azerbaijan is located in Southwestern Asia, bordering the Caspian Sea, between Iran and Russia, with a small European portion north of the Caucasus range.
A story by Felix Corley for the Forum 18 News Service reported that the police declined to discuss the March 25 raid with the news organization, while the head of the Department for Communications with the Public at the National Security Ministry secret police in the capital Baku, Arif Babaev, denied that his ministry had been involved.
“We never engage in such acts,” he told Forum 18. “We don't carry out such operations – this is false information.” Told that local press reports quoted the local police as declaring that ministry officers were also involved in a “joint operation,”he repeated his denial.
Babaev also denied that his ministry is involved in the refusal to allow the Abu Bekr Mosque in Baku to reopen. “It is not within our competence to open or close mosques,” he claimed.
Others remain skeptical about the ministry's blanket denial of involvement in these two cases and other religious freedom restrictions. “Their work is in secret – they never say when they are involved in activity against religious organizations,” one commentator who asked not to be identified told Forum 18.
As is their practice, officials at the State Committee for Work with Religious Organizations refused to speak to Forum 18. Yagut Alieva, the Committee spokesperson, repeatedly hung the phone up when Forum 18 called. The office of the State Committee representative covering the Sheki-Shirvan region, which includes Agdash, also terminated a telephone call when a reporter from Forum 18 introduced himself.
On the afternoon of March 25, eight men raided the Agdash home of long-standing Baptist Vera Zhuchaeva, who is in her seventies. Church members told Forum 18 that the seven officers were accompanied by the local official of the State Committee for Work with Religious Organizations (the only one to identify himself). Accompanying the eight were two cameramen.
The Baptists told Forum 18 that officers insulted them for their faith. During the raid, one of the police officers told them, “We have long been after you and now we've caught you!”
Baptists claimed that parents had been invited to send their children to Zhuchaeva's home to listen to Bible stories over the Novruz spring festival holiday. They said the 12 children were all there with their parents’ specific permission.
“The police came in and put all the children in one room,” Lilia Hudaverdieva, a visiting member of the Baptist congregation in Baku, told Forum 18. “A police officer, the State Committee official and a teacher questioned the children without allowing the parents to be present, even though some of the children were crying and parents in the homes round about could hear them. They refused to allow the parents to collect their children."
Only once they had written down all the children's names did they allow their parents to take them away.
Forum 18 reported that police confiscated 508 books and 40 film recordings, as well as a player for the recordings. Baptists insisted there was nothing illegal among the books and films – they pointed out that many were Hollywood films on Biblical themes.
Forum 18 said that Hudaverdieva and two other visitors from the Baku congregation, Sara Babaeva and Ofelia Yakulova, were taken to the police station. There they were questioned for four hours, and their identity documents were seized.
Hudaverdieva said police asked them “provocative” questions, but that she and her friends “told them the exact truth.” She said they were not released until midnight.
The three were told to return the following day to the police station to collect their documents. The police took them to the Prosecutor's Office next door, where they were again insulted for their faith and fined.
Agdash District Prosecutor Munis Abuzarli told Forum 18 from the town that the three were found guilty of violating Article 299 of the Code of Administrative Offences for “illegally spreading Christianity and other faiths.” He said each was fined 10 Manats (or 12 U.S. Dollars).
Asked how the three Baptists had violated the law, Abuzarli complained that they taught religion to children.
“You can't attract children to religious activity,” he told Forum 18. Asked why the women had committed an offence, given that the children were present with the specific permission of their parents, he responded, “The law regards this as an offence. If they committed this offence they should be fined in accordance with the law.”
Hudaverdieva complained that because banks were not open over the Novruz holiday, police told the three women that they had to hand over the fines to them in cash.
“We were given no documents about being fined or any receipt when we paid,” she told Forum 18.
She also complained about how the Agdash police presented information about the Baptists' activity to the local media. The raid was shown several times on television, including on the private ATV channel's evening news broadcast on March 27.
Forum 18 said a report also appeared on the website of the Azeri Press Agency (APA) on March 26 (widely picked up by other news outlets), which said the raid had been a “joint operation” of the Agdash District Police and the Agdash District Ministry of National Security.
Included in the APA report were the ages and full home addresses of Zhuchaeva and the three women from Baku. “This was very unfortunate,” Hudaverdieva told Forum 18.
The General Secretary of Azerbaijan's Baptist Union, Elnur Jabiev, went further. “This is dangerous,” he told Forum 18.
He added, “Nationalists will know their addresses. The police should not have given journalists this information.”
Forum 18 said given the refusal of Agdash Police to discuss the raid with the news service, it remains unclear whether this was done deliberately to intimidate the Baptists even further. The authorities have often used journalists to intimidate members of religious minorities, including children.
Hudaverdieva faced further problems when she returned to work after Novruz. She told Forum 18 that the National Security Ministry had informed the parent company of the state-owned firm where she works about her activity in Agdash and the administrative penalty. She said the parent company had contacted her boss, telling him that the company could not have employees who behave in this way.
“I was threatened with losing my job,” she told Forum 18. “But my own boss is good and I was able to explain to him that this was all slander and tell him what actually happened. I told him I'm no criminal.”
Ilya Zenchenko, the head of the Baptist Union, told Forum 18 that leaders from the Baku Baptist church will continue to visit church members in their branch congregation in Agdash.
More Raids on Jehovah's Witnesses
The authorities in various parts of Azerbaijan have also frequently raided Jehovah's Witness meetings in recent months.
Forum 18 reported that on the afternoon of Feb. 22, in the Garachakhuri district of Baku, some 20 people had gathered in the home of Gyulsira Akchurina, on the ninth floor of an apartment complex.
About ten police officers came up and started to knock at the door, demanding that it be opened, Jehovah's Witnesses told Forum 18. When this did not happen, the police, from the hallway outside the apartment, turned off the electricity and gas in the apartment. After two hours the policemen went down one floor and waited there.
In the early evening, when the meeting was over, those present left the apartment together. However, the police were waiting for them on the next floor down. They detained and questioned the group for half an hour, after which they were released.
When Akchurina and Rashida Ismaylova returned to the apartment complex half an hour later, about seven police officers detained them on the fifth floor.
“These policemen, some of whom were in a state of intoxication, behaved very rudely, pushed the women and insulted them,” Jehovah's Witnesses complained.
One of the officers told the two women he was a representative of the Migration Service. He said the police were there because they had information that foreigners attend these meetings.
The following morning, Jehovah's Witnesses told Forum 18, police arrived at the place of work of Rinat Sadigov, who is not a Jehovah's Witness but whose mother Tamilla Sadigova attended the meeting the previous day. The police took Sadigov, as well as his manager, away to a police station, where he was “insulted and hit in the face. The police told Sadigov that he should invite his mother and brother to the police station.
Forum 18 said also during the questioning he was asked whether he knew Mushfig Mammedov. Mammedov is a conscientious objector whose case has been filed with the ECHR. Sadigov was not freed until late afternoon.
On Jan. 29 police raided a Jehovah's Witness meeting elsewhere in Baku, eleven days after a Jehovah's Witness meeting in the village of Sevinj near Gyanja was raided.
Continued Closure of Mosque
Meanwhile, members of the Abu Bekr mosque in Baku's Narimanov District are struggling to try to get the mosque reopened. It was closed by the authorities in the wake of a grenade attack in Aug. 2008 which left several members of the community dead and others injured. Police, the National Security Ministry and the State Committee have said the others ordered it closed..
Forum 18 reported that the mosque community's lawyer, Javanshir Suleymanov, says that the investigation into the attack is long over, so no obstacle to reopening the mosque should remain.
“It should be allowed to reopen now,” he told Forum 18. “They said that it could reopen once the investigation is over, and the National Security Ministry confirmed at the beginning of March that it is indeed over. But a police car and a police post guard the mosque round the clock and it cannot reopen.”
Suleymanov said the community filed its final appeal to the Supreme Court on March 30 over the authorities' refusal to allow it to reopen.
On Feb. 19, Baku's Appeal Court had rejected the community's appeal against a Narimanov District Court decision that the community cannot challenge the closure order. He pledged that if the community loses at the Supreme Court it will take its case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.
Officials who answered the phones of Muradali Babaev, the police chief of the Narimanov District, and his deputy Alekper Ismailov told Forum 18 each time that neither was there. The duty officer declined comment.
Constitutional Changes to Crack Down on “Harmful” Religious Groups
Forum 18 said amid the Constitutional changes put to a referendum on March 18 were several that touched on religion. Article 18 Part 2 of the Constitution was amended with the addition of “religious tendencies” and now reads, “Banned is the spread and propaganda of religions (religious tendencies) degrading the worth of the individual and contradicting the principles of humanity.”
A new Part 5 was added to Article 48, reading "No one may be forced to express (demonstrate) their religious faith and religious convictions, carry out religious rites or take part in them". The Central Election Commission in Baku claims that both of these amendments were backed by more than 87 percent of those who took part in the referendum, according to its website.
Forum 18 said that in the run-up to the referendum, state officials claimed these changes would protect religious freedom and would make it easier to crack down on “harmful” religious groups. Elchin Askerov, the deputy head of the State Committee, told the Day.az news agency that the amendments would “prevent the activity of destructive so-called religious groups.”
He did not explain which groups he believes are “harmful,” nor how he believes these Constitutional amendments will be used in practice.
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