Former prisoners of consciences' homes raided, literature confiscated

Police in Azerbaijan raided a meeting for Baptist worship in the home of former prisoner of conscience Zaur Balaev on 7 November, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. The raid in Aliabad took place as Balaev and his wife Nunuka were in Moscow, where she is undergoing cancer treatment. Police detained and questioned one Baptist, as well as seizing religious literature including New Testaments. In a simultaneous raid on another home in the village, police seized more religious literature and questioned another former prisoner of conscience, Hamid Shabanov. Local police refused to discuss with Forum 18 why they had raided the two homes and seized literature including New Testaments. State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations spokesperson Orhan Ali claimed that if nothing illegal is found in the books, they will be returned. "This is not censorship," he insisted to Forum 18.

Police raided a meeting for Baptist worship in the home of former prisoner of conscience Zaur Balaev on 7 November, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. The raid, which took place in Aliabad in north-western Azerbaijan, came as Balaev and his wife Nunuka were in Moscow, where she is undergoing cancer treatment. Police detained and questioned one Baptist, as well as seizing religious literature. In a simultaneous raid on another Baptist-owned home in the village, police seized more religious literature and questioned another former prisoner of conscience, Hamid Shabanov. Local police refused to discuss with Forum 18 why they had raided the two homes and seized religious literature.


At 11 am on 7 November, police from the regional centre of Zakatala [Zaqatala] raided two Baptist-owned homes in Aliabad, which is about 15 kms (10 miles) away.

About ten officers arrived at Balaev's home in his absence, where about eight local church members were gathered, fellow-Baptist Ramiz Osmanov told Forum 18 from Aliabad on 7 November. Officers showed the Baptists a search warrant, then took pictures of the premises and seized about 17 items of Christian literature, including New Testaments and hand-written notebooks.

"They told us it is illegal to meet without registration," Osmanov told Forum 18. "They said they would check the books by sending them for religious expert analysis by the State Committee in the capital Baku, and would return them if there is nothing harmful." He said the officers were respectful.

Both Osmanov and a woman present were forced to write a statement about what church members had been doing, but only Osmanov was taken to Zakatala Police Station for questioning. He was freed after an hour and a half, he told Forum 18. Officers did not indicate whether or not any administrative or criminal charges would be brought against those present at the meeting.

At about the same time as Balaev's home was raided, other police officers – many in civilian clothes - raided the nearby home of the Shabanov family. Only Hamid Shabanov and his wife were at home. "They told us we meet for worship illegally as we have no registration," he told Forum 18 from Aliabad on 8 November.

Officers confiscated New Testaments in Azeri and Georgian (many inhabitants of the region, like Shabanov, are native Georgian speakers), as well as Russian-language Bibles and other Christian literature and cassettes. "They drew up a list of the books they had seized, saying they would send the literature to the State Committee in Baku. But when I asked at the police station for a copy of the list they said the copier was broken and that they would give me a copy in the next few days," Shabanov told Forum 18.

"They told me that if the books were legal, they would be returned. If they were not, I would be fined," he added.

Shabanov said that – like Osmanov - he had been taken to Zakatala Police Station, where he was held until 5 pm that day. He said his wife had chosen to accompany him. Both husband and wife were required to write statements.

Prisoners of conscience

Balaev was imprisoned from May 2007 to March 2008 on charges he and his community insisted were fabricated to punish him for exercising his freedom of religion or belief (see F18News 19 March 2008 Shabanov was held in pre-trial detention from June to November 2008 while being investigated. In February 2009 he was given a two-year suspended sentence on charges he and his fellow-Baptists insisted were fabricated to punish him for exercising his freedom of religion or belief (see F18News 12 February 2009 Both trials were marked by multiple violations of the rule of law and legal procedure.

Police: no comment

Arif Babayev has been Police Chief of Zakatala Region Police since December 2011, replacing Faik Shabanov (no relation of Hamid). Babayev's telephone went unanswered each time Forum 18 called between 7 and 9 November. Reached on 7 November, the duty officer at Zakatala Regional Police refused to answer any of Forum 18's questions about the raids. He also refused to put Forum 18 through to any senior officers who might be able to explain why two homes were raided and why religious literature was seized.

Orhan Ali, spokesperson for the State Committee in Baku, insisted the raids in Aliabad were nothing to do with it. "What the police do is not our business," he told Forum 18 from Baku on 8 November. "It's their affair. Our task is to check the books which are sent to us."

Literature censorship

The country's Jehovah's Witness have failed in a legal attempt to seek damages from the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations for censorship of imported religious books and magazines (see F18News 12 November 2012 The State Committee operates Azerbaijan's strict prior compulsory censorship of all religious literature produced, distributed, and imported, in defiance of its international human rights obligations (see Forum 18's Azerbaijan religious freedom survey at

"Not censorship"?

Religious literature is frequently seized from private individuals, not just as in Aliabad on 7 November. On 31 May, police and National Security Ministry (NSM) secret police raided Zeka Miragayev's Baku home in his absence and without a warrant. They seized copies of the Koran and books by Muslim authors, including the late Turkish theologian Said Nursi (see eg. F18News 11 July 2012 As of 9 November, Miragayev's books had still not been returned, his friends told Forum 18 from Baku.

Asked why such religious literature seizures keep occurring, State Committee spokesperson Ali responded: "Maybe there is something [bad] in these books – we don't know what's in them." He added that if nothing illegal is found in them, they will be returned. "This is not censorship," he insisted to Forum 18.

Ali confirmed that "of course" the State Committee maintains a list of banned religious books. "There are Muslim and other books, not just Jehovah's Witness books," he told Forum 18. When Forum 18 told him it had repeatedly sought a copy of the list from the State Committee in vain, as had residents of Azerbaijan, Ali said that an "official request" for a copy should be sent. Forum 18 has asked in writing for a copy previously, and did so again on 8 November.

No state permission to exist

Baptists in Aliabad are the religious community known to Forum 18 as the longest to be seeking registration in vain. Their repeated attempts since 1994 to gain legal status have been repeatedly obstructed by officials at local and national level (see F18News 13 April 2012

"Officials told us that, after 2011's change in the law, we now need 50 adult citizens to apply for registration," Shabanov stated to Forum 18. "We don't have enough people for this." He said many church members had had to migrate to other places in Azerbaijan or abroad, because of the lack of work locally.

The increase in the number of required founders from 10 adult citizens to 50 came in the amendments to the Religion Law adopted by Parliament in June 2011, and published on 4 July 2011 after being signed into law by President Ilham Aliev (see F18News 27 July 2011

Last-ditch appeal

Baku's Greater Grace Protestant Church, which was ordered liquidated through the courts at the State Committee's request, is still waiting for a date for its last-ditch appeal at Azerbaijan's Supreme Court, community members told Forum 18 from Baku on 9 November.

The Church lodged its appeal on 15 October after failing in its challenge to liquidation in two lower courts (see F18News 23 October 2012

Re-registration "continuing"

Ali of the State Committee rejected suggestions that his colleagues were slow or inefficient at processing the compulsory re-registration applications. These were filed by very large numbers of religious communities before the Religion Law's end 2009 deadline, but have not yet been processed.

Only six religious communities are known to have achieved state registration in 2012 (see F18News 28 June 2012

Ali insisted that the re-registration process "is continuing". But he refused to discuss why no Baptist or Jehovah's Witness communities, for example, have been able to gain re-registration, or why Muslim communities independent of the state-backed Caucasian Muslim Board are banned.

Ali rejected suggestions that the State Committee selectively denies re-registration to religious communities it does not like. "It is not true – there is no discrimination," he claimed to Forum 18.


Struck, But not Discouraged

On July 31, the court of appeal in Baku, Azerbaijan, upheld the decision of the lower court, which liquidated Greater Grace Protestant Church on April 26th. Although all church activities are now deemed illegal, God’s people at Greater Grace are not giving up. Pastor Fuad speculates that the judge’s decision was forced and already has plans to appeal to the Supreme Court of Azerbaijan, and to the European Court on Human Rights if necessary. Thank you for your continued prayers and support to help our Christian brothers and sisters in Azerbaijan.

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Christians arrested

The three Baptists - Timofei Aparshev, Nadezhda Ryzhkova and Stepanida Sheludyakova - are all members of the Council of Churches Baptist congregation in the port of Sumgait [Sumqayit]. Council of Churches congregations refuse on principle to seek state registration in any of the former Soviet republics where they operate.

After a conversation with a group of people and distribution of literature, one young man came up to them and asked them to give what they were giving. He then immediately approached the police. The three Baptists were taken to the police station where they were asked the same questions separately. Among those questioning them was Khachmaz Deputy Police Chief Misir Imamaliyev.

After they refused to write a statement, the Representative for Northern Azerbaijan of the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations, Eynulla Nurullayev, arrived and began to question each of them separately. He threatened to file criminal charges under Article 167-2, Part 1 ("Production, sale and distribution of religious literature, religious items and other informational materials of religious nature with the aim of import, sale and distribution without appropriate authorisation"). Part 1 punishes first time "offenders" acting alone.

Punishments are a fine of 5,000 Manats (38,627 Norwegian Kroner, 5,127 Euros, or 6,369 US Dollars) to 7,000 Manats (54,052 Norwegian Kroner, 7,175 Euros, or 8,916 US Dollars), or up to two years' imprisonment. The minimum monthly wage has been 93.50 Manats (685 Norwegian Kroner, 90 Euros, or 119 US Dollars) from 1 December 2011.

At 11 pm on 23 June the three Baptists were taken to the head of the Criminal Investigation Department, who treated them "especially crudely". Police confiscated their passports "so as not to allow them to flee to Russia" according to police. All three are Azerbaijani citizens. They were released from the police station at 1 am on 24 June.

Currently, police say they are collecting materials to institute criminal proceedings, and the case has been transferred to Sumgait Police. The three are expecting to be summoned there for further questioning, church members told Forum 18.



Court liquidates Church

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.



Arson attack

Cathedral of Praise Protestant church in Baku – which claims 1,500 members – has been unable to meet for worship since its tent was destroyed in an apparent arson attack in January, its pastor Rasim Halilov told Forum 18 News Service.

Without a worship building of its own and after rejection of its application for compulsory re-registration with the state as a religious community, Cathedral of Praise Protestant Church in the capital Baku has been unable to hold worship services since January, its pastor Rasim Halilov told Forum 18 News Service. The church has failed in its legal challenge to the re-registration denial and the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations – which enacts the Azerbaijani government's harsh controls on all religious activity – has refused to allow it to rent premises for worship, including from other Christian churches.



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



Wasn't one prison term enough for you?

Baptist former prisoner of conscience Zaur Balaev – freed on 19 March after being held for nearly a year to punish him for leading his congregation – was summoned and threatened with a new prison term in early May, he told Forum 18 News Service on 12 June from his home village of Aliabad in the north-western region of Zakatala [Zaqatala]. "Haven't you learnt from your imprisonment?" Balaev quoted police officers as telling him. "Wasn't one prison term enough for you?" And, in what Balaev says was a clear threat, one officer added: "You may not be afraid, but you've forgotten you've got a wife, daughter and a son."

Balaev said the threats came from Kamandar Hasanov, the deputy regional police chief, and two of his colleagues in Hasanov's office in Zakatala. "They didn't hit me but they were very crude."

Balaev said the police banned his church from meeting, a ban the congregation has defied. Police have continued to visit his church during worship services. "They realise they can't drive us out," he told Forum 18, referring to the fact that all the church members are local people. "But they observe us closely."


Picture: Prisoner Alert


Pastor jailed for two years

On May 20, 2007, Pastor Zaur Balaev was arrested for “conducting an illegal religious meeting” in his home village in Aliabad, Azerbaijan. In August, he was sentenced to two years in prison under Article 315, Part 1, for allegedly violently resisting the police during a raid. The authorities first claimed that Pastor Balaev released a dog on police, but have since claimed he attacked five policemen and damaged a car door.

During the trial, some witnesses reported that police had pressured them into testifying against Pastor Balaev.

Zaur Balaev is 44 years old and married to Nunuka. They have one son (20) and one daughter (15). Zaur became a Christian in 1992. He was the first Christian in Aliabad, a village in northwestern Azerbaijan, and he became the first pastor in the Zaqatala region. He now leads a small church with about 40 members aged between 20 and 35.

Open Doors, Forum 18, Prisoner Alert


Police have refused to protect

Police have refused to protect an Adventist pastor in Nakhichevan (Naxçivan), who has been threatened by local men with death or being driven out of the community. "People phone and come to my house to threaten us but the authorities have refused to help," Pastor Khalid Babaev told Forum 18 News Service. Pastor Babaev fears for the safety of his wife and son, and does not know if it will be safe to hold a service as usual next Saturday. Local Muslims have threatened to sacrifice Babaev as a holy duty and to halt Adventist religious activity in Nakhichevan. If Pastor Babaev holds another service, he has been told that a mob will be collected to attack his house. The police have refused to discuss the threats with Forum 18, or say what they would do to protect church members from the threatened violence.