F18News: Azerbaijan – Criminal trial resumes for Jehovah’s Witness

FORUM 18 NEWS SERVICE, Oslo, Norway

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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Friday 7 July 2006
AZERBAIJAN: CRIMINAL TRIAL RESUMES FOR JEHOVAH’S WITNESS

Mushfiq Mammedov, a 23-year-old Jehovah’s Witness who wants to be allowed
to do alternative service in line with Azerbaijan’s constitution and
international obligations rather than compulsory military service, faces
up to two years in prison if convicted. His trial at Baku’s Sabail
District Court, which began on 30 June, resumes on 12 July. "We don’t know
how the hearing will go – nor how long the case will last," his mother
Sevil Najafova told Forum 18 News Service. "Azerbaijan undertook the
obligation to the Council of Europe to adopt a law on alternative service,
and not granting alternative service is a clear violation of this
commitment," Krzysztof Zyman of the Council of Europe told Forum 18. But
Adil Gadjiev of the Human Rights Ombudsperson’s Office in Baku insists
Azerbaijan is doing nothing wrong. "Signing such commitments doesn’t mean
we have to accept these rights without a corresponding law."

AZERBAIJAN: CRIMINAL TRIAL RESUMES FOR JEHOVAH’S WITNESS

By Felix Corley, Forum 18 News Service <;

The criminal trial of 23-year-old Jehovah’s Witness, Mushfiq Mammedov, for
refusing military service on grounds of religious conscience resumes in
Baku on 12 July. "We don’t know how the hearing will go – nor how long the
case will last," his mother Sevil Najafova told Forum 18 News Service from
the Azerbaijani capital on 7 July. "Mushfiq is ready to do alternative
service in line with his religious convictions – indeed, he wrote to the
military commissariat to tell them he wants to do so."

Article 76 part 2 of Azerbaijan’s Constitution states: "If beliefs of
citizens come into conflict with service in the army then in some cases
envisaged by legislation alternative service instead of regular army
service is permitted." However, in defiance of its commitments to the
Council of Europe, Azerbaijan does not have a law allowing exemption from
military service on grounds of conscience.

Adil Gadjiev, who works on alternative service cases at the Human Rights
Ombudsperson’s office, insisted that without a law on alternative service
this constitutional right cannot apply. "This doesn’t mean we’re against
alternative service," he told Forum 18 from Baku on 7 July. "But there’s
an undeclared war going on with Armenia and millions of refugees from that
conflict. Signing such commitments doesn’t mean we have to accept these
rights without a corresponding law." (Most estimates put the number of
ethnic Azerbaijani refugees from Armenia itself and parts of Azerbaijan
under the control of ethnic Armenians at 700,000.)

"Azerbaijan undertook the obligation to the Council of Europe to adopt a
law on alternative service, and not granting alternative service is a
clear violation of this commitment," Krzysztof Zyman, an official of the
Council of Europe’s Directorate General of Human Rights who has been
handling this issue, told Forum 18 from Strasbourg on 7 July.

However, under international pressure, a law is belatedly being prepared.
"The Council of Europe has been informed that a law on alternative service
is being prepared in Azerbaijan," he told Forum 18. "We are looking forward
to having the chance to study the text of the proposed law in the near
future to ensure that all European standards on alternative service are
met."

Urging the authorities to implement promptly Azerbaijan’s obligation to
establish alternative service and to end prosecutions based on
individuals’ religious beliefs is Eldar Zeynalov, the director of the
Baku-based Human Rights Centre of Azerbaijan. He has taken up Mammedov’s
case, stressing to Forum 18 in May that his beliefs "coincide with
obligations which Azerbaijan has undertaken to the Council of Europe and
in its Constitution".

Mammedov was arrested on 28 April, nine months after telling Sabail
District Military Commissariat in Baku that he was unable to perform
compulsory military service on grounds of his religious conviction. He
demanded instead to be allowed to perform alternative service guaranteed
by Article 76 part 2 of the Constitution, which states: "If beliefs of
citizens come into conflict with service in the army then in some cases
envisaged by legislation alternative service instead of regular army
service is permitted." This was refused.

On the day of his arrest he was also formally charged under Article 321.1
of the Criminal Code, which punishes evasion of military service with a
sentence of up to two years’ imprisonment (see F18News 12 May 2006
< e_id=779>).

Najafova said her son was held in Baku’s Bayil investigation prison, but
was freed by a court decision on 26 May and placed instead under house
arrest as he awaited trial. The trial began at Sabail District Court after
several postponements with a preliminary hearing on 30 June, which was
attended by Najafova. "The hearing was conducted correctly and
honourably," she told Forum 18. She said witnesses from the Military
Commissariat told the court they had not intended to follow through on
their threats to have her son imprisoned, but had merely intended to
intimidate him into signing up for military service.

Gadjiev told Forum 18 that the ombudsperson’s office had issued an
"official appeal" to the court on Mammedov’s behalf, urging a "just
consideration of the case in line with all our laws". He declined to
explain what that meant. "Our law on the ombudsperson’s office says we
cannot interfere in court decisions," Gadjiev told Forum 18. "This is
already more than we could do." He also claimed that officials of his
office had met Mammedov since his release from Bayil prison and he had
agreed to serve in the army.

However, Mammedov’s family reject this. They told Forum 18 that such
pressure was put on him while in prison that he signed a paper that he
would serve in the army. "He was in shock and signed. But he wants to
serve his country by doing alternative service," they insisted. "We are
under such pressure."

Another Jehovah’s Witness conscientious objector, Mahir Bagirov, faced
criminal prosecution for refusing military service (see F18News 10
February 2005 < 507>). He
lost all cases in court, and left Azerbaijan in 2005 to avoid further
legal moves against him.

The authorities have long regarded the Jehovah’s Witnesses with suspicion.
Press attacks remain frequent and in 2005 a number of their meetings were
raided by police, while individual Jehovah’s Witnesses were questioned,
detained and threatened. A number of Protestant communities faced similar
police raids (see F18News 16 November 2005
< e_id=689>).

Although far fewer police raids on Protestants and Jehovah’s Witnesses
have been reported this year, in late April police raided a Protestant
house church in Baku.

Azerbaijan already has tight restrictions on religious activity which
violate the country’s international human rights obligations. However
Rafik Aliev, until recently the head of the State Committee for Work with
Religious Organisations, was determined to tighten government controls
still further. With Aliev’s removal by President Ilham Aliev (no relation)
at the end of June, religious minorities have told Forum 18 that they hope
the situation will become easier for them.

An official of the State Committee, who would not give his name, told
Forum 18 on 7 July that the deputy chairman, Elchin Askerov, is the
committee’s temporary acting head. The official said it is not yet known
who will take over as head, nor when the appointment will be made. He said
he did not know why Rafik Aliev had been removed from the post. (END)

For a personal commentary, by an Azeri Protestant, on how the
international community can help establish religious freedom in
Azerbaijan, see < 482>

For more background information see Forum 18’s Azerbaijan religious
freedom survey at < 92>

A printer-friendly map of Azerbaijan is available at
< s/atlas/index.html?Parent=asia&Rootmap=azerba& gt;
(END)

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