AZERBAIJAN: "Prosecutors Very Much Want To Sentence Hamid"

Felix Corley

Forum 18
July 23 2008

The criminal trial of Baptist pastor Hamid Shabanov began in the
north-western town of Zakatala on 22 July, despite the fact that
the prosecution had refused to hand the defence the case materials,
Baptist Union leader Ilya Zenchenko told Forum 18 News Service. The
trial resumes on 28 July. The same court sentenced fellow Baptist
pastor Zaur Balaev to prison in 2007. Shabanov is being prosecuted on
charges that he held an illegal weapon and faces up to three years’
imprisonment. His church and family insist the weapon was planted
during a massive raid on his home on 20 June during which he was
arrested. They say he is being prosecuted to punish him for leading
his congregation. "Prosecutors very much want to sentence Hamid,"
Zenchenko warned. "This whole case has been staged. We pray to God
for him to come home," Shabanov’s family told Forum 18. Meanwhile
prosecutors in the capital Baku are trying to prosecute Jehovah’s
Witness conscientious objector Mushfiq Mammedov for a second time on
charges of evading military service, although the Constitution and
the Criminal Code ban this.

The criminal trial of Baptist pastor Hamid Shabanov began yesterday
(22 July) with a preliminary hearing in the north-western town of
Zakatala [Zaqatala], Forum 18 News Service has learnt. The full trial –
at which he faces up to three years’ imprisonment – begins on 28 July
and could be over within two days, the head of Azerbaijan’s Baptist
Union Ilya Zenchenko told Forum 18 after the preliminary hearing on 22
July. "Prosecutors very much want to sentence Hamid," he warned. He
views Shabanov’s prosecution as part of an official campaign against
local Baptists which has lasted more than a decade. Meanwhile a police
manhunt has begun for a Jehovah’s Witness conscientious objector
Mushfiq Mammedov, who has already served one sentence for refusing
military service. Prosecutors want to sentence him a second time for
the same offence, although this is banned in law.

Zenchenko – who travelled the 450 kms (280 miles) from the capital Baku
to attend the hour-long hearing – said Shabanov "looked bad". "Hamid
was wearing the same clothes he had been arrested in back on 20 June,"
he told Forum 18. "The Zakatala police who are now holding him have
not allowed his family to pass on food or clothes. Hamid’s wife and
daughters were crying in court – it was the first time they had been
able to see him since he was brought back to Zakatala earlier this
month. Even then they were kept at a distance of three metres [yards]
and were not able to touch him."

Forum 18 was unable to find out from Zakatala police why they had
refused to accept food and clothes for Shabanov and why family visits
had been denied. The duty officer refused to put Forum 18 through to
the police chief Faik Shabanov (no relation) on 23 July. "Why should
I put you through?" he asked, before putting the phone down.

Shabanov is leader of one of several Baptist congregations in the
majority Georgian-speaking village of Aliabad several kilometres
(miles) from Zakatala, the regional centre. The 51-year-old pastor
is married with three adult children, two daughters and a son. He
is being tried at the same court where fellow Aliabad Baptist pastor
Zaur Balaev was sent to prison in 2007.

"We saw him today in court," Shabanov’s family told Forum 18 on 22 July
from their home in Aliabad. They report that about fifteen family and
church members were allowed into the court and say that for the first
time the police did not refuse to accept food and clean clothes for
Shabanov. "We hope they now hand them on to him."

The family insists that all they want is Shabanov back home. "This
whole case has been staged. We pray to God for him to come home."

Zenchenko complained that Shabanov’s lawyer, Mirman Aliev, was only
shown the full case file at the 22 July hearing and can only now
begin to prepare Shabanov’s defence. He said that Shabanov is being
tried under Article 228, part 1 of the Criminal Code, which punishes
illegal holding of a weapon with a sentence of up to three years’
imprisonment. Shabanov’s congregation and his family insist that
a Nagan pistol a Prosecutor’s Office official claims to have found
during the 20 June house search was planted in his home. Shabanov
was arrested immediately after the alleged discovery.

During the search by some ten officers of the police, Prosecutor’s
Office and National Security Ministry (NSM) secret police, Christian
literature was deemed "banned literature" and confiscated (see F18News
7 July 2008 ).

Zenchenko also complained that the case paperwork includes allegations
that Shabanov was promoting separatism among other members of
Azerbaijan’s Georgian-speaking minority, allegations Zenchenko
rejects. "Hamid did not have an illegal weapon and he did not promote
separatism," he told Forum 18. "But he has been accused of trying to
create a new Karabakh," he reported in a reference to the mountainous
region with a majority ethnic Armenian population which broke away from
control from Baku in a bitter war in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Forum 18 was unable to find out from Hekimkhan Seferov of the Zakatala
District Prosecutor’s Office why materials on Shabanov’s case had
not been handed to the defence until the first day of the trial. The
official who answered the telephone on 23 July said Seferov was not
in the office and refused to discuss Shabanov’s case.

Zenchenko lamented that unlike with earlier hearings in the prosecution
of fellow Aliabad Baptist pastor Balaev, no observers from the Baku
Office of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe
(OSCE) were present in court.

Balaev was arrested in May 2007 on charges of attacking five police
officers and damaging a police car that he and his church insist were
trumped up and aimed to punish him for leading his congregation. He
was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment, but was freed on 19 March
after being held for nearly a year. He was summoned and threatened
with a new prison term in early May (see F18News 12 June 2008

Meanwhile Jehovah’s Witness conscientious objector Mammedov faces
a possible new sentence for refusing compulsory military service,
despite the fact that he has already served one sentence on this
charge. Jehovah’s Witnesses told Forum 18 on 22 July that the new
criminal case could have been lodged to punish him for challenging
the original sentence through the domestic courts and at the European
Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg, where his case is now
awaiting an admissibility decision.

Forum 18 tried to find out why the Prosecutor’s Office is seeking to
prosecute Mammedov for a second time, but the telephone went unanswered
on 23 July.

Mammedov was found guilty by Baku’s Sabail District Court on
21 July 2006 of violating Article 321.1 of the Criminal Code,
which punishes evasion of military service with a sentence
of up to two years’ imprisonment. He was given a suspended
sentence of six months. The authorities have repeatedly – as in
other cases such as that of Pastor Balaev – violated due legal
process in hearing Mammedov’s appeal (see F18News 22 January 2008

The original prosecution and the new attempted prosecution come despite
Azerbaijan’s commitment to the Council of Europe to have instituted
an alternative sentence by January 2004, three years after it joined
the pan-European organisation. Azerbaijan failed to meet this deadline
and has still not adopted an alternative service law.

Jehovah’s Witnesses told Forum 18 that the "harassment" of Mammedov
and his family began soon after he filed the application to the ECHR
in March 2008. "Starting from May this year, policemen several times
went to the apartment where Mushfiq is registered," they told Forum
18. "And several times officials from Sabail District Prosecutor’s
Office called his mother and told her that Mushfiq should come to
the Prosecutor’s Office, allegedly because Mushfiq was accused of
committing the crime of stealing a mobile phone."

On 8 June Mammedov and his mother Sevil Najafova filed a complaint
against these actions with Sabail District Prosecutor’s office. "Up
till now they received no answer from the Prosecutor’s Office," the
Jehovah’s Witnesses complained. Copies of the complaint were also
sent to the Human Rights Ombudsperson Elmira Suleymanova and human
rights organisations.

On 7 July a police officer named Javad called Mammedov’s mother and
said that a criminal case has been instigated over his alleged evasion
of military service. He said he had received a written order to find
him and bring him forcibly to the investigator Vugar Alekperov of
Sabail District Prosecutor’s Office. "Interestingly, up till that
time Mushfiq did not receive any written notice from the Prosecutor’s
Office," the Jehovah’s Witnesses commented.

The next day Mammedov’s mother went to the prosecutor’s office where
she was given the written decision that a criminal case had been
instigated against her son. The decision – of which Forum 18 has seen
a copy – was dated 5 June. She was also informed that police would
soon declare a manhunt for him.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses point out that Article 64 of Azerbaijan’s
Constitution and Article 8.2 of the Criminal Code do not allow
criminal charges to be brought against someone twice for the same
crime. "Moreover this should be true in this case when Mushfiq did
not commit any crime, but used his constitutional rights to request
alternative service." They said Mammedov intends to file another
complaint shortly with Sabail District Prosecutor’s Office about the
attempt to prosecute him a second time for the same offence.