09/12/2015, 00.00
AZERBAIJAN
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Crackdown on Jehovah's Witnesses, Shia and Sunni prisoners of conscience

Forum 18 reports that many religious believers are involved in long legal procedures. Two female Jehovah’s Witnesses are in jail for handing out religious literature. A Shia Muslim man is custody for translating Islamic works and public broadcasts. Five Sunnis are on trial for selling religious texts without a license. Another five are under house arrest for studying in a private home. For those close to the case, acquittals never occur in Azerbaijan.

Baku (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Azerbaijani authorities continue their crackdown against religious believers, this according to Forum 18, a Norway-based Christian news agency that focuses on human rights and religious freedom in Asia and the nations of the former Soviet Union.

Recently, a court in Azerbaijan's capital Baku ruled that two female Jehovah's Witnesses – already imprisoned for seven months at the secret police Investigation Prison – could be held for a further three months. A Shia Muslim arrested in March also remains in custody. Five Sunnis, including the imam of the mosque in Lezgin, are in the appeal phase of their trial. Another five have been under house arrest since September 2014. They should be tried shortly and those close to the case doubt that they will be acquitted.

Forum 18 reports that all these individuals are prisoners of conscience who were detained for their religious and activities, like conducting door-to-door outreach, translating sacred texts, and meeting in private homes to study religious texts. All of the latter are banned in the Caucasian country unless they have been previously vetted by the state.

For the agency, “The jailing of Muslim and Jehovah's Witness prisoners of conscience for their beliefs is part of a broader state crackdown – including the jailing of many other prisoners of conscience – on people exercising human rights Azerbaijan's government has solemn international obligations to protect”.

At last week’s hearings at Baku's Sabail District Court, Judge Rauf Ahmadov ruled that Inna Zakharchenko, a disabled 54-year-old widow, and Valida Jabrayilova, 38, could be held in pre-trial detention for another three months. Seven months is the maximum individuals accused of a "less serious crime" can normally be held in the pre-trial phase. While in prison, the two women have not been allowed to have a bible.

The women were taken into custody in December 2014 for going from door to door to talk about their faith and handing out religious literature unauthorised by the state. Now they could be fined or get two to five years in prison.

Some Jehovah's Witnesses told Forum 18 that they were not able to meet the women at the hearing that extended their incarceration. They have also expressed concern about the women's emotional well-being.

Jeyhun Jafarov is a Shia Muslim. He was arrested for translating some Islamic texts and radio broadcasts. He will remain in custody until November, when the court will decide his fate. He could get 12 years to life. Unlike the two Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jafarov has been allowed to have a copy of the Qur‘an.

Five Sunni Muslims, including Imam Qarayev Mubariz of Lezgin, were arrested in February 2015 for selling sacred texts without a mandatory state license. In May, they received sentences between 6 and 18 months, in labour camps.

Since their conviction, one was released on August. Three lost their third appeal. Imam Mubariz’s appeal was scheduled yesterday, Friday. According to Forum 18, the court scheduled it on Friday to prevent the clergyman from attending prayers in prison.

Next Monday, the fate of five other Sunni Muslims should also be sealed. Jailed in April 2014 for participating in a religious study session, they have been under house arrest in September 2014 with police monitoring all their movements. They could get up to five years in prison.

According to those close to the case, “You almost never get an acquittal here. But if they are to be convicted, we hope that at least they get suspended sentences."

Last March, Pope Francis met President Ilham Aliyev and reiterated the importance of interfaith dialogue and respect.

Located in the Caucasus, Azerbaijan is predominantly Shia with some Orthodox and Jews. A few hundred Catholics live in the country. In 2007, the first Catholic Church, dedicated to the Immaculate Conception, was inaugurated in the capital Baku.

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