07/17/2007, 00.00
AZERBAIJIAN
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On trial, a Baptist pastor in prison for over two months

The frail man, is accused of having assaulted 5 policemen and of having led illegal religious meetings. For over 13 years his group having being requesting official recognition. Experts: authorities use the refusal to grant authorization to discriminate against undesired religious groups.

Baku (AsiaNews/F18) – The trial of Baptist pastor Zaur Balaev, in police custody since May 20th, has been set for July 20yh.  He has been accused of assaulting 5 policemen, of having damaged their car and of having led “illegal gatherings under the guise of religious activity without concrete authority and without state registration”, of “attracting young people to services and playing loud music at services, disturbing the quiet of his neighbours”. In the interim his request to be placed under house arrest has been denied.

Ilya Zenchenko of the Baptist Union told Forum 18 that he is “surprised” by the charge of assault on the 5 police officers.  One of them is even bigger than me, while Zaur is thin”. Police seized the pastor when they raided his Baptist congregation's Sunday worship service in a private house in his home village of Aliabad, near Zakatala in the remote north of Azerbaijan close to the border with Georgia.

Zenchenko says that police consider him “a danger to society” because he is Christian.  “The local people – he explains – support him and don’t consider him a threat”. He points out that the group led by Balaev has repeatedly been denied legal status for thirteen years and church members have faced official harassment. Unregistered religious activity is not illegal in Azerbaijan, though officials often act as though it is. Officials of the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations in Baku frequently deny legal status to religious communities they do not like, including Muslims, Protestants and others.

An official of the Baku office of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) told Forum 18 on 16 July that it has been keeping a "close eye" on Balaev's case and intends to send a staff member to monitor the trial in Zakatala on 20 July.

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