Baku (AsiaNews/F18) - Baptist pastor Hamid Shabanov remains in jail, after the court of Zagatala (northwestern Azerbaijan) asked the prosecutor for "further investigation" on July 29. Meanwhile, the authorities refuse to register the group.
Mirman Aliev, Shabanov's lawyer, calls it a "partial victory". "We called for Shabanov to be acquitted, for an end to the criminal case and for him to be freed. But the judge was afraid to do so and instead sent the case back for further investigation", with a deadline of August 23. He explains that there is no real evidence, and that his client is on trial "only because he is Christian", and that the trial has been full of irregularities, like reference to statements by unidentified witnesses.
Ilya Zenchenko, head of the country's Baptist Union, who came together with the lawyer for the trial from Baku, 450 kilometers away, agrees that "there is still much struggle ahead to free Hamid". He explains that the deputy chief of the local police, Kamandar Hasanov, after the decision by the court, took him to the police station for a long interrogation, accusing him of being "an English spy who acts only for money", and warning him "not to return to the area and not to help the local Baptists". Hasanov has for some time persecuted the Baptists in the area, and on March 19, when he had to release the pastor Zaur Balaev (in the photo), he threatened him with new charges if he continues to care for his faithful.
Shabanov was arrested on June 20 for "firearms possession", which carries a sentence of up to three years in prison. But his relatives and congregation insists that the pistol and ammunition are not Shabanov's, but - Aliev insists - were "planted" by the police. Shabanov is a leader of the Baptist community of Aliabad, where the police confiscate religious books and refuse to give birth certificates to children with Christian names. Shabanov has also had copies of the Bible in Azeri and Georgian confiscated, but responds that the text has been approved by the appropriate state commission.
The local Baptist community has asked the state for official recognition, but on July 22 the notary Najiba Mamedova refused to accept the necessary documents. The police intervened, accusing the Baptists of creating a disturbance and taking a number of them to jail.