01/10/2011, 00.00
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Higher fines for people who meet to pray or read religious texts

The new law came into effect on 29 December without much public coverage. It increases fines by up to 20 times for those who pray without authorisation, give catechism lessons to children or use religious texts that have not been approved by the authorities. Six Jehovah’s Witnesses are fined, two deported.

Baku (AsiaNews/F18) – Azerbaijan has increased fines for religious believers who meet to pray without authorisation. Six Jehovah’s Witnesses are sentenced to prison for practicing their faith.

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliev on 29 December signed into law a bill adopted by parliament on 8 December without public debate. The new legislation increases fines for offences related to the right to exercise religious freedom as described in Articles 299 and 300 of the country’s Administrative Code.

Under the new rules, anyone involved unauthorised religious activity is punished. This includes leading unregistered religious groups, meeting for prayers, and importing and distributing religious texts or documents not approved by the country’s rigid censorship board. Foreigners who visit the country to speak about their faith are also severely punished. Proselytising and teaching children catechism also require an authorisation.

Although prison is excluded as a form of punishment, fines are increased between 16 and 20 times. This means that offenders could lose their property or be thrown into poverty.

Eldar Zeynalov, head of the Human Rights Centre of Azerbaijan, told Forum 18 that if a peasant family of five is found in possession of “illegal” religious literature, each member could be fined 2,000 manat, 10,000 for the whole family (US$ 12,500), representing “the entire value of the family's assets, including their home”.

“These Articles punish what can be considered as normal religious activity," Zeynalov explained. “Any religious activity, however small-scale, such as meeting for worship in a private flat, talking about one's faith on the street, or handing out a book or even a leaflet, is subject to prosecution.”

At the same time, the new rules are very vague about what constitutes illegal religious activity, which gives police and the authorities a great deal of discretionary power.

Although the government appears be motivated by a fear of Islamic radicalism, the new rules apply to every religion. In fact, on 18 December, police burst into a private home in Gyanja and took into custody about 50 Jehovah’s Witnesses who were brought to a local police station.

Six, including Yegana Gahramanova, the flat’s owner, were later convicted of holding an illegal religious meeting in the presence of children. Under the old rules, they had to pay fines ranging from 100 to 150 manat (US$ 120-180). Under the new rules, they would have had to pay fines 16 times that amount.

Vephkya and Ekaterine Sheveli, a married couple from Georgia present at the meeting, were expelled on 19 December.

Jehovah’s Witnesses protested against the police raid, saying they were only exercising the right to pray in accordance with Article 21 of Azerbaijan’s Law on Religion, which guarantees the right to practice one’s faith not only in "places of worship" but also "in apartments and houses of citizens".

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