Azerbaijan’s government continues to claim its “tolerance” but restrictions of freedom of religion and belief, censorship of religious literature and jail sentences for prisoners of conscience are ongoing, Forum 18 reports.
According to Forum 18’s recent survey, the exercise of freedom of religion and belief in the country is impinged by “a complex labyrinth of ‘legal’ restrictions”, while groups that act without state permission are subjected to raids and large fines. Meanwhile, Forum 18 noted that Transparency International, a non-governmental organisation based in Berlin, had revealed that some foreign politicians had been bribed to deny human rights violations in Azerbaijan.
Apart from the restrictions stipulated by the country’s Religion Law, there are also unwritten rules imposed on faith communities, according to Forum 18.
Individuals accused under the Administrative or Criminal Codes, especially in rural areas, face the difficulty of hiring a defence lawyer because of the costs, while fines are unaffordable for people with low income – up to 2,000 manats (US$1,170) – Forum 18 said.
A religious group must have at least 50 adult founding members in order to apply for permission to exist, which prevents small communities from doing so. After permission is obtained, communities are allowed to conduct a religious activity only at the registered address. Communities that choose not to register are frequently raided by police and secret police, according to Forum 18. “Requiring state permission to exercise freedom of religion and belief and other human rights is against Azerbaijan’s legally binding international human rights obligations,” Forum 18 noted.
Earlier this year, Azerbaijan’s Constitutional Court in the capital, Baku, informed Baptist pastor Hamid Shabanov that it will not be considering his appeal against a large fine for meeting for worship without state permission, Forum 18 reported in February.
Shabanov, 61, was arrested during a police raid on his church in 2016 and ordered to pay a fine of 1,500 manats (US$900). He refused to pay and chose instead to challenge the penalty in court. Several appeals were rejected during the trial, which an anonymous source said consisted of “multiple violations of law and process”.