On August 4, 2017, a district court in Baku, Azerbaijan, awarded damages to Irina Zakharchenko and Valida Jabrayilova, two of Jehovah’s Witnesses, for their unjust 11-month imprisonment. Although the monetary compensation was meager in comparison with the ill-treatment they suffered, the decision acknowledged that State authorities convicted them without grounds, caused them emotional and physical harm, and discredited their good reputation.

Supreme Court Vindication Leads to Appeal for Compensation

On February 8, 2017, the Supreme Court of Azerbaijan acquitted Ms. Zakharchenko and Ms. Jabrayilova of the criminal charge of distributing religious literature without State permission. The Court found that the brochure in question, Teach Your Children, had been approved for import and was not harmful to society. Additionally, the Court found that the women had the fundamental right to share their beliefs with others. The Supreme Court based its ruling on rights guaranteed by Azerbaijan’s Constitution and by international treaties that Azerbaijan had ratified.

The Supreme Court left the issue of compensation in the hands of the civil courts. Subsequently, Ms. Zakharchenko and Ms. Jabrayilova complained to the Baku City Nasimi District Court, seeking damages from the Ministry of Finance because of their ill-treatment at the hands of the State Security Service (and its predecessor, the Ministry of National Security). Both women were present in court, even though Ms. Zakharchenko was not well. Judge Shahin Abdullayev allowed them briefly to recount their distressing experiences.

District Court Concedes Mistreatment

The district court’s decision reconfirmed Azerbaijan’s commitment to respect the fundamental rights of its citizens and partially satisfied the Witnesses’ claims. Ms. Zakharchenko, whose health has been greatly affected by the ordeal, was awarded 9,744 manat ($5,737 U.S.), while the younger Ms. Jabrayilova received 8,200 manat ($4,828 U.S.). The decision stated: “The Court believes Plaintiffs’ unlawful detention and unsubstantiated criminal prosecution resulted in moral damages.”

The Ministry of Finance appealed the decision awarding damages to these two Witness women. On November 20, 2017, the Baku Court of Appeal dismissed the Ministry’s appeal and left the district court’s decision unchanged.

Will the Court Decisions Have a Positive Effect?

Jehovah’s Witnesses in Azerbaijan persevere in their worship in the face of serious violations of their fundamental right to religious freedom and threats to their personal security. They continue to face harassment, fines, and mistreatment when meeting together for worship and when engaging in their peaceful religious activity. The government has not implemented alternative civilian service for those who conscientiously object to military service. Authorities have denied the Witnesses legal registration outside of Baku. There are currently 18 applications pending with the European Court of Human Rights and 11 complaints before the UN Human Rights Committee concerning the government’s mistreatment of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Azerbaijan.

Jehovah’s Witnesses worldwide hope that the recent court rulings will encourage officials to honor the rights of their fellow believers in Azerbaijan.