FEBRUARY 18, 2016
Exhausted and weakened but undeterred, Irina Zakharchenko and Valida Jabrayilova stood trial before the Pirallahi District Court in Baku on January 28, 2016. Locked in a cage as though they were hardened criminals, they listened as Judge Akram Gahramanov pronounced their sentence. He declared them guilty of distributing religious literature without State permission and fined them 7,000 manat each ($4,361 U.S.). Since they had already served 11 months in jail, he canceled the fines and released them.
Azerbaijan’s Ministry of National Security (MNS) alleged that Ms. Zakharchenko and Ms. Jabrayilova, two of Jehovah’s Witnesses, committed a crime when they offered a free Bible-based brochure to a neighbor in Baku. For ten weeks the MNS investigated the alleged crime and subjected the women to repeated, aggressive interrogations. When the women responded to yet another MNS summons on February 17, 2015, they were stunned to be brought to an arraignment hearing * and placed in pretrial detention.
From the start, authorities treated the women like criminals posing “a threat to society.” A member of the defense team stated: “I was amazed to hear the investigator characterize the actions of these two women in such inflated terms. He alleged that they colluded with criminal intent and deliberately broke the law. Actually, Valida returned to speak with a woman who had previously enjoyed Bible discussions and had requested religious literature. The woman invited Valida and Irina into her home for tea and accepted a religious brochure.”
Abusive Treatment and a Wider Campaign
Throughout their 11-month imprisonment, the MNS kept Ms. Zakharchenko and Ms. Jabrayilova in isolation, refusing to allow them visitors, phone calls, correspondence, or a Bible. MNS officers subjected them to constant psychological pressure. They became emaciated, sleep deprived, and physically weak. The court refused all appeals and motions to transfer them to house arrest pending trial.
The MNS compounded their suffering by requesting the court to extend their imprisonment, at hearings in May, July, and September 2015. When the case finally came to trial in December, Judge Gahramanov postponed hearings three times. Ultimately, Irina and Valida spent nearly a year in jail before the court issued its decision on January 28, 2016.
Court proceedings revealed a wider MNS campaign against Jehovah’s Witnesses. The MNS asked the court to detain the women so that the MNS could identify other Witnesses who participated in the allegedly criminal activity. While the women were in jail, officials harassed Jehovah’s Witnesses in Baku, repeatedly interrogating them and raiding dozens of their homes and a house of worship.
International Appeals for Relief
Jehovah’s Witnesses turned to international human rights bodies, seeking relief for Ms. Zakharchenko and Ms. Jabrayilova. They filed applications with the European Court of Human Rights and several UN bodies. Jehovah’s Witnesses around the globe sent thousands of letters to Azerbaijan officials. Representatives of Jehovah’s Witnesses approached government officials in their respective countries and sent letters directly to the president of Azerbaijan, requesting humanitarian intervention.
On December 2, 2015, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (WGAD) rendered its opinion that Azerbaijan’s treatment of the women violated their rights and constituted religious discrimination. It urged Azerbaijan officials to release Ms. Zakharchenko and Ms. Jabrayilova and compensate them for arbitrarily detaining them. The following day, the UN Human Rights Committee asked the government to transfer Ms. Zakharchenko to house arrest because of her deteriorating health.
Groundless Criminal Conviction
At trial, Judge Gahramanov first heard from the alleged victim that Ms. Zakharchenko and Ms. Jabrayilova had given her a brochure. However, during the hearing, the alleged victim gave confusing and inconsistent testimony that contradicted her previous statements. She could not explain how she had experienced harm as a “victim.” The judge then gave Ms. Zakharchenko and Ms. Jabrayilova the opportunity to question her. They respectfully highlighted the inconsistencies in the woman’s testimony and the inaccuracies in her statement. Both women told the “victim” that they forgave her.
The judge also heard from two “witnesses” to the alleged crime of distributing religious literature without permission from the State. These witnesses had signed statements alleging that Ms. Zakharchenko and Ms. Jabrayilova had committed a crime, but they admitted that they had not even read the statements. When questioned, they also admitted that they did not know Irina and Valida and that the women had not given them any religious literature. The statement of a third witness, read aloud by the judge at trial, was likewise inconsistent and contradictory.
Despite the evidence in favor of Ms. Zakharchenko and Ms. Jabrayilova, Judge Gahramanov found them guilty as charged. After the trial, a lawyer working on the women’s defense team observed: “I found the decision absurd. The WGAD saw the wrong done to the women and called for their release and for compensation. Now, just a few weeks later, the judge has found them guilty.” The women are evaluating their right to appeal the unjust convictions.
When Will Azerbaijan’s Persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses End?
The worldwide community of Jehovah’s Witnesses is comforted to know that Irina Zakharchenko and Valida Jabrayilova are free, receiving care from their families and getting necessary medical treatment. The Witnesses are shocked that Azerbaijan would allow the unwarranted and abusive treatment of two peaceable and innocent women—and allow it to be justified by a conviction.
Many others join the Witnesses in their concern over Azerbaijan’s flagrant violations of religious freedom. The international community is keenly watching for improvement in the government’s treatment of religious minorities. Jehovah’s Witnesses continue to seek opportunity to discuss issues affecting their worship in Azerbaijan and to reach a common understanding with the government.
^ par. 4 At their indictment on November 10, 2015, the MNS investigator charged the women with violating Article 167-2.2.1 of the Criminal Code of the Azerbaijan Republic, which prohibits distribution of religious literature by a group without appropriate approval.