For the second time in 14 months, Rashad Niftaliyev, a religious minister of Jehovah’s Witnesses, is in jail for failing to pay off fines imposed on him for taking part in religious meetings. On November 19, 2015, a court in Ganja, Azerbaijan, sentenced Mr. Niftaliyev to 25 days’ detention for not making significant payments on fines he incurred for “organizing and conducting religious meetings.”

Mr. Niftaliyev’s fines now total 9,450 manat ($11,375 U.S.). Although he believes that the fines are unjust, he has been paying in small installments, according to his limited means.

Punished for Attending a Religious Service

The catalyst for Mr. Niftaliyev’s most recent detention was a November 14, 2015, police raid on a meeting for worship in Ganja, the second-largest city in Azerbaijan. Police stopped the religious service and took 27 people to the Ganja Kapaz District Police Station. There, police charged 12 of them—including Mr. Niftaliyev—with violating laws on participating in a religious meeting. * In closed hearings held between November 18 and 25, the Ganja Kapaz District Court fined nine individuals 2,000 manat ($1,911 U.S.) each for their part in a “religious meeting conducted without appropriate permission.”

On November 19, the bailiffs’ office summoned Mr. Niftaliyev to question him on his slow payment of five previous fines imposed on him in the past five years under the same charge. Mr. Niftaliyev explained his efforts to make payments and his circumstances—that he has a limited income and needs to support his ill mother—but the bailiff sent the matter to court. Upon hearing the matter, the Ganja Kapaz District Court immediately jailed Mr. Niftaliyev. Subsequently, the court also fined Mr. Niftaliyev for participating in the religious meeting on November 14, further increasing his debt and adding to the injustice of punishing him for his worship.

Interference With Meetings for Worship

The police raid on the Witnesses’ November 14 meeting was the eighth in Ganja since 2010. * The police raids follow the same general pattern: Witnesses are meeting peacefully as a small group in a private home. Police enter the private home without a search warrant or a court order and do not properly identify themselves or the reason why they have come. They stop the meeting, confiscate personal Bibles and religious literature, videotape the scene, and insult and verbally threaten those in attendance.

The police take everyone in attendance, including children and the elderly, to the police station. A court hearing is set for later in the day, although a court may grant individuals the opportunity to contact their own lawyers and allow a few days for them to prepare a defense. On several occasions, the local media has publicized these arrests and even televised images of the Witnesses waiting inside the police station.

Registration Is Required but Consistently Denied

Because Witnesses in Ganja have been unable to obtain State registration, authorities there tell them that their meetings for worship are unlawful. The Ganja Kapaz District Court used that reasoning when it fined those who participated in the November 14 meeting, stating that “the community of Jehovah’s Witnesses has not obtained official permission from the relevant authorities to operate in the city of Ganja.” *

Contrary to that ruling, there is no law in Azerbaijan that requires prior State permission to meet for worship. Article 21 of the Law on Freedom of Religious Beliefs states: “Worship, . . . religious rites and ceremonies shall be freely carried out in places of worship . . . as well as in apartments and houses of citizens.”

Jehovah’s Witnesses have registration in the capital, Baku, and have filed numerous applications for registration in Ganja since 2010. However, the State Committee for Work with Religious Associations has denied their application each time for alleged technical errors or has not replied at all. The Witnesses’ most recent application in Ganja, filed on November 10, 2015, is still pending.

Efforts to Resolve the Restrictions on Religious Freedom

Efforts to meet with officials in Azerbaijan continue as Jehovah’s Witnesses endeavor to obtain registration and to gain greater respect for their human rights. However, because of the continuing injustice, the Witnesses in Azerbaijan have 21 applications pending with the European Court of Human Rights for incidents in which authorities interfered with their right to freedom of religion and freedom to manifest their belief.

Jehovah’s Witnesses ask that the government of Azerbaijan extend to them the rights that the nation’s laws guarantee to all citizens—including freedom of worship—and that it stop punishing sincere worshippers like Mr. Niftaliyev.

^ par. 5 Specifically, they were charged with violating Article 299.0.2 of the Code of Administrative Violations, which forbids “organizing and conducting religious meetings, street processions and other religious ceremonies” without the approval of local authorities.

^ par. 8 There have also been raids in Lankaran, Lokbatan, Mingachevir, Shamkir, and Zagatala.

^ par. 11 Officials rely on Article 12 of the Law on Freedom of Religious Beliefs, which states: “Any religious association may operate only after being registered with the relevant executive authority and entered in the state register of religious associations.” However, this article concerns religious legal entities. It does not restrict groups of people from meeting for worship. See also the Law on Freedom of Assembly, Article 4, which excludes “religious ceremonies” from regulation.