Azerbaijan continues to punish Jehovah’s Witnesses for practicing their faith. Courts convict them for worshipping together, for speaking to others about their beliefs, and for conscientiously refusing military service. Judges often sentence them to heavy fines and to detention.
Two Women Jailed for Sharing Religious Beliefs
On December 17, 2015, the trial of two of Jehovah’s Witnesses, Irina Zakharchenko and Valida Jabrayilova began in the Pirallahi District Court in Baku. Ms. Zakharchenko and Ms. Jabrayilova have been in pretrial detention since February 17, 2015, prosecuted for distributing religious literature without “appropriate permission.”
Ten months in pretrial detention has severely affected the physical and emotional health of these two women. However, at the preliminary hearing, the judge dismissed all motions on their behalf and refused to substitute their detention with house arrest. The next hearing commences on January 7, 2016.
Azerbaijan Fails to Live Up to Obligations
In May 2011 the monitoring report of the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) of the Council of Europe repeatedly urged the government of Azerbaijan to ensure that “the legislation in force . . . fully respects freedom of religion as safeguarded by the European Convention on Human Rights.” In 2012, the Council of Europeʹs Venice Commission published detailed recommendations for change in Azerbaijanʹs Law on Freedom of Religious Beliefs. It stated: “The Law appears to contain several quite restrictive provisions which are against international standards. . . . Provisions regulating central issues such as the scope of the law and of the beneficiaries of the right to freedom of religion and conscience, the registration, the autonomy and liquidation of religious communities; the conscientious objection, the issue of proselytism, the publication and circulation of religious materials should be reformulated.”
Azerbaijan also refuses to respect conscientious objection to military service. As part of its application to join the Council of Europe in 1996, Azerbaijan committed itself to (1) adopting a law on alternative civilian service within two years of accession, (2) pardoning all imprisoned conscientious objectors, and (3) allowing conscientious objectors to choose to perform alternative civilian service. More than 13 years after becoming a member of the Council of Europe, Azerbaijan has not fulfilled its obligations.
The same May 2011 report stated: “ECRI urges the Azerbaijani authorities swiftly to adopt a law on alternative civilian service consistent with European standards. . . . [ECRI] reiterates its strong recommendation that the authorities should not prosecute or imprison those who have refused to perform military service but should give them the opportunity to perform their duty to society in circumstances that are in line with their conscientious objection to military service.”
Will Azerbaijan Act to Support Its Claim of Religious Tolerance?
On June 25, 2015, the U.S. Helsinki Commission expressed concern for “the recent escalation of pressure on religious minorities—particularly Jehovah’s Witnesses—in Azerbaijan.” The commission’s chairman, Representative Chris Smith, stated: “The Government often touts its record of protecting religious freedom yet the truth is that it has imprisoned many people for practicing their faith. I call on the Government of Azerbaijan to release Ms. Zacharchenko and Ms. Jabrayilova immediately.”
Jehovah’s Witnesses worldwide have expressed their concern for the welfare of Irina Zakharchenko and Valida Jabrayilova. The UN Human Rights Committee formally requested the release of Ms. Zakharchenko to house arrest, but the court ignored the request. Ms. Zakharchenko and Ms. Jabrayilova and their family and friends respectfully request that the Azerbaijan government release and exonerate them immediately.
December 17, 2015
Pirallahi District Court in Baku rejects motions to release Irina Zakharchenko and Valida Jabrayilova from jail. The next hearing is set for January 7, 2016.
September 4, 2015
Sabail District Court in Baku extends the pretrial detention of Irina Zakharchenko and Valida Jabrayilova until December 17, 2015, keeping them in jail for ten months.
May 7, 2015, and July 4, 2015
Sabail District Court in Baku extends the pretrial detention of Irina Zakharchenko and Valida Jabrayilova.
February 17, 2015
Sabail District Court in Baku orders that Irina Zakharchenko and Valida Jabrayilova be immediately jailed to serve three months’ pretrial detention on criminal charges of unlawful distribution of religious literature.
March 12, 2013
Kamran Mirzayev, one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, is convicted and sentenced to nine months’ imprisonment for his conscientious objection to military service. Later, while he was serving his sentence, a general amnesty brought his early release from prison.
September 25, 2012
Fakhraddin Mirzayev, one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, is convicted and given a one-year sentence for his conscientious objection to military service.
September 8, 2010
Farid Mammadov, one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, is convicted for his conscientious objection to military service and sentenced to nine months’ imprisonment.
August 19, 2009
Mushfig Mammedov is again arrested for his conscientious objection to military service, put in pretrial detention, and fined when convicted a second time.
March 7, 2008
Attorneys of Mushfig Mammedov and Samir Huseynov file an application with the European Court of Human Rights for Azerbaijan’s criminal prosecution of their conscientious objection to military service.
October 4, 2007
Samir Huseynov, one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, is imprisoned and given a ten-month sentence for his conscientious objection to military service.
Mushfig Mammedov, one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, is held in pretrial detention, convicted for his conscientious refusal to perform military service, and sentenced to a six-month conditional discharge.