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Jehovah’s Witnesses

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MAY 26, 2014
AZERBAIJAN

Jehovah’s Witnesses in Azerbaijan Appeal for Justice to the European Court of Human Rights

The occasion was a Sunday morning meeting for worship. Inside a room in Baku, Azerbaijan, approximately 200 men, women, and children were listening to a Bible discourse.

Police broke through the door, followed by other officials and the glare of TV camera lights. The police not only interrupted the religious service of Jehovah’s Witnesses but also beat several of the men, searched the premises without a warrant, verbally abused those in attendance, and confiscated money, computers, and the congregation’s Bible literature. The police took many Witnesses to the police station and held them for hours. Six foreign nationals serving as ministers were detained for several days and then deported. The television broadcast of the raid vilified the Witnesses.

These events of December 24, 2006, became the subject of the first application that Jehovah’s Witnesses filed with the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) against Azerbaijan. Since then, the Witnesses have filed 18 additional ECHR applications on violations of religious freedom.

CAUSE FOR APPLICATION

TOTAL

Police Raid

5

Reregistration

1

Manifesting Religious Belief

2

Censorship

5

Deportation

3

Conscientious Objection

3

Total

19

Applications regarding Azerbaijan filed with the ECHR, as of January 31, 2014

The following examples highlight some of the issues that Jehovah’s Witnesses face in Azerbaijan and that prompt their appeal for justice to the ECHR.

  • Denial of Reregistration

    The Religious Community of Jehovah’s Witnesses first registered in Baku on December 22, 1999, and reregistered on February 7, 2002, with the State Committee for Work with Religious Associations (SCWRA). In 2009, the Azerbaijan government amended its Law on Freedom of Religious Beliefs and required all religious communities to reregister. The Religious Community of Jehovah’s Witnesses submitted an application, but the SCWRA rejected it based on a technicality. Although the government has not voided the 2002 registration, it refuses to grant reregistration under the new provisions of its religion law.

  • Police Harassment and Persecution

    Jehovah’s Witnesses meet weekly in private homes for their religious services. On several occasions, police have forcibly entered private homes and interrupted these services without authorization. They have treated the attendees insolently, detained them for hours at the police station, and confiscated personal religious literature used in worship. Some Witnesses have been given substantial fines. In 2011, six Witnesses in Ganja were convicted and fined a total of approximately $12,000 (U.S.) for attending a religious meeting not authorized by the government. Police raids occurred most recently on January 11 and March 2, 2014.

  • Censorship of Literature

    Azerbaijan is the only Council of Europe member state * that has set up a system of compulsory censorship of religious literature, in violation of its own constitution. * The Bible literature the Witnesses import from other member states of the Council of Europe may be restricted in quantity or banned after censorship. The banned publications include numerous issues of The Watchtower, the Witnesses’ semimonthly religious magazine. * Azerbaijani courts have dismissed the Witnesses’ claims challenging the SCWRA’s censorship.

International Scrutiny of Azerbaijan’s Treatment of Religious Communities

A number of international human rights bodies have examined and made pointed observations about Azerbaijan’s religion law and its treatment of religious communities.

  • The 2013 Annual Report of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom states: “Despite the Azeri government’s claims of tolerance, the religious freedom situation has deteriorated, especially after passage of its restrictive 2009 religion law.”

  • A report by the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) expressed great concern for the restrictive conditions affecting religious communities. Regarding Azerbaijan’s religion law, it stated: “ECRI strongly recommends that the Azerbaijani authorities bring the legislation . . . into line with the requirements of the European Convention on Human Rights.”

  • 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.”

Valued Freedoms

Jehovah’s Witnesses worldwide highly value the fundamental freedoms of expression, assembly, association, conscience, and religion. They are grateful to governments that allow them these rights. The small group of 2,500 Witnesses and those who worship with them in Azerbaijan hope to enjoy the religious freedoms accorded to other religions in their country.

^ par. 28 Azerbaijan became a member state of the Council of Europe on January 25, 2001.

^ par. 28 Article 48 protects freedom of religion and Article 50 prohibits media censorship.

^ par. 28 Each month Jehovah’s Witnesses publish a public edition of The Watchtower, which they distribute to explain what the Bible teaches. In their congregations, they use a study edition as part of their weekly Bible study program. The Watchtower has a monthly circulation of nearly 60,000,000 copies in over 200 languages, making it the most widely circulated magazine in the world.