MARCH 23, 2015
Religious intolerance is escalating in Azerbaijan as law-enforcement authorities impose heavy fines on Jehovah’s Witnesses and imprison them. Authorities are criminally prosecuting the Witnesses for meeting together for worship and for talking to others about their beliefs.
Criminalization of Religious Activity
On December 5, 2014, two of Jehovah’s Witnesses—Irina Zakharchenko, a partially disabled 55-year-old widow, and 38-year-old Valida Jabrayilova, who is the primary caregiver for her mother—were sharing their faith with the residents of an apartment complex in Baku. The two women were offering without charge the brochure Teach Your Children, designed to help parents to teach their children Bible stories and lessons. *
The police investigator criminally charged them with distributing Bible literature without “appropriate permission.” Specifically, the charge brought against the women was for a crime committed as an organized group, which carries a stiff fine, ranging from 7,000 to 9,000 manats (USD 6,690 to 8,600) * or two to five years’ imprisonment.
In the course of the investigation, the police investigator and the Ministry of National Security (MNS) repeatedly summoned the women for questioning. When the women once again responded to a summons from the MNS on February 17, 2015, they unexpectedly found themselves arraigned in a closed hearing before the Sabail District Court in Baku.
After presenting criminal charges, the MNS investigator submitted a motion to place the women in pretrial detention because he thought that the women were likely to commit the act again and to “escape and hide from investigation.” The women’s lawyer objected, claiming that the detention was unjustified given the circumstances and the women’s cooperation with the authorities. Although the judge noted that the women had no prior convictions, he characterized their activity as a “threat to the public” and granted the investigator’s motion for three months’ detention in the jail operated by the secret police.
The attorney for the women appealed the decision, and on February 26, 2015, police transported them in handcuffs from jail to the Baku Appeal Court in a vehicle with dark-tinted windows. In the closed hearing that followed, neither the prosecutor nor the MNS investigator presented any evidence supporting the need for pretrial detention. Nonetheless, the court denied the appeals, and Ms. Zakharchenko and Ms. Jabrayilova were returned to the jail.
On March 6, 2015, two groups from the MNS obtained court orders and searched the homes of Ms. Zakharchenko and Ms. Jabrayilova, confiscating their religious literature, personal notebooks, a computer, and a mobile phone. On March 10, 2015, the MNS, the State Committee for Work with Religious Associations, and the police presented court orders to search the Kingdom Hall (house of worship) and the home of one of the congregation elders. Also, the MNS has summoned a number of Witnesses in Baku for interrogation in this case.
In response to the detention of Ms. Zakharchenko and Ms. Jabrayilova, Jehovah’s Witnesses have prepared a letter requesting intervention to the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief and to the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention. A local lawyer is preparing a motion in trial court to substitute pretrial detention with house arrest.
Heavy Fines and Jail Sentences for Attending Religious Services
In Ganja, authorities have imposed heavy fines on those attending religious meetings of the Witnesses and have detained some in jail. Fines have ranged from 1,500 manats (USD 1,433) to 2,000 manats (USD 1,911).
In October 2014, courts in Ganja jailed three Witnesses and a man attending their religious services for nonpayment of fines imposed upon them for meeting for worship. Though they had made partial payments, authorities jailed them from 3 to 20 days.
The man worshipping with the Witnesses states: “To me, 1,500 manats (USD 1,433) is a lot of money. . . . My initial reaction was not to pay the fine because I consider myself innocent.” Two Witness men also felt that their punishment was unjust and reported that the authorities treated them like criminals.
The third Witness who was jailed, a woman, states: “No one took into consideration that my family has a very hard financial situation, that I provide care for my disabled mother, who cannot do anything independently, and that I voluntarily began paying the fine.”
The four have completed their jail sentences, but the court still demands full payment of the fines. If they fail to satisfy the court’s expectation of timely payment, the court may again order their detention.
Will Azerbaijan Uphold Justice?
Officials in Azerbaijan have been using various methods to obstruct the religious activity of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Currently, Jehovah’s Witnesses have 19 applications against Azerbaijan pending with the European Court of Human Rights to address the intolerance they are facing. In the meantime, the Witnesses hope that Azerbaijan’s high authorities will correct the injustice of the pretrial detention of Ms. Zakharchenko and Ms. Jabrayilova. By rectifying this and other acts of religious intolerance, Azerbaijan can show respect for its citizens, its constitution, and its support of fundamental human rights.
^ par. 4 The State Committee for Work with Religious Associations of the Azerbaijan Republic approved the import of this brochure, published by Jehovah’s Witnesses, on August 11, 2014.
^ par. 5 The average monthly salary in Azerbaijan is 440 manats (USD 420), as estimated in August 2014.