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Baptist prisoner of conscience and Muslim still jailed

By Felix Corley
9/19/08 Azerbaijan (Forum 18 News Service)Azerbaijan’s Baptist prisoner of conscience Hamid Shabanov has been ordered – in a closed hearing he and his defence lawyer were not informed of – to be detained for another two months, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. “The judge called the latest hearing without even informing Hamid’s lawyer,” Ilya Zenchenko of the Baptist Union told Forum 18. “This was a clear violation.” The defence’s request that Shabanov be freed pending possible trial was rejected. However, Baptists have welcomed his transfer to Balakan District, in north-western Azerbaijan, which is next to Pastor Shabanov’s home Zakatala District…

A motion to have Baptist prisoner of conscience Hamid Shabanov freed while a criminal investigation against him continues has been rejected, Baptists told Forum 18 News Service. However, they welcome his transfer to Balakan District, in north-western Azerbaijan, which is next to Pastor Shabanov’s home region.

Local Baptists think that the police and courts in his home district of Zakatala [Zaqatala] – which have a long history of punishing local religious minorities for peacefully practising their faith – will not treat Shabanov fairly. Meanwhile, Muslim prisoner Said Dadashbeyli has failed in his appeal to the Supreme Court in the capital Baku, the last possible avenue of appeal within Azerbaijan. “We are now preparing to take the case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg,” family members told Forum 18 on 18 September.

The State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations in Baku has refused to answer questions on either case. When Forum 18 called the State Committee on 17 September, the woman who answered the phone of spokesperson Yagut Alieva told Forum 18 that Alieva was on leave. She declined to answer any questions and put the phone down.

Ilya Zenchenko, head of Azerbaijan’s Baptist Union, has pledged that the fight to have criminal charges against Pastor Shabanov dropped will continue. At a hearing on 22 August, which was called without informing Shabanov, his family or his defence lawyer, Zakatala District Court ordered that he be held in prison for a further two months while the investigation continues. The judge had previously ordered a re-investigation to be complete by 23 August, ready for a new trial.

“The judge called the latest hearing without even informing Hamid’s lawyer,” Zenchenko of the Baptist Union told Forum 18 from Baku on 18 September. “This was a clear violation.” The defence’s request that Shabanov be freed pending possible trial was rejected.

Pastor Shabanov – who leads a Georgian-speaking Baptist congregation in the village of Aliabad just outside Zakatala – is facing charges that he held an illegal weapon, charges his family and congregation insist are fabricated. Shabanov was arrested during a police raid on his home on 20 June and he has been held since then. His trial began in Zakatala on 22 July, but on 29 July the judge referred the case back to the prosecutor for further investigation.

However, Shabanov’s supporters have achieved some success. “We insisted that they take the investigation away from the Zakatala District as we don’t trust the investigators and the court in that district,” Zenchenko reported. He said the case has now been moved to the neighbouring Balakan District, just north of Zakatala. “Hamid is now being held at the police station in Balakan and this is where any trial will now take place.”

Zenchenko complains that Shabanov’s family have not been allowed to visit him. “Only his lawyer is allowed in, though the family can pass on food and letters for him.”

Other difficulties continue for religious communities. In August a Baku-based Protestant charismatic church, Cathedral of Praise, which claims 800 adult members, had its place of worship confiscated. The church bought the 900 square metre (1076 square yards) site and building legally from a private company that owned them in 2004, receiving a state document confirming ownership. The church says it then invested much energy and money turning the building into its place of worship.

However, an oil firm that had previously owned the site before the other company, then asserted that it had owned the site when the church bought it. The oil firm brought the case to court in 2007, claiming the company that had sold the site to the church did not have the right to do so. The church lost both the initial hearing and its appeal. No compensation is being offered. Court bailiffs forced the church to vacate the building on 22 August. “We appealed to the Presidential Administration and they sent us to State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations. They said that they don’t deal with such issues and told us to go to ‘corresponding organs’,” one church member told Forum 18. “This situation is not our fault, we paid for everything.”

“We’re not one hundred percent sure that this is targeted at us because of our faith,” Pastor Rasim Halilov told Forum 18. “But it is a violation of our rights.” He said the church now has to meet in the basement of a building it also owns on the neighbouring plot of land.

The church was founded in 1994 but only managed to gain registration in 1999. Its Swedish pastor, Mats-Jan Söderberg, had his visa application denied in 2005 and was given two weeks to leave Azerbaijan. He was subsequently blacklisted from returning. (END)