AZERBAIJAN: Two plus three equals five
Azerbaijan claims religious freedom, but forces people of religion to jump through ridiculous hoops in order to gather for worship, even if they are gathering in their own homes. In this case, a church was “liquidated” when they failed to “apply for compulsory re-registration following the changes to the Religion Law in 2009.” This article discusses the case the church is making to appeal the liquidation, saying, “State Committee’s liquidation demand is based on the personal prejudicial attitude of its legal specialist, Sabina Allahverdieva.”
By Felix Corley
07/20/2012 Azerbaijan (Forum18)-…The appeal by Baku’s Greater Grace Protestant Church to annul a lower court decision banning the church began at Baku Appeal Court on 17 July, the court website noted. The case is being heard by a panel of three judges headed by Judge Seriyye Seyidova.
The Judge’s assistant, who did not give his name, told Forum 18 on 20 July that the State Committee was represented in court by the head of its Legal Department, Yusif Askerov. He added that two monitors from European organisations attended the hearing, at least one of them from the Baku Office of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).
The State Committee lodged the case to liquidate the Church in December 2011. It claimed that the Church had broken the law by failing to apply for the compulsory re-registration following the changes to the Religion Law in 2009. The Church had gained registration with the Justice Ministry in April 1993.
This is the first known enforced liquidation of a religious community since Azerbaijan’s harsh Religion Law was adopted in 2009. If the liquidation ruling goes into force, any communal activity the Church undertakes will be illegal and its members subject to prosecution.
The case began under Judge Tahira Asadova of Administrative Economic Court No. 1 on 15 March. On 25 April, Asadova upheld the State Committee’s court action to liquidate the Church, as it had not gained the compulsory state re-registration. On 14 May, the Court finally handed down the written verdict – seen by Forum 18. Monitors from the Baku OSCE Office attended successive hearings in the case (see F18News 26 April 2012http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=1694).
At the 17 July appeal hearing, the Church’s lawyer Chingiz Zeynalov argued that no reason to liquidate the Church existed, as the only legal grounds for such a move are if a community violates public order, violates human rights or engages in terrorism. He also noted that – despite claims by State Committee legal representative Sabina Allahverdieva in the lower court – the State Committee had only written to the Church once (in 2002), not twice. Zeynalov pointed out that the verdict referred to the 2002 letter although Judge Asadova had said during the original hearings that only evidence since the 2009 Religion Law change would be considered.
State Committee’s “artificial” problems
During the appeal hearing, Judge Seyidova asked why the Church did not wish to re-register, as there was no problem doing so. Church lawyer Zeynalov pointed out that the State Committee “artificially” creates problems to block the registration or re-registration of communities it does not like. He noted that only a handful of Protestant Christian communities have gained the compulsory re-registration since 2009, one of them – Word of Life Church – only after winning a case in court.
Zeynalov told the court that the Church has had registration since 1993 and to undergo re-registration would in effect deprive the Church of its history and name. He added that under the 2009 Religion Law, fifty adult citizen founders are now needed and that no state notary’s office can fit that many people in at the same time for their application and documents to be notarised. He said that the State Committee’s demand that the Church liquidate itself represented state interference in the internal affairs of a religious organisation.
When Judge Seyidova asked State Committee officials why it had decided that the Church had to be liquidated when the law says the State Committee is not obliged to do so, State Committee official Askerov told the court that Greater Grace Church members had expressed lack of respect to his colleagues. Asked by the Church’s lawyer how this alleged lack of respect had been expressed, Askerov said that Allahverdieva (who did not attend the appeal hearing) had complained that when Church representatives had a meeting with her they had smiled when she demanded that they present their re-registration documents.
“Mr Askerov repeated this assertion many times,” church members told Forum 18. “We have therefore concluded that the State Committee’s liquidation demand is based on the personal prejudicial attitude of its legal specialist, Sabina Allahverdieva.”
Forum 18 reached Askerov at the State Committee on 20 July, but he said he was too busy at that moment to be able to speak. Subsequent calls went unanswered.
Appeal resumes 31 July
Greater Grace Church’s appeal is set to resume at noon on 31 July, the Baku Appeal Court website notes. The Judge’s assistant said that it is not yet known if that will be the final hearing in the case. “Maybe it will continue beyond then,” he told Forum 18.
Some church members expressed greater optimism in the wake of the first appeal hearing. They pointed out that the Church’s lawyer was able to present the Church’s case more fairly than in the lower court and that the Appeal Court appeared to be trying to establish the facts. They were heartened that State Committee official Askerov admitted during the hearing that he and his colleagues felt under pressure from around the world over the case.
AZERBAIJAN: Two plus three equals five