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AZERBAIJAN: Harsh fines cancelled, banned books list publication soon?
ICC Note:
Two Baptists in Azerbaijan had been punished for exercising their right to religious freedom have had their fines overturned. They had violated Article 299.0.3 of the Code of Administrative Offences which punishes “clergy and religious associations holding special religious meetings for children and young people, as well as the holding by religious bodies of literature circles or other specialised groups.”  Though the fines are overturned, they are still not allowed to meet together for worship, as the country has refused them registration.
By Felix Corley
5/16/2013 Azerbaijan (Forum18)- Two Baptists in Azerbaijan’s north-eastern Zakatala [Zaqatala] District – Pastor Zaur Balaev and Hinayat Shabanova – have had harsh fines overturned on appeal, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Both had been punished for participating in unregistered religious meetings in their home village of Aliabad. The Baptists have sought state registration for their community in vain since 1994, an Azerbaijani record. “The fines have been cancelled, but that still doesn’t mean we can meet for worship,” a fellow-Baptist told Forum 18 from Aliabad on 1 May. “Because we have no registration we have no right to meet.”
The State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations has announced that it will make a list of banned books public, but without giving a date for this. And more changes to the Religion Law restricting where religious literature and other materials can be sold and requiring such items to be marked with special stickers before they can be sold have been approved by President Ilham Aliev. Concern has also been expressed about a school textbook that denigrates some faiths (see below).
Fines overturned
On 25 April, Judge Inshallah Kuliyev of the Administrative Division of Sheki Appeal Court overturned the fine handed down on Pastor Balaev. The same day, Judge Qadim Babayev overturned the fine on Shabanova, according to the decisions seen by Forum 18. Both had been punished for exercising their right to freedom of religion or belief. The Judges gave the reason as the length of time between the religious meetings for which they were punished – November 2012 – and the date of the first court hearing in March 2013. Under Article 36 of the Code of Administrative Offences, prosecutions should be brought within two months.
Azizaga Mamedov, Head of Sheki Appeal Court Administration, confirmed the overturning of the lower court decisions but refused to discuss the cases with Forum 18 on 30 April.
Neither Pastor Balaev nor Shabanova attended the Appeal Court hearings, Baptists told Forum 18, as they feared being pressured by prosecutors or the judges. The two received copies of the decisions in writing on 29 April.
Pastor Balaev and Shabanova had each been found guilty at Zakatala District Court on 29 March of violating Article 299.0.3 of the Code of Administrative Offences. This punishes “clergy and religious associations holding special religious meetings for children and young people, as well as the holding by religious bodies of literature circles or other specialised groups”. Punishment for individuals is a fine of 1,500 to 2,000 Manats.
Balaev and Shabanova were each fined 1,500 Manats (11,000 Norwegian Kroner, 1,500 Euros or 2,000 US Dollars). The sums represent more than a year’s average local wages for a manual worker (see F18News 4 April 2013http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=1820).
Former prisoner of conscience Pastor Balaev – who is caring for his wife suffering from cancer – was imprisoned from May 2007 to March 2008 for his faith (see F18News 19 March 2008http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=1102). Shabanova’s husband – Pastor Hamid Shabanov – was held in pre-trial detention from June to November 2008, and in February 2009 he was given a two-year suspended sentence on charges he and his fellow-Baptists insisted were fabricated to punish him for exercising his freedom of religion or belief (see F18News 12 February 2009http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=1254).
Shabanova was brought to court in place of her husband, who was away in Russia, where their grandchild was undergoing a serious operation. The fines were imposed after raids on the Balaev and Shabanov family homes in Aliabad in November 2012. Police warned those present that meeting for religious worship without registration is “illegal”. They seized religious literature – including Bibles – in Azeri, Russian and Georgian. (The Balaevs and the Shabanovs are from the local Georgian-speaking minority.) Local police refused to discuss with Forum 18 why they had raided the two homes and seized religious literature (see F18News 9 November 2012 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=1765).
Baptists told Forum 18 from Aliabad that, as of 1 May, the confiscated religious literature had still not been returned, despite earlier police promises that it would be.
Pastor Balaev and Shabanova are also considering complaining to the Justice Ministry and the Interior Ministry over threats against them from Judge Imanverdi Shukurov and the police during the March hearings at Zakatala District Court.

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