For Immediate Release
July 27, 2011
Azerbaijan exacts exorbitant fines for attending religious meetings
GANJA, Azerbaijan—On June 13, 2011, Judge Gunduz Shirinov of Ganja’s Nizami District Court convicted four of Jehovah’s Witnesses of the “violation of the creation and rules of activity of religious structures,” under Article 299.02 of the Administrative Violations Code (AVC). One was fined 1,500 AZN (approximately $1,900 US), two were fined 500 AZN (approximately $635 US), and one was given a warning. This is the second time in just over six months that Rashad Niftaliyev, Teymur Valiyev, and Yegana Gahramanova have been convicted of this offense. For Rana Sadigova, it was her first conviction. The decision was appealed, and on July 11, 2011, the Ganja Appeal Court upheld the four convictions and three fines.
On Sunday, June 12, 2011, approximately forty people gathered at the home of Ms. Gahramanova for the weekly public meeting of Jehovah’s Witnesses. After the religious meeting ended at 11:15 a.m., Firdovsi Karimov, a local representative of the State Committee for Work with Religious Associations, entered Ms. Gahramanova’s home without permission and ordered everyone, including the elderly and infirm; to remain until the police arrived. At 11:30 a.m., the police took all in attendance to the police station for questioning, detaining some for almost ten hours.
At the police station and in court, it was explained to the Witnesses that their meetings are illegal because only state-registered religious structures can hold meetings for worship under Article 12 of the Law on Freedom of Religious Beliefs. The Ganja Witnesses’ first application for registration to the State Committee was rejected on technical grounds and they have not yet processed the Witnesses second application.
In recent months, the National Assembly of Azerbaijan has made it more difficult for religious minorities to worship freely. On June 10, 2011, the National Assembly passed amendments to Article 12, increasing the number of members required to register a religious community from ten to fifty. On December 29, 2010, Articles 299 and 300 of the AVC, were amended to increase the penalties for violations by an astounding 600 (and in some cases, 1,500) percent. The increased fines impose a heavy burden on religious minorities endeavoring to practice their religion, most being unable to pay such fines. The Azeri Press Agency recently reported that the average monthly salary of hired workers in Azerbaijan from January 2010 to October 2010 was 320 AZN (approximately $405 US).
Additionally, from April to June 2011, police broke up several religious meetings of Jehovah’s Witnesses held in private homes in Lokbatan, a district of Baku. On June 9, 2011, police charged one Witness, in whose home the religious meetings were held, of violating Article 299 of the AVC. However, she has not yet been convicted because the Garadagh District Court has returned her case to the police, after finding that her procedural rights had been violated during the investigation.
The exorbitant fines for attending peaceful religious meetings of Jehovah’s Witnesses are a serious violation of the Constitution of Azerbaijan and the European Convention, of which Azerbaijan is a signatory.
J. R. Brown, tel. +1 718 560 5600
Belgium: European Association of Jehovah’s Christian Witnesses, tel. +32 2 782 0015; mobile +32 475 58 10 36
Britain: European Association of Jehovah’s Christian Witnesses, tel. +44 208 906 2211
Legal Contact: Office of General Counsel, tel. +1 845 306 0711