Summary paragraph: The government continued to physically abuse, arrest and imprison religious activists who local human rights groups deemed to be political prisoners according to local human rights groups and others. There were an estimated 80 individuals incarcerated as of the end of the year. In January and December the Baku Grave Crimes Court sentenced leaders of the Muslim Unity Movement and others arrested in a 2015 police operation in Nardaran to long prison terms. In July the Masalli District Court sentenced a theologian to three years in prison for performing a religious ceremony after studying Islam outside the country. Authorities detained, fined and warned numerous individuals for holding unauthorized religious meetings. According to religious groups, the government continued to deny or delay registration to minority religious groups it considered “nontraditional,” disrupting their religious services and fining participants. Groups previously registered but which the authorities required to reregister continued to face difficulties doing so. Local religious experts stated the government continued to close mosques on the pretext of repairing them but said the actions were actually due to government concerns the individuals in mosques promulgated extremist views. The government continued to restrict the importation, distribution, and sale of religious materials. The courts fined numerous individuals for the unauthorized sale or distribution of religious materials, although some individuals had their fines revoked on appeal. The government organized conferences and took other steps to combat what it considered to be religious extremism and to promote religious tolerance.
On September 30, authorities detained 30 men who, in violation of local edict, were marching towards the Imamzadeh Mosque in Ganja to commemorate Ashura. Police charged four individuals with hooliganism and for resisting the police and placed them in pretrial detention. Human rights lawyers reported the police severely beat many of the detainees in custody.
Government authorities continued to arrest and incarcerate individuals for their religious activities. Local human rights groups considered many of these individuals political prisoners. There were no reliable figures on the number of religious activists detained or released during the year, although the estimated total incarcerated as of the end of the year was 80, compared with 86 in 2016, according to data collected by the Working Group for the Unified List of Political Prisoners and other NGOs.
On January 25, the Baku Grave Crimes Court sentenced Muslim Unity Movement leader Taleh Bagirzada and his deputy Abbas Huseynov to 20 years in prison following the December 2016 police raid in the village of Nardaran. The court sentenced 16 others associated with the case to prison terms ranging from 10 to 19 years. In July a court denied appeals to overturn the sentences. On December 28, the Baku Court sentenced another group of individuals arrested in connection to the special police operation in Nardaran to prison terms of 12 to 15 years. Lawyers for the convicted men publicly called the verdicts and sentences illegal and said they would appeal them. Authorities charged the group with terrorism, murder, calling for the overthrow of the government, and inciting religious hatred. Human rights defenders stated the government fabricated the charges to halt the spread of an Islamic political opposition in the country. In September the government granted the early release of 18 individuals convicted of minor crimes related to a 2015 police operation in Nardaran.
On July 3, the Masalli District Court sentenced theologian Sardar Babayev to three years in prison for performing Namaz (ritual prayers) after having studied Islam outside the country. He was the only individual ever prosecuted under this law. Following Babayev’s arrest, parliament passed legislation allowing the CMB, the same body that had originally appointed him as imam in Masalli, to waive selectively the same legal requirements for other individuals. According to NGOs Human Rights Without Frontiers (HRWF) and Forum 18, Babayev’s lawyer was unable to attend the first hearing on February 22 due to the short notice, and while in pre-trial detention from February to July prison authorities reportedly denied Babayev access to the Quran and to a prayer mat.
On July 25, the Baku Court of Appeals affirmed a lower court’s conviction of Inqilab Ehadli for treason (reportedly wanting to overthrow the constitutional order). On May 11, 2016, the Baku Grave Crimes Court had sentenced him to five years in prison. Lawyers stated the real reason for his conviction was his support of the politically active Muslim Unity Movement.
According to the media reports, police in the town of Quba raided a religious meeting at the home of local resident Tehran Amiraslanov on March 4 and detained 22 participants on charges of holding a religious meeting without state permission. Police seized 54 religious books and 16 audio tapes and sent them to the SCWRA for analysis. At least 21 of the accused reportedly were found guilty and each was fined 1,500 AZN ($880) at hearings on March 5.
On April 9, according to NGO reports, police raided meetings of Jehovah's Witnesses in the Qaradag district of Baku, detaining 39 individuals, including 10 children. Police seized a large quantity of religious literature during the raids. At year’s end, the investigation of the case continued. Jehovah’s Witnesses also reported police raided and interfered with religious services, seized religious literature, physically attacked individuals, and detained them for hours in three incidents in Barda and Lokbatan. Between October 2016 and July 2017, Jehovah’s Witnesses representatives’ reported 10 cases of police interference with their public proselytizing.
Media reported authorities removed an imam in the Goychay district, Ruslan Mammadov, from his position as the CMB-approved imam, charging him with illegal activity for setting up a mosque in a village near his home. Media also reported the SCWRA issued a warning to Imam Ilgar Ibrahimoglu for holding an “illegal” meeting in Baku during Ramadan for the Juma Mosque religious community from which authorities officially removed him in 2004.
Unregistered Muslim and non-Muslim religious groups considered nontraditional by the government reported authorities continued to impede their functioning and subject them to fines. Some Protestant leaders reported that their continued inability to obtain legal registration prevented them from openly conducting worship services or advertising their locations to bring in new members. Leaders of unregistered home-based churches continued to report they kept their activities discreet after past unsuccessful registration attempts brought them unwanted attention from authorities.
Numerous religious communities continued to report experiencing problems with the government’s registration application process, leaving them unable to register.
Communities applying for registration for the first time stated the government continued to return applications because of what it said were technical or administrative problems with the information provided. In 2009, the government amended the law governing religious communities to require all registered groups to resubmit registration applications. The SCWRA did not reregister some groups, including several minority Muslim groups, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and some evangelical Christians, despite their submission of their applications before the January 2010 deadline, and continued to require the groups to dissolve legally before accepting new applications for registration.
Some religious community leaders also reported the SCWRA continued its policy of applying pre-2009 registration status for such communities only to the physical structures mentioned in their pre-2009 registration forms. The SCWRA continued to state the religious activities of these communities in additional facilities or new locations acquired since 2009 were not covered under their pre-2009 registration status.
The SCWRA reported it continued to provide letters authorizing previously registered communities to operate while their new registration applications remained pending. Although the SCWRA stated those communities were able to operate under their previous registration, some of the religious communities unable to reregister reported police continued to reject the SCWRA letters as inadequate and stated only communities listed on the SCWRA website as currently registered were allowed to operate.
According to the SCWRA, the number of registered communities during the year reached 793, of which 28 were non-Muslim – 17 Christian, eight Jewish, two Bahai, and one ISKON. The SCWRA also reported 2250 mosques, 14 churches, and seven synagogues were registered at the end of the year. The SCWRA stated it had registered ten religious education schools during the year.
The SCWRA said in a press release it terminated the activities of seven religious communities for noncompliance with the law and reported registering 34 religious communities.
Observers reported the government and the majority of school administrators throughout the country continued to permit girls to wear the hijab in primary and secondary schools despite directives in 2007 and 2009 that mandated school uniforms and implied girls should not wear the hijab.
According to religious experts, the government continued to exercise control over the activities of Muslim groups, including through regulating the content of religious television broadcasts and the sale of religious literature. The government also reportedly continued confiscations of unapproved books.
According to NGO reports, on May 5, police in the southern town of Astara, on the border with Iran, seized 365 banned religious books and 13 CDs from five homes. The police investigation reportedly continued at year’s end.
Although some religious groups reported the process for obtaining permission to import religious literature remained burdensome, Jehovah’s Witnesses stated their previous problems with the importation of religious materials and literature had ended following meetings on the subject with the SCWRA.
On May 31, the Sheki Court of Appeals upheld a fine of 1,500 AZN ($880) imposed on Sunni Muslim Shahin Ahmadov for holding an “illegal” religious meeting. Police had detained him for reading aloud from the works of theologian Said Nursi to three friends while picnicking on April 18.
On June 21, the Sheki Court of Appeals upheld a fine of 1,500 AZN ($880) given to Baptist Pastor Hamid Shabanov for an illegal religious gathering after police raided a 2016 meeting with fellow church members in the village of Aliabad in the northern Zakatala district. Media reported police also fined Mehman Agamammadov for his participation in the same gathering, but he was unable to join Shabanov’s appeal, having never received a written decision from the court, despite repeated attempts to obtain it. Human rights defenders stated there were multiple violations of law and process in this case, such as the court’s failure to provide a translator and asking Shabanov to sign documents he could not read.
In early January a higher court rejected the appeal by three Jehovah’s Witnesses from the Goranboy district of fines imposed on them for discussing their faith with others and offering to give them religious literature.
Local media reported authorities fined Kifayat Maharramova, a bookseller in Ganja, 2,000 AZN ($1,200) in early May for selling religious books and discs without the necessary state permission. Two booksellers in Baku, Shahmerdan Imamaliyev and Islam Mammadov, lost their appeals in January to overturn similar fines imposed in 2016.
In March a court in Baku acquitted the owners of a store selling Christian books after they showed evidence to the court they had previously applied for the needed license to sell religious items, and the books being sold had received state approval or were sample copies to be submitted for such approval. Following the court decision in their favor, they received the necessary license from authorities with the assistance of the SCWRA.
On February 8, the Supreme Court overturned the conviction of Jehovah’s Witnesses Valida Jabrayilova and Irina Zakharchenko on charges of illegal distribution of religious literature. The court found the brochure in question had been approved for import and was not harmful to society. On August 4, the Nasimi District Court awarded them compensation for “material and moral damage” incurred during their 11-month imprisonment.
Local religious experts stated the government continued to close mosques under the pretext of repairing or renovating them; they said the government’s real motivation was countering perceived religious extremism. Once closed, they said, the mosques remained closed. For example, after the Ashurbey Mosque in the Old City of Baku became popular with Salafis as a place of worship, authorities announced it needed renovation and closed it in July 2016. It remained closed at year’s end.
On July 1, local authorities demolished the Haji Javad mosque in Baku. According to media reports, on April 12, a group of Muslims surrounded the mosque to prevent its demolition to construct a new road. Authorities had suspended the demolition while they studied the issue and held consultations on relocating the mosque to a nearby location. Media reported the government had not authorized the demolition, and officials fired the head of the city district. The government ordered the construction of a new Haji Javad Mosque that was near completion at the end of the year.
Domestic human rights NGOs and Jehovah’s Witnesses reported the government continued not to offer any form of alternative service to conscientious objectors. Government officials continued to state the basis for their stance was the continuing conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh.
On March 17, in conjunction with the declaration of 2017 as a year of Islamic solidarity, the president announced the allocation of three million AZN ($1,750,000) to the CMB for educational activities throughout the country, to be conducted in coordination with state officials and religious figures.
On June 20, President Aliyev signed a decree allocating one million AZN ($585,000) to the CMB for the needs of Muslim communities, and 250,000 AZN ($147,000) each to the Baku Diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church and the religious community of Mountain Jews. The decree also allocated 100,000 AZN ($58,500) each to the European Jewish community, the Albanian-Udi community, and the Catholic Church of Baku.
During the first six months of the year, the SCWRA held 13 domestic conferences in varying locations on Islamic solidarity, modern challenges, and “religious enlightenment,” 12 roundtables on activities of religious communities in promoting Islamic solidarity, and nine training sessions on the fight against “religious radicalism.”