Friday 5 December 1997

ARREST AND BEATINGS OF AZERBAIJANI JEHOVAH'S WITNESSES by Felix Corley, Keston News Service A member of the Jehovah's Witnesses in Azerbaijan, ALEKSANDR USENKO, has been arrested while trying to gain registration for his community in accordance with Azerbaijani legislation on religious organisations. Usenko visited the Ministry of Justice on 13 November for an appointment with the head of the department that registers religious communities, F. MAMMADOV. He was arrested at the Ministry by officials from the Baku prosecutor's office. The Jehovah's Witnesses maintain that Mammodov had sought a bribe from Usenko in exchange for registration. According to Azerbaijani officials, USENKO had offered a bribe of 2,000 US dollars to Mammadov. Azerbaijani officials also accuse USENKO (a citizen of the Russian Federation who now lives in Baku) of conducting missionary activity. His home was raided in the night of 13 November and a criminal case has been opened against him under Article 171 of the Azerbaijani Criminal Code (offering a bribe). According to the Jehovah's Witnesses, Usenko was beaten after his arrest, has been forced to sleep on the floor, has been deprived of food (although his wife was permitted to visit him once to bring him food) and has been prevented from receiving visitors. The lawyer hired to defend him was initially prevented from meeting his client. On 16 November the investigator handling the case began calling in for interrogation individuals whose names had appeared in documents confiscated from Usenko's home. These summonses continued after 20 November. Usenko's wife was interrogated, as were ARIF BABAYEV, NAZILYA VELIYEVA (an 18-year-old woman) and ROVSHAN NARIMAN-OGLI MURSALOV. The Jehovah's Witnesses report that the latter three were all beaten, VELIYEVA once and BABAYEV many times. MURSALOV had to seek treatment in hospital for a broken eardrum sustained during a beating. Others interrogated were reportedly screamed at and threatened. A spokesperson for the Jehovah's Witnesses in the Commonwealth of Independent States, who preferred not to be named, told Keston News Service in a telephone interview on 26 November that Usenko is still being held in prison in Baku and categorically denied that he had offered a bribe. The spokesperson added that eleven Jehovah's Witnesses who had been maltreated during interrogation have lodged an official complaint with the procurator-general's office. 'We have not had problems of such a nature in Azerbaijan before,' the spokesperson declared. 'As an unregistered organisation we have been unable to import literature or rent premises for worship. We have to meet for worship in private apartments.' The spokesperson reported that the Jehovah's Witnesses first applied for registration with the Ministry of Justice two years ago, but have met with constant refusals. Officials have never presented the community with a written justification for the refusal, but have told them verbally that they consider the community to be undesirable because its members refuse to join the army or bear arms. Religious organisations in Azerbaijan are governed by the Law on Freedom of Religious Profession, first approved on 20 August 1992 and amended on 7 June 1996. Once a community of at least ten adult members has drawn up a founding document and a constitution and presents them to the religious affairs department, the latter must pass on the application within fifteen days to the Ministry of Justice. The 1996 amendment to the 1992 law allows for a refusal of registration to be challenged 'in accordance with the relevant legislation of the Azerbaijan Republic' The 1996 amendment deletes more specific provisions on the state's duty to provide written reasons for a refusal within ten days and what religious communities can do in the event of official denial of registration. (END)