AZERBAIJAN: OSCE Planning Review of Religion Requirements.

Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 11 March 2002

Amid widespread concern among the religious and human rights community within Azerbaijan about the new system of state control over religion and the re-registration process now nearing completion (see separate KNS article), the ambassador in Baku of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has told Keston News Service that one of the organisation's senior human rights officials intends to visit Baku to discuss these issues with the State Committee for Relations with Religious Organisations, which was founded last June to implement the new system.

"The OSCE and its relevant institutions, namely the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) and its Advisory Panel of Experts on Freedom of Religion or Belief are monitoring new legislation and requirements on religious congregations very closely," Ambassador Peter Burkhard told Keston from Baku on 11 March, "and will be following the practical implications of the creation of a State Committee for Relations with Religious Organisations in this light."

He added that the director of the Warsaw-based ODIHR, Ambassador Gerard Stoudmann, is now planning a forthcoming visit to Baku together with a team of religious freedom experts, although it is yet to be confirmed.

"While acknowledging that it is important to find ways to deal with terrorism, including religiously-motivated violence and that Azerbaijan may have concerns about spreading fundamentalism financed from abroad, freedom of religion is a fundamental human right and the ability to express one's religion and beliefs freely is a cornerstone of democratic society and a prerequisite for lasting stability in all participating States," Burkhard told Keston.

"The OSCE/ODIHR will therefore be examining the new requirements and looking at how they can be implemented in line with Azerbaijan's international commitments, including the newly assumed commitments contained in the European Convention on Human Rights, as well as the detailed commitments contained in the OSCE's Vienna Concluding Document of 1989."

Also watching developments is the coordinator in Baku of the Council of Europe, which Azerbaijan joined at the beginning of 2001. "I am following developments in the re-registration process keenly, and how the process will end up," Inkeri Aarnio-Lwoff told Keston from Baku on 11 March. "It would also be a good thing to examine to what extent Azerbaijan's law on religion is compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights."

She said that the religious liberty situation would form one part of the report to be drawn up later this year by the Council of Europe rapporteur on Azerbaijan, who is due to visit the country in the spring to check up on how the country is abiding by its commitments as a Council of Europe member.

Azerbaijan ratified the 1950 European Convention on Human Rights on 5 March and is expected to lodge the ratification with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg soon. As soon as the ratification instrument is lodged, Azerbaijani citizens who believe their rights under the European Convention have been violated and who have exhausted all domestic judicial remedies will be able to take their cases to the European Court of Human Rights. "I am very happy that Azerbaijan has ratified the Convention and that the way will soon be open for Azerbaijani citizens to take cases to the European Court of Human Rights," Aarnio-Lwoff told Keston. "This is an important step towards guaranteeing human rights in Azerbaijan."

The court has in recent years adopted a number of key rulings in favour of religious freedom, including rulings punishing governments for meddling in religious communities' choice of leaders (see KNS 7 November 2000) and unfounded denial of registration (see KNS 14 December 2001). (END)