AZERBAIJAN: Official Outlines Religious Censorship Procedure.

Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 26 September 2002

The head of the "expertise" department of the State Committee for Work with Religious Organisations has told Keston News Service that his department checks between 20 and 30 religious books, magazines and tapes every week before authorising their publication or import. Jeyhun Mamedov revealed that the five officials in his department check religious publications brought in for approval by religious communities, copies of religious books and magazines confiscated from travellers entering Azerbaijan and religious publications sent to them by customs when they open all parcels of books entering the country by post. "This is not censorship," he insisted to Keston by telephone from Baku on 26 September. "We just give our expert conclusion as to whether each publication is OK or not." He stressed that books they have banned have come from Iran or Arab countries.

Mamedov declared that the procedure for this compulsory censorship was set out in the State Committee's statute. He explained that his department has certain criteria for deeming a book unacceptable. "We are looking for material that declares that one religion is better than others, for example, or if it would cause problems - for our state, that is." Asked whether all religions did not believe that their faith was more truthful than others, Mamedov declined to respond.

Asked how this prior compulsory censorship accords with Azerbaijan's commitments to freedom of expression and freedom of religion under international human rights documents and as a member of the Council of Europe and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Mamedov was not able to answer, referring all such enquiries to Namik Allahverdiev, the assistant to Rafik Aliev, chairman of the State Committee. Both Allahverdiev and Aliev were unavailable by telephone on 26 September. Keston was told they were both out at a conference. Mamedov's colleague Mirzabala Amirakhov, who heads the department at the committee that deals with Christian groups, likewise could not explain how the censorship accorded with Azerbaijan's commitments, but believed it was right. "There is a reason for the system."

Speaking to Keston in Baku earlier this year, some religious leaders ridiculed the censorship procedure, in particular questioning how the State Committee could check material in languages such as Hebrew or German (see KNS 15 March 2002). "We have specialists who know Russian, Arabic, English and German," Mamedov reported, but admitted: "We don't have people for other languages."

Mamedov explained that travellers entering the country with quantities of religious literature would have that literature removed by customs and would get it back only after it has been approved by the State Committee. "This does not apply if an individual is only in transit."

Asked what the customs do when a parcel of books or magazines arrives in Azerbaijan by post addressed to a local addressee, Mamedov explained: "Customs open the parcel. If they are books about religion, they send them to us to be checked." Asked whether such censorship applies to books on, say, economics, he responded: "No, they just send them on to the addressee." Asked how many books a parcel can contain before the contents are sent for evaluation by his department, Mamedov reported: "If it's one copy, they wouldn't send it to us, but if it is a lot they would." He added that video and cassette tapes of religious content are likewise subject to evaluation. He said his committee had fifteen days to give its conclusion about whether a publication was acceptable or not.

Mamedov revealed that his department is now drawing up a list of banned publications which, he said, would be published "in the next two weeks or a month" on the State Committee's website and in its magazine in Azerbaijani and in Russian. "There are 20 to 25 titles already on the list," he declared. "Not from Western countries," he quickly added, "from Iran." (END)