Azerbaijan rejects appeals of pastor fined for leading house church

(Wikimedia Commons/Urek Meniashvili)The Saint Sarkis church in Ganja, Azerbaijan is featured in this image.

The Azerbaijani government has rejected several appeals of a pastor who was fined in January for leading a worship service at a house church without state permission.

Hamid Shabanov was ordered to pay a fine of 1,500 manats (US$900) for leading worship services without permission following a police raid at his house in Aliabad, in the southern part of the country. Another church member, Mehman Agamammadov, was also ordered to pay the same amount.

The pastor, who was convicted in January, filed several appeals, but all were rejected. A local source, who wished to remain anonymous, has alleged that there have been "multiple violations of law and process" against Shabanov during his appeal process.

The hearings were reportedly conducted in the Azeri language, but the pastor only speaks the Georgian language, which is common to the area where he was born and where he still lives. The court allegedly did not provide a translator even though it is required by law.

The source told World Watch Monitor that Shabanov was "asked repeatedly to sign documents he could neither read nor understand, both in the appeals process and police investigations, including a document that waived his rights. This is both illegal and negligent of the legal process in Azerbaijan."

Shabanov had appealed to the Constitutional Court in the capital, Baku, as he cannot appeal to the Supreme Court because his case is an administrative matter.

Religious meetings without government permission, including meetings in homes, are punishable by Azerbaijani law. Shabanov had tried to register his congregation but the authorities have repeatedly turned down his application.

Registered churches must undergo regular and obligatory re-registration, and each time, fewer churches register, choosing to go underground instead.

The American Centre for Law and Justice (ACLJ) noted that minority religions in the country are "often either denied the registration or kept waiting for the application to be processed," despite their efforts to comply with the law.

The group recently submitted a report to the U.N. to highlight the incidents of human rights violations being committed in Azerbaijan.

The Universal Periodic Review (UPR), submitted by the group's affiliate European Centre for Law and Justice (ECLJ), mentions several instances of government-sanctioned persecution against Christians, including the case of 22 believers who were arrested for assembling to worship.

The report noted that the religious group had applied for registration, but the authorities did not grant them the permission to gather for worship by the time they had assembled for the service.

The ACLJ stressed the importance of the UPR, noting that countries such as Azerbaijan are not often highlighted by U.S. or international media. Consequently, violations of human rights and religious freedom that occur in such countries can go unnoticed.

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