The April 22 Appeals Court ruling clears the way for officials to evict worshippers from the Juma mosque, located in Baku's Ichari Sahar historic district. The Juma mosque community is led by Ilgar Ibrahimoglu, a charismatic speaker who operates outside the official government religious framework, and who is a prominent critic of President Ilham Aliyev's administration. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
So far, officials have not acted to initiate the eviction process. Ibrahimoglu has vowed that his followers would resist action to close down the mosque. "We will defend our rights peacefully," Ibrahimoglu told Forum 18, a Norway-based religious rights organization.
Built in the 15th century, the Juma mosque had been used as a carpet museum during the late Soviet era. In a lawsuit brought by representatives of the Ichari Sahar historic district, the Sabayil District Court on March 1 ruled that the Islamic community improperly repossessed the Juma mosque in 1992, following the Soviet Union's collapse. Accordingly, the court ordered that the structure be restored as a carpet museum. Members of the mosque community insist that they repeatedly submitted registration documentation, adding that authorities ignored their applications.
Observers say the underlying issue behind the Juma mosque case is the government's desire to contain possible sources of dissent, especially in the religious sphere. While few Azerbaijanis are proponents of radical Islamic ideas, the government closely monitors the activities of religious groups. The Muslim Board, an organization to which all Azerbaijani mosques are expected to belong, serves as the state's watchdog in this respect. The Juma Mosque is one of the few Muslim religious communities not affiliated with the Board.
Critics have described the Muslim Board along with another state-run authority, the Religious Affairs Committee as Soviet-era holdovers with a growing taste for censorship of religious literature and a mission to squash religious groups that do not submit to state control.
As the secretary-general of the Azerbaijani branch of the International Religious Liberty Association and coordinator of DEVAMM (Center for the Protection of Freedom of Conscience and Religion), Ibrahimoglu had long been at the center of the civil rights movement in Azerbaijan. He gained particular attention from officials for his Friday sermons, in which he often criticized government policy.
In addition to the Juma mosque case, Ibrahimoglu personally has grappled with Azerbaijan's legal system. He was arrested in December and charged in connection with opposition protests over Azerbaijan's rigged presidential election in October. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
On April 2, Ibrahimoglu was released from custody after being convicted in Sabayil District Court and given a five-year suspended sentence. Shortly after his release, Ibrahimoglu described his condition as "half-free." In comments published by Forum 18, Ibrahimoglu said: "I am not allowed to leave Baku without special permission and if I violate the law even slightly I could be sent back to prison."
Ibrahimoglu's release came five days before an official visit to Azerbaijan by Council of Europe Secretary-General Walter Schwimmer. The status of political prisoners in Azerbaijan featured prominently on the agenda for Schwimmer's April 7-8 meetings with Azerbaijani leaders.
As Ibrahimoglu's suspended sentence indicates, Aliyev's administration has sought to improve its human rights image in recent weeks. Azerbaijan has consistently disputed international community criticism concerning the incarceration of political prisoners. At the same time, a series of recent high-profile pardons have freed many prominent government opponents from custody, including former prime minister Suret Huseinov.
A number of governments and international organizations, including the United States and Council of Europe, have welcomed the release of Azerbaijani political prisoners. According to Schwimmer, most of the 716 prisoners that the Council of Europe contended had been jailed for political reasons are now free.
"I am confident that Azerbaijan is firmly on the way to definitively turn[ing] over the page of the alleged political prisoners," Schwimmer said during a meeting with students at Baku State University. "In any Council of Europe member state, even one political prisoner would be one too many. "
Human rights activists, however, argue that Schwimmer may be overly optimistic in his assessment of Azerbaijan's commitment to upholding political rights. They point out that the exact number of people arrested during the government's post-election crackdown remains unknown. In addition, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe has estimated that the number of political prisoners prior to the recent pardons was over 800, suggesting that many remain in jail.