On the eve of an Amnesty International report that takes Azerbaijan to task for restrictions on individual liberty, Azerbaijani legislators on November 15 imposed stiff state controls on religious activity. Political analysts see the government’s meddling in the realm of faith as an effort to limit neighboring Iran’s ability to influence Azerbaijani affairs. Some add that Baku’s tactical choice could easily create more problems than it solves.
The amendments to Azerbaijan’s criminal and administrative codes, adopted with only three dissenting votes, impose potential multi-year prison terms and up to an eightfold-increase in fines for the distribution of unsanctioned religious literature, “forced” religious activity and the performance of religious rituals by individuals educated abroad without the government’s permission.
Under the changes, the publication, import, sale and dissemination of religious literature or items not approved by the State Committee for Religious Affairs (SCRA) can result in a 5,000-7,000-manat ($6,361 to $8,905) fine, or up to two years in prison. Sanctioned religious literature may be sold only at 52 specialized shops, licensed by the SCRA. No information was available about when or where these stores would open.
Similar vagueness marks another amendment that proscribes “forcing” a person to take part in or carry out “religious rituals,” or compelling a person “to receive a religious education.” The exact definition of “forcing” was not specified.
Such actions will carry a possible prison term of up to two years and a fine of 3,000 to 5,000 manats (about $3,800 to $6,300). Similar punishment was approved for “forcing” someone to join a religious community, or preventing them from leaving it.
Another amendment bans all religious education abroad, including the exchange of Muslim clerics, not sanctioned by the SCRA. Individuals who receive a “foreign religious education” without the SCRA’s permission are prohibited from performing religious ceremonies. The stipulated punishment for violators is a 2,000-5,000-manat ($2,544-$6,361) fine and a maximum two-year prison term.
Fines and prison terms more than double for all the above actions, if the accused is a government official, part of a “criminal group,” or if the actions somehow target minors. Foreign nationals are banned from taking part in all the above-mentioned activities.
MPs who backed the measures described them as precautionary, designed to prevent “some circles” from stirring up conflict among Azerbaijanis over religious matters. Others emphasized the alleged “negative influence of some neighboring countries” exerted via Islam – a standard reference to Baku’s southern neighbor, Iran. MP Chingiz Ganziade cut to the chase and accused Iran outright of “conducting anti-state propaganda [in Azerbaijan] through religion.”
Azerbaijan recently experienced a series of street protests against an informal ban on wearing a hijab, head-coverings for Muslim women, in public schools. Iran has been particularly outspoken in denouncing the informal ban.
During a 90-minute parliamentary debate on the amendments and the threat from “some circles,” only one MP, Fazil Mustafayev of the Great Creation Party, denounced the legislation, charging that they amount to government censorship and a violation of “freedom of speech and freedom of education.”
Media Rights Institute Deputy Director Khalid Agaliyev agreed, arguing that the amendments violate constitutional articles 18 (separation of religion and state), 48 (freedom of conscience and beliefs), 50 (freedom of information) and 42 (right to education). The measures further violate the European Convention for Human Rights, to which Azerbaijan is a signatory. That pact does not grant a right to restrict religious literature, he continued. “These amendments are already the 14th time that the parliament has changed religious legislation since 2001,” Agaliyev said. “And every time, the amendments are about restrictions.” Appeals by believers or human rights groups to the Strasbourg-based European Court for Human Rights will no doubt be in the offing, he predicted.
One international body, the London-based human rights watchdog Amnesty International, on November 16 took Azerbaijan to task on a similar topic -- crackdowns on protests and the use of threats against media and human rights activists to stifle dissent. In a report, Amnesty charged that officials have “stepped up their harassment and intimidation of individuals because of their known or perceived political, religious or civil society activities.” The result is a “widespread sense of fear and self-censorship,” the report claimed. The government did not immediately respond to the report’s allegations.
One cleric and frequent critic of the government’s religious rights record, Ilgar Ibrahimoglu, head of DEVAM, a Baku-based religious rights’ defense group, sees the amendments as part of a similar crackdown on religious liberties. He has called for a public debate on the legislation, and indicated that DEVAM may appeal the changes to Azerbaijan’s Constitutional Court and the European Court for Human Rights. “The penalty for prostitution or running brothels is many times less than for religious violations,” fumed Ibrahimoglu, who also serves as leader of Baku’s Juma Muslim community. Fines for prostitution and brothels do not run higher than 500 manats (about $636). “Does it mean that in Azerbaijan religious activities are a more serious ‘offense’ than prostitution?”
Allahshukur Pashazade, the head of the semi-official Caucasus Muslims Board, and a usual government ally, could not be reached for comment about the amendments.
Political analyst Arif Yunusov, author of “Political Islam in Azerbaijan,” though, believes that the amendments underline that the Azerbaijani government is worried by the popularization of Islam and sees it as a threat. Yunusov argued that Azerbaijan has not had full-fledged opposition forces for the past five years; the 2005 parliamentary election, watched closely for any signs of another “color revolution,” was followed by a clampdown on opposition groups and critical media, he noted. “Before that, the government suppressed traditional opposition and free media. Then, various Islamic groups started to emerge on Azerbaijan's political scene,” Yunusov said. “It is the government's own fault. They created a void in the opposition … and it is being quickly filled by Islamists.”
Bringing pressure to bear against public displays of religious belief will not diminish Islamic criticism of the government, he continued. “I call it the forced radicalization of believers by the government,” Yunusov said.
Shahin Abbasov is a freelance reporter in Baku and a board member of the Open Society Assistance Foundation-Azerbaijan.