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Plans for harsh new penalties for religious activities in Azerbaijan

Country/Region: Azerbaijan, Central Asia

People who produce or distribute religious literature that has not been vetted by the state in Azerbaijan could face up to five years in jail under proposed changes to legislation.

The measure is included in several proposed amendments to the country’s Criminal and Administrative Codes that create new penalties or increase the severity of existing punishments for a range of religious activities.

20110311-Azerbaijan-4X3.jpg
A church in Azerbaijan
(Source: Azerman, Wikimedia Commons)

Those who produce or distribute unapproved religious literature could alternatively be fined up to 9,000 Manats (£7,110; US$11,430), which equates to nearly nine years’ official minimum wage. Religious literature is subject to censorship in Azerbaijan, and state licences are required to sell it.

Fines are set to increase substantially for a range of offences, including obstructing others from conducting religious rituals, forcing others to conduct religious rituals, and:

"Creation of a group carrying out activity under the pretext of spreading a religious faith and carrying out religious activity and by this illegally harming social order, or harming the health of citizens or violating the rights of citizens irrespective of the form of infringement, as well as distracting citizens from performance of duties established by law, as well as leadership of such a group or participation in it".

Observers have noted the vague and wide-ranging language used, which they say appears to be designed to broaden the possibilities for the repression of religious freedom.

The amendments have already been approved by two parliamentary committees and are expected to be passed by the full parliament in mid-November.

Azerbaijan has repeatedly amended its laws to restrict the exercise of religious freedom and other human rights. The country’s Religion Law, which was first adopted in 1992, has been amended 13 times.   

One of these amendments, in 2009, required all religious organisations to re-register with the state. Hundreds of groups are still waiting for approval, and the process has become more difficult following further amendments this year that now require 50 rather than ten adult founders.

Christians have been affected by these changes. One church, the Cathedral of Praise, had to fight a long legal battle and, despite finally winning its case against the State Committee in July this year, has still not been re-registered.

Three other congregations were warned earlier this year not to meet for worship because they were not registered. One of the churches was raided by police in March to prevent its Sunday service from going ahead.

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