A jailed Baptist pastor in Azerbaijan won a partial victory July 29 when a judge decided not to convict him of criminal charges and referred the case back to the prosecutor for further investigation.
“We were partially successful,” the lawyer representing Pastor Hamid Shabanov against criminal charges told the Christian news service Forum 18.
“We called for Shabanov to be acquitted, for an end to the criminal case and for him to be freed,” said Shabanov’s lawyer, Mirman Aliev. “But the judge was afraid to do so and instead sent the case back for further investigation.”
Aliev said the judge ordered the investigation to be completed by Aug. 23, with a new trial presumably to follow.
Shabanov, 52, was arrested June 20 after police in the remote northern village of Aliabad near Azerbaijan’s border with Georgia searched his house and claimed to find an illegal firearm and ammunition. Family members say Shabanov does not own a gun and allege that police planted the evidence in the most recent of systematic efforts to intimidate and harass religious minorities.
Forum 18 has been covering such incidents for years. They include government officials refusing to allow Baptist churches to register in accordance with the law, firing of workers when they are found to be Christian converts and refusal to issue birth certificates for infants with Christian names.
Shabanov’s arrest came three months after another Baptist pastor in the same village was released from prison on charges of resisting arrest that his supporters also claimed were trumped up. Pastor Zauer Balaev was set free in March after a worldwide campaign calling for his release, which included former U.S. President Jimmy Carter.
“Without this international campaign Zaur Balaev would never have been freed,” Ilya Zenchenko, head of Azerbaijan’s Baptist Union, told Forum 18. “Taking his case through the local courts brought us nothing.”
David Coffey, president of the Baptist World Alliance, pledged to similarly “do all we can to publicize among the world family” about Shabanov’s case. He called on global Baptists to pray for the Shabanov family.
BWA General Secretary Neville Callam registered “grave disappointment” at what he viewed as “the denial of religious freedom” by Azerbaijan.
Tony Peck, general secretary of the European Baptist Federation, said he was “shocked and dismayed” at the arrest and appealed to Baptists on the continent to contact their nearest Azerbaijani embassy and protest.
Peck met July 24 with the Czech Republic’s ambassador to Azerbaijan, Tahir T. Taghizadeh, along with Christer Daelender of Sweden, the EBF’s representative for religious freedom issues, and Parush Parushev, a Bulgarian who serves as pro-rector and academic dean at International Baptist Theological Seminary in Prague.
“We presented the case to him. It was an open and cordial conversation. We explained the concerns of the European Baptists with the issues related to religious freedom for Baptists and other religious minorities in Azerbaijan, particularly in the Zakatala District of northwest Azerbaijan,” Parushev said in an e-mail to EthicsDaily.com.
Parushev called it “an open and cordial conversation” and said the ambassador “listened to us carefully and with understanding and promised to investigate the case and to inform the office of the EBF by the beginning of this week.”
Prior to Shabanov’s scheduled trial, which began with a preliminary hearing July 22 and resumed the following week, Zenchenko said prosecutors “very much want to sentence” the pastor.
After the judge’s decision to remand the case, Zenchenko said the deputy police chief reacted angrily, meeting the Baptist leader outside the courtroom and ordering him to the police station for interrogation.
“(Kamandar) Hasanov called me an English spy who acts only for money,” Zenchenko told Forum 18. “He demanded in a threatening manner that I should not return to Zakatala, stop helping local Baptists and that I should abandon my faith.”
Zenchenko said the police official also told him there is a “special instruction” not to allow Baptists to function in Zakatala District, which has a history of restricting religious freedom, not only for Baptists but also other minority groups like Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Shabanov’s village, Aliabad, is a small town near Zakatala of some 10,000 people, made up almost entirely made up of members of the Ingilo minority, ethnic Georgians who were converted to Islam from Orthodox Christianity several centuries ago. Local officials there distrust the Baptists because they view them as unpatriotic.
Hostility from local officials has included references to Karabakh, an Armenian-populated region of Azerbaijan that broke away following a war soon after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. Backed by Armenia, the region claims full independence but is not internationally recognized.
Zenchenko said he intends to write Azerbaijan’s president to ask whether such an instruction exists, but he said if it does it probably comes from the local administration and not the president.
Police arresting Shabanov also claimed they confiscated illegal religious literature. Zenchenko testified in court, however, that the books, copies of the Bible in Azeri and Georgian, are approved under Azerbaijan’s controversial censorship of religious literature.
Zenchenko said Shabanov “looked bad” at his July 22 hearing, wearing the same clothes he was wearing when he was arrested a month before. His family was not allowed to bring him food or clothing or to see him prior to his appearance.
Shabanov’s brother told Forum 18 the family is unhappy and wants him to be vindicated and released. “The proceedings are not objective,” said Badri Shabanov. “The whole case is a charade. They’re holding him now at the police station as if he’s a terrorist.”
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.