Four foreign nationals still held in Azerbaijan, one “deported”
BAKU, Azerbaijan—Five days after the December 24 police raid of a Jehovah’s Witness religious meeting, four of the foreign nationals who were illegally detained are still held and have not been presented with any protocol or official charges. The detainees have been deprived not only of their liberty but also of access to justice—attempts to reach the authorities and reconcile the situation are met with claims that no one is available because of the holiday season. The four remain effectively under arrest, and merely for the reason that they were attending a religious service of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Sunday’s raid disrupted a religious service of an officially registered religious organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses, which approximately 200 persons were attending. The police officers broke down the door to the auditorium and escorted all those in attendance out of the building. In the same building there are also offices and living quarters. Without producing any court order, the police also forced their way into these areas and began carrying out a search and seizure. Six foreign nationals were among those forcibly put on a bus and taken to a police station.
Georgian citizen Manuchar Tsimintia was detained while carrying out his professional duties as a lawyer, although he was not even in attendance at the religious event. He has since been released. On December 28, 2006, Giorgi Gogichashvili, a visiting minister, was “released” when friends bought him a train ticket to return to Georgia. However, his passport was not returned to him until he crossed the border into Georgia; he was, in effect, deported. The remaining four foreign nationals have been held for five days, and there is little prospect of their release over the holiday season.
Back in 1999, referring to an incident in which foreign nationals were deported from Azerbaijan on religious grounds, then-president Heydar Aliyev is reported to have stated publicly that “our Constitution guarantees freedom of conscience and religion, and all rights will be defended . . . These events will not be repeated.” (Translated from newspaper Azadlyg, of November 10, 1999.)
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