U.S. Religious Body Pitches Adding Azerbaijan to State Department's Special Watch List

The U.S. religious freedom body USCIRF recommends Azerbaijan be added to the State Department's Special Watch (SW) List meaning it engages in 2 of 3 international standards of "systematic," "ongoing," and "egregious" religious freedom violations, TURAN's Washington correspondent reports.

The bipartisan commission, created in 1998 to make policy recommendations to the U.S. President, Secretary of State and Congress about global religious freedom, has been including Azerbaijan on its "Tier 2" list for religious freedom violations every year since 2013.

In its 21st annual report issued on Tuesday in Washington D.C. the USCIRF, instead of using its own “Tier 2” category, decided to recommend 15 countries, including Azerbaijan, for placement on the Special Watch List for severe violations. Other countries on the SW list include: Cuba, Nicaragua, Afghanistan, Algeria, Bahrain, Central African Republic, Egypt, Indonesia, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, and Turkey.

According to the USCIRF, although in 2019, religious freedom conditions in Azerbaijan "trended positively", as the government largely ceased conducting raids on religious communities and reduced its longstanding practice of detaining and fining individuals in connection with the unauthorized, peaceful practice of their religion or beliefs, as well as pardoned 51 political and religious prisoners, it also continued to exert undue control and oversight over all religious communities and their activities.

"Government officials continued to manage and limit religious practices through the 2009 Law on Freedom of Religion and related articles of the administrative and criminal codes."

According to nongovernmental organizations, tracking political prisoners in the country, as many as 45 religious activists remained incarcerated at the end of the year. Sardar Babayev, a Shi’a Muslim imam sentenced in 2017 for illegally leading Islamic ceremonies after having received a foreign religious education, remained imprisoned through the end of 2019.

The majority of prisoners of conscience in Azerbaijan comprise members of the Muslim Unity Movement (MUM). A 2019 PACE report highlighted the continued imprisonment of MUM leaders Taleh Bagirzade and Abbas Huseynov and noted that they and others associated with MUM had reported being tortured. In response to “unprecedented pressure” in early 2019,

Bagirzade and Huseynov went on a hunger strike and were reportedly denied access to their lawyers and families. "Local human rights activists maintained that the government had targeted and detained tens of individuals in connection with violence in the city of Ganja in 2018 as part of its effort to “start repressions against believers,” and they expressed concern that those detainees were also at risk for torture," reads the report.

In another major recommendation to the U.S. government, the Commission urges Washington to work with Baku to revise the 2009 religion law to comply with international human rights standards, and bring it into conformity with recommendations made in 2012 by the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission and the OSCE.

The report also recommends the U.S. Congress to hold public hearings to investigate Azerbaijan’s religious freedom and broader human rights abuses, including its treatment of the MUM; raise related concerns directly with the Azerbaijani Embassy and other government officials; and advocate for the release of all prisoners of conscience.

Alex Raufoglu

Washington D.C.


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