Azerbaijan Prison Forces Pastor To Pay For Food

Friday, November 23, 2007

By BosNewsLife News Center in Budapest

BAKU/BUDAPEST (BosNewsLife) -- A Baptist pastor serving two years imprisonment in Azerbaijan for "illegal religious services" is forced by officials to provide "high payments" for food, other basic needs and to meet relatives, BosNewsLife learned from investigators and family Thursday, November 22.

Voice Of the Martyrs Canada (VOMC), a Christian rights group, said Pastor Zaur Balaev was even forced by authorities in his prison in Baku to pay for "hot water, to wash or to do his laundry."

Zaur's wife Selminaz, also known as Nunuko, was allowed to stay with him during his 45th birthday, but said in published remarks she was "shocked by the conditions and the sum spent, because I was forced to pay for everything." No details were announced, but many people in Azerbaijan are living in poverty and struggle to survive, despite huge state revenues from oil reserves.

Balaev was transferred October 26 to Ordinary Regime Prison Colony No. 10, located in Baku 's Narimanov District. The prison colony address is: 10 sayli Cezacekme meassures, UA-38/10, Darnagul Settlement , Baku, said supporters seeking international pressure.

Since his transfer, Baptists have been able to supply Balaev with warm clothes, a blanket, new glasses and food, said Forum 18, another rights group closely monitoring the case. “But the conditions where the prisoners are held are terrible," added Ilya Zenchenko, who leads the Baptist Union, an umbrella group of Baptist churches, in a statement distributed by Forum 18.


"Although the internal regime is supposed not to be harsh, those sentenced are forced to prepare their own food, while all services - including hot water, the possibility to wash and a place to wash and dry clothes – need to be paid for. Even being able to pass something on or have a meeting with a prisoner 'costs' considerable sums of money. This makes people angry," added Zenchenko.

Officials have denied prisoners are forced to pay to guards before they are given food, water, washing facilities and meetings with relatives. "No-one pays for anything," Mehman Sadykov, spokesperson for the Justice Ministry which administers Azerbaijan 's prisons, reportedly said.

Balaev was arrested on May 20 after police raided what they claimed was an "illegal" religious service. They later added other charges to the case, including his alleged involvement in attacking police, accusations his church has strongly denied. Balaev is appealing against his jail sentence.

Before his detention, Balaev led a Baptist congregation in Aliabad in the far north-west of Azerbaijan , close to the border with Georgia. “Like most of the population of the village, he is from the Georgian-speaking Ingilo minority. The congregation has repeatedly over many years had its applications for legal status refused.,” explained Forum 18. “It has faced years of harassment from the local authorities, backed up by some of the villagers and the imam of the village's Juma Mosque,” the group claimed.


As part of the same campaign, Zenchenko added that police raided and closed down a five-day Baptist children's camp during the summer in Agdash in central Azerbaijan, south east of Yevlakh [Yevlax]. "The authorities are celebrating their temporary victory over some of our brethren," he told Forum 18. He called for "spiritual and moral support" from around the world. The Organization For Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has reportedly said it believes that Balaev has been “prosecuted due to his religious beliefs.”

Baptist Union official Zenchenko said another Baptist pastor in southern Azerbaijanhas been threatened with prison for holding "illegal" religious services. "Pastor Telman Aliev and his assistant Jabbar Musaev were summoned one by one by the police for 'preventative conversations'," Zenchenko told Forum 18. "Pastor Telman was not intimidated and is continuing to lead services. But Jabbar was forced not to attend church. They promised to arrange the same thing as happened to Zaur if he appears in church again."

The detention of the pastor has underscored international concerns about life under Ilham Aliyev, who took over as president of this staunch Islamic former Soviet republic of over eight million people from his late father, Heydar, in 2003.

He won the 2003 presidential elections by a landslide, but Western observers said the ballot was marred by voter intimidation, violence and media bias. (With BosNewsLife Research and reports from Azerbaijan).

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