AZERBAIJAN: Government Must Free Prisoners of Conscience

Aug 24, 2015


August 24, 2015

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) condemns the violations of religious freedom and human rights taking place in Azerbaijan.   These violations are evident in the arrests, detentions, and harsh sentences given to human rights defenders, members of religious groups, and civil society activists. Such violations are at odds with Azerbaijan’s strong tradition of secularism and religious tolerance. USCIRF Commissioners recently visited Azerbaijan to raise concerns about these detentions and religious freedom conditions.

The Azerbaijani government continues to hold prominent prisoners of conscience including RFE/RL investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova and Leyla and Arif Yunus. These courageous advocates who support religious freedom and human rights should be honored for their work rather than facing false accusations and detention and, in the case of the Yunuses, being held in pre-trail detention for over a year and denied much-needed medical care.  Sadly, their treatment is only the tip of the iceberg, as more than 100 prisoners of conscience languish in Azerbaijan’s prisons and still others stand accused,” said USCIRF Chairman Robert P. George.

Ismayilova, whose trial just ended in Baku with the prosecution seeking a nine-year sentence, is a well-known atheist who publically has supported Muslims’ right to religious expression and won awards for her coverage of official corruption in Azerbaijan.  She is falsely accused of embezzlement, tax evasion, and abuse of power.  Leyla Yunus is the head of the Institute for Peace and Democracy, and her husband Arif is an expert on Islam. Supporters of religious freedom, they had been falsely accused of tax evasion, illegal business activities and abuse of authority and given prison terms on August 14 of eight and one-half and seven years respectively. Lawyer Rasul Jafarov was sentenced in April 2015 to 6 ½ years in prison on false charges of financial crimes; he had worked with Leyla Yunus to document cases of religious prisoners – both were arrested shortly after publicizing their lists of prisoners.    

In early-July meetings with Azerbaijani officials in Baku, a USCIRF delegation raised concerns about religious freedom in the country, including the detention of the Yunuses.  The delegation also raised the cases of Zakariyya Isakh Mammadov and Shahin Hasanov, two readers of Turkish theologian Said Nurs, whose texts are banned in Azerbaijan, and two female Jehovah’s Witnesses, Valida Jabrayilova and Irina Zakharchenko, who are in pre-trial detention for distributing religious texts which the government had not officially approved. These actions contrast with the government’s support for other religious minorities, including Jews, Catholics, and Russian Orthodox.

The Azerbaijan government must free these and other prisoners of conscience. The recent release from prison of prominent Shi’a cleric Tale Bagirov – however belatedly – is a step in the right direction, but the government needs to do more to uphold its religious freedom and human rights commitments.  It is vitally important that Azerbaijan’s strong tradition of religious tolerance be reflected in its support for the right of religious freedom and human rights of all its citizens,” said Chairman George.

USCIRF placed Azerbaijan in Tier 2 in the 2015 Annual Report because of its restrictions on freedom of religion or belief.  These restrictions include: almost all Protestant denominations denied legal status; members of unregistered religious groups raided; state permission required to produce, import, export, or distribute religious material; and state-approved religious education required to preach, teach religion, or lead ceremonies.  Muslims, who constitute 96 percent of the population, are subject to further government restrictions.

To interview a USCIRF Commissioner, please contact USCIRF at or 202-786-0613