February 20, 2009

Baptist Pastor Convicted in Azerbaijan

Eron Henry, Associate Director of Communications
Neville Callam, General Secretary
Baptist World Alliance

February 20, 2009

Washington , D.C. (BWA)--Hamid Shabanov, a Baptist pastor in the South Caucasus country of Azerbaijan , was found guilty of possessing an illegal weapon and was given “a two-year corrective labor sentence.”

Shabanov, who pastors a house church of approximately 60 members in the town of Aliabad , was arrested on June 20, 2008, after police claimed to have found an illegal weapon in his home after a raid.

Denying the allegations against Shabanov, and claiming that the weapon was planted by the police, Elnur Jabiyev, General Secretary of the Baptist Union of Azerbaijan (BUA), stated that the arrest “was a provocation by the police,” and that it was “a deliberately targeted action.” The BUA leader asserted that “the police’s aim is to halt Baptist activity and close the church in Aliabad.”

“I will continue to fight against this sentence and to clear my name,” Shabanov said after his conviction on February 11. The two-year corrective labor sentence is equivalent to eight months in prison, thus Shabanov, who has already spent more than seven months in detention or under house arrest, will not be locked up. He was ordered to pay a fine to cover the rest of the sentence, 27 days.

Azerbaijan authorities have been accused of committing serious procedural violations in their case against Shabanov. Family and townspeople in Aliabad insisted that the weapon that Shabanov allegedly possessed was planted by the police.

After his arrest, the trial against Shabanov began on July 22, 2008, but the case was referred back to the prosecutor by the judge on July 29 for further investigation. Another hearing was called on August 22 without the knowledge of Shabanov, his lawyer, or family. This hearing extended his detention by a further two months which ended on October 21.

The trial was scheduled to begin on October 28, but despite his lawyer travelling 450 kilometers (280 miles) from Baku , the capital of Azerbaijan , the trial did not begin as the police failed to take Shabanov from jail to the court.

In addition, neither the pastor’s family nor lawyer had received the indictment. “They haven’t even given us the case materials,” Shabanov’s lawyer said.

After another hearing on January 26, Shabanov’s trial began on February 4 and the verdict was handed down on February 11. In between his arrest in June 2008 and the trial in February, Shabanov spent 20 weeks in prison until November, after which he was placed under house arrest.

Shabanov is the second Baptist pastor in Aliabad to be convicted of a crime. Zaur Balaev was arrested in May 2007 and given a two year sentence after being convicted in August of that year for beating up five policemen and damaging a police car door. Members of Balaev’s church and residents in the town disputed the charges against Balaev, who was released in March 2008 after protests from the Baptist World Alliance (BWA), the European Baptist Federation (EBF), and former United States President Jimmy Carter.

The EBF, one of six regional fellowships of the BWA, led a delegation to Azerbaijan in January to meet with government, diplomatic, and religious leaders, partly in response to the cases against Balaev and Shabanov.

Azerbaijan , a Muslim-majority country, gained its independence after the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991. There are 22 Baptist churches and 3,000 baptized believers in the country of 8.7 million people.

See: http://www.bwanet.org/default.aspx?pid=1018

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