By BosNewsLife News Center in Budapest
BAKU/BUDAPEST (BosNewsLife) -- A frail Baptist pastor prepared for another night in an Azerbaijani prison Friday, July 13, nearly two months after he was arrested on charges over 50 witnesses say are false.
The 44-year-old Zaur Balaev, who fellow Christians say suffers of a lack of food and deteriorating health, was detained nearly two months ago on May 20 when security forces raided his Baptist congregation in his home village of Aliabad in the remote northern Zakatala district, according to human rights investigators and church members.
Balaev was scheduled to attend a pre-trial hearing Friday, July 13, on charges of physically attacking five police men and damaging a police car door. Police initially accused him of resisting arrest by setting his dog on them, but later changed their story, local Christians and human rights groups said. If convicted he could face a maximum of three years imprisonment, trial observers explained.
Over 50 people, including 25 who were present at the service, other villagers who are not Christians, and leaders of eight Christian churches in Azerbaijan have denied the charges. "How could a thin man like Zaur beat up five strong policemen,?" wondered Azerbaijan's Baptist leader, Ilya Zenchenko, in a statement.
Prison conditions have meanwhile led to international concerns about his health. Held initially in Zakatala, he was reportedly taken on June 4 to the prison in Azerbaijan's second city, Gyanja, 250 kilometres (150 miles) away.
POOR PRISON CONDITIONS
"The heat and poor prison conditions have damaged his health...Attempts to have Balaev's detention in prison changed into house arrest were unsuccessful," the Baptist Union's Zenchenko told Forum 18, a religious rights monitoring group. "His family has gone into debt from unsuccessfully trying to visit him in this new location and giving officials money so that Balaev can eat," said International Christian Concern (ICC), another rights group. ICC with website persecution.org expressed concerns about the situation of his two children and his wife, Selminaz.
Yet, prosecutors reportedly defended the detention, saying that Balaev's expression of Christianity "is a threat to society and the countryâ€™s security." However the Head of the State Committee for Work with Religious Organizations, Idayat Orujev, denied that religion had anything to do with Pastor Balaevâ€™s arrest, BosNewsLife monitored.
Pastor Balaev became a Christian in 1992. The actions against him are no an isolated incidents, rights watchers say. Baptists and other Protestant congregations in the village of Aliabad have reportedly faced prolonged and repeated harassment from local officials who insist that church members "are traitors" to their ancestral Muslim faith.
The village, which is close to the border with neighboring Georgia, is mainly populated by Georgian-speaking Ingilos, who were converted to Islam several centuries ago, said Forum 18, a religious rights monitoring group.
STATE REGISTRATION DENIED
Balaev's church has repeatedly applied for state registration over the past 13 years but local officials refused to sign the application to allow it to proceed, Forum 18 said.
The pastor reportedly spent two weeks in prison in the late 1990s in punishment for his activities with the church. Other church members have apparently lost their jobs or been prevented from opening businesses to earn a living in what remains an impoverished area of the former Soviet republic. In addition, church members' children have been denied birth certificates when they try to register them with Christian first names, Forum 18 added.
President Ilham Aliyev, who took over as president from his father, Heydar, in 2003, has been pressured to improve political and religious rights in the country. Although he won the presidential elections by a landslide, the opposition continues to have strong doubts about Ilham Aliyev's commitment to democracy.
These were reinforced when police used force to break up opposition demonstrations in Baku in the run-up to and following November 2005 parliamentary elections of this predominately Muslim nation of just over eight million people. (With BosNewsLife's Stefan J. Bos and reports from Azerbaijan).
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