By Worthy News International Correspondent David Haggith
BAKU/BUDAPEST (Worthy News) -- A well-known Baptist pastor in Azerbaijan was weighing his legal options Monday, February 23, after receiving a two-year "corrective labor" sentence for allegedly possessing an "illegal" weapon, trial observers said.
Hamid Shabanov claimed the weapon found in his home in Aliabad village, in north-western Zakatala District, was planted by Azerbaijan police because of his church activities.
Observers of the trial said that despite the labor sentence, they did not expect the pastor would be detained for a long time or sentenced to a working camp. "
As he was in pre-trial detention or house arrest for just over seven months, he has 27 days more to serve from February 11," said well-informed advocacy group Forum 18 in a statement to Worthy News.
"The written verdict has not been released, however Forum 18 understands that Shabanov” who was free Monday, February 23, “has been sentenced to pay 20 per cent of his salary for the remaining 27 days of his [prison] sentence."
It was not immediately clear how he would be able to pay the fine as he is without a paid job because of pressure from authorities, Christians said.
Shabanov and his lawyer said they are appealing the verdict, if necessary, all the way to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. The pastor will have a criminal record if the verdict is not overturned.
There has also been concern about the reported arrest of one of Shabanov's relatives, Teyyub Eyvazov, who police claim possessed drugs. Baptists said it appeared another attempt by authorities to pressure them, although Eyvazov is not a Christian.
Shabanov said in published remarks he also fears he will not receive back many Christian books police allegedly confiscated during a recent raid on his house. “They won't return them and won't explain why." Other groups, including Jehovah's Witnesses, have also been targeted.
Despite the setbacks, the head of Azerbaijan's Baptist Union, Ilya Zenchenko, said he was pleased that the pastor did not receive the three-year prison sentence that was originally expected. And, "when they arrested first one pastor then another, they thought the church would cease to exist, but they were wrong. Our faith has helped us win," Zenchenko said.
President Ilham Aliyev's has come under pressure to allow more religious freedom and democracy in the country, at a time when it is seeking closer ties with the West and talking about major gas deals.
Despite his promises of reforms, opposition groups have questioned the presidential democratic credentials since police broke up anti-government demonstrations in Baku in the run-up to and following November 2005 parliamentary elections.
Aliyev's New Azerbaijan Party won well over half of the seats. However election monitors of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the Council of Europe said the vote "had fallen a long way short" of international standards. (With reporting by Worthy News' Stefan J. Bos in Budapest).