Azerbaijani pastor heads to prison as appeal rejected

By October 8, 2007

Azerbaijan (MNN/F18) — Baptists are "in shock" over the failure of the appeal court in Sheki to overturn the two-year prison sentence imposed in August on Baptist Pastor Zaur Balaev.

Balaev was arrested on May 20 after police raided what they claimed was an "illegal" religious service. Police alleged he had attacked them, and he was prosecuted under Article 315, Part 1 of the Criminal Code.

Slavic Gospel Association's Joel Griffith says, "The police officers there, in essence, lied. They basically said that Pastor Balaev resisted arrest, and if you know anything about Zaur Balaev, he's a very frail man and not in the best of health. These allegations were made up out of thin air, and they charged him with resisting arrest."

Balaev was sentenced to two years in prison by a court in the regional center of Zakatala on August 8 after a trial that was repeatedly delayed without explanation. Balaev appealed against the sentence on August 15.

Griffith says the sentence doesn't make sense. "The reason for the long sentence didn't relate to the illegal church gathering allegation, but it was for the conviction of allegedly assaulting the police officers."

He's not surprised by the ruling. "If the court had ruled that Zaur was innocent, that would have meant the police officers had given false testimony, and that would mean they would be charged. In Azerbaijan, that's not likely to happen."

"We're stunned at the result the court handed down," the head of the Baptist Union Ilya Zenchenko told Forum 18 News Service from the steps of the court building in Sheki on October 3. "We don't know what to do. It is a tragedy for his wife and children."

Griffith says authorities aren't making it easy for evangelical churches in the country. "They've got more than 20 churches there, but only three have been able to obtain legal registration.

Griffith says Balaev's attorney is planning an appeal to the Supreme Court. If that fails, he'll appeal to the European Court of Human Rights, which is a more political option.

Whatever happens, Griffith says, "This kind of persecution of opposition tends to backfire in the long run. It only causes the Gospel to spread even more. It only causes Christians to be more unified. It makes us more devoted to prayer. It makes us more determined than ever to obey the Lord regardless of the cost."

The 44-year-old Balaev led a Baptist congregation in Aliabad in the far northwest 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 over many years has repeatedly had its application for legal status refused. 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, Darchin Mamedov.

The authorities have long pressured religious minorities they do not like, denying them state registration, punishing and threatening them for holding unregistered meetings, and restricting the import of religious minority literature.

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