By Jeremy Reynalds
Senior Correspondent for ASSIST News Service
AZERBAIJAN (ANS) -- Religious literature - already subject to compulsory prior censorship from the State Committee for Work with Religious Organizations - is set to face further, parallel control by Azerbaijan's Tax Ministry.
Azerbaijan is the largest country in the Caucasus region located at the crossroads of Western Asia and Eastern Europe
According to a story by Forum 18 News Service's Felix Corley, printed and electronic religious literature and recordings are specifically identified in new legal amendments, alongside literature more generally and medicine, as requiring "verification marks" before they can be sold.
Although billed as consumer protection and tax measures, legal specialists and human rights defenders have expressed concern to Forum 18 News Service that the real aim of the measures - at least those related to religious literature - is to make it easier to confiscate unapproved religious literature and make publication of religious literature more difficult. The legal amendments are awaiting approval from President Ilham Aliev.
"This is just the latest measure to restrict religious activity," a member of a Baku-based religious community - who asked not to be identified - told Forum 18 in early July.
Meanwhile, Forum 18 reported, two Muslims in Azerbaijan's second city Gyanja were given large fines for their religious activity in June. The two were fined just days after three Turkish students studying at the city's university were given even larger fines and initially threatened with deportation.
Also, the first hearing took place in a Baku court on July 17 of the appeal of the city's Greater Grace Protestant Church against a lower court decision to liquidate it. The case resumes in court on July 31.
The legal changes
The new controls on religious literature come in amendments to three different legal acts, approved by Azerbaijan's Parliament, the Milli Mejlis, on June 29 in single readings. The amendments - to the Consumer Protection Law, the Tax Code and the Code of Administrative Offences - were then sent to President Aliev for signature into law. The texts were made public on the Milli Mejlis website.
Forum 18 reported that under the amendments to the Consumer Protection Law, certain products cannot be sold unless they have a verification mark. Such a verification mark (in the form of a sticker) would be issued by the "relevant executive power authority." The president will indicate which authority if he signs the amendments.
Under the amendments to the Tax Code, Forum 18 reported, the tax authorities will have the right to halt the sale of products being sold without the appropriate marking.
The amendments to the Code of Administrative Offences create a new Article, 229-1, which provides for punishments for those who sell such products without tax stickers. Fines will be 50 Manats (or 64 US Dollars) for individuals, 100 Manats for officials and 150 Manats for legal entities. Forum 18 commented that while these fines are small, the amendments allow the authorities to confiscate the entire stock of unmarked products.
Moreover, other existing provisions of the Criminal Code would allow for the prosecution of any company violating the new rules, lawyers told Forum 18.
Why were amendments adopted?
A spokesperson for the Tax Ministry, who did not give his name, said that these legal changes were prepared by the Cabinet of Ministers, the Finance Ministry and the Tax Ministry.
"The tax mark is being introduced for all books," he told Forum 18. "All enterprises producing literature and other materials must be registered for tax with us."
The spokesperson insisted that these provisions are targeted solely at ensuring that tax is paid on commercial production of literature, whether religious or not. He was unable to explain why religious literature, audio and visual products needed to be specifically mentioned.
Forum 18 said the Tax Ministry spokesperson also insisted that only books and other products that are sold require tax stickers.
"If such production is non-commercial, tax stickers are not required." He said the legal changes would not prevent non-commercial production of books and other materials, including religious
Officials at the Finance Ministry's Legal Department refused to discuss the amendments with Forum 18. The telephone of the Ministry's press officer Mais Piriyev went unanswered the same day.
Calls to the parliamentary Economic Policy Committee, and other relevant committees, went unanswered each time Forum 18 called in early July.
Not "formally" about censorship
However, others are suspicious about the intentions of the legal changes. "Formally they speak not about censorship or prohibition of distribution of religious books, but about protection of the rights of consumers," Eldar Zeynalov, head of the Human Rights Center of Azerbaijan, told Forum 18.
He pointed out that the wording does not require the special registration of those producing religious literature. However, he believes that the practical impact of the amendments is likely to be "stronger control over distribution of such materials."
"If previously for confiscation of books, the police needed some preliminary expertise of their content, now the absence of a verification mark would be enough."
Zeynalov also warned that the number of producers would reduce, as only those able to register and obtain verification marks would be allowed. He fears that the authorities might subsequently introduce regulations requiring registration of enterprises which produce religious materials, with obligatory approval by the Caucasian Muslim Board or the State Committee.
"Usually the legal framework limits the rights and freedoms at the lowest level of legal norms, like ministerial instructions and regulations," Zeynalov told Forum 18.
Also expressing concern was Fuad Agayev, a lawyer and member of the Bar Association.
"I believe that the new provisions are not reasonable, first of all because they in fact contain only the category requiring verification marks - including religious-related books or other material - without setting out the need for it," he told Forum 18. "That means that the authorities may arbitrarily create difficulties for receiving permission."
Agayev pointed out that the rules of such procedure must be adopted by "the relevant executive power authority," which will probably be the Cabinet of Ministries. "As is evident from this, the new amendments may prevent non-commercial production and distribution of religious literature."
These new consumer protection and tax provisions come on top of existing mandatory, prior censorship of all religious literature produced, distributed or sold in Azerbaijan or imported into the country.
"It happens quite frequently that parallel legal rules are adopted here," Agayev told Forum 18. "Powers are often given to different organizations at the same time."
All religious literature must already gain specific approval from the State Committee. The State Committee also specifies the number of copies of each named work that may be printed or imported, checks the contents of shops selling religious literature, and has a list of banned religious literature which the Expertise Department - which is responsible for the list - will not make public.
Mandatory licences for stores selling religious literature were introduced in the May 2009 amendments to the Religion Law. That in addition to a subsequent Instruction on the Rules of Granting Permission in Connection with the Creation of Specialized Sales Points for Religious Literature, Objects of Religious Significance, as well as Other Materials of Informational Character.
The State Committee handed out the first 15 licences in Nov. 2011, though its officials noted in April 2012 that "about a hundred" more applicants are waiting for such licences. Selling religious books without a State Committee licence is subject to a massive fine or imprisonment of up to two years for a first "offence."
Like many laws and regulations, these regulations are not always enforced. Several Baku bookshops whose stocks include religious literature told Forum 18 in early July that they have no licence from the State Committee.
"Civilized norms of selling religious literature?"
The new Head of the State Committee, Elshad Iskenderov, said that "more than 25" shops in Baku now have licences to sell religious literature. Forum 18 reported that he told journalists in Baku on June 23- three weeks after his appointment to the State Committee - that the stores had been checked to make sure they provide suitable conditions, and such "monitoring" would continue.
In defending the state requirement that shops that sell religious literature must have a licence from his State Committee, Forum 18 said Iskenderov complained, "Quite often at the entrances to the metro, one can witness holy books being sold in places inappropriate and unworthy for their sale."
Iskenderov insisted that the State Committee's aim is achieving "civilized norms of selling religious literature reflecting national spiritual values."
He added, "Shops selling religious literature must have an attractive external look and the literature sold in them must be healthy."
State Committee spokesperson Saleh Aslanov, in line with his usual practice, refused to discuss the licences for selling religious literature with Forum 18 by telephone. He asked that questions be submitted in writing.
Forum 18 wrote the same day, asking the State Committee how many shops outside the capital have been given such licences. However, Forum 18 said the news organization had received no reply by the end of the working day in Baku on July 18.
It remains unclear what criteria are used to determine whether a store selling religious literature is "appropriate and worthy" to do so, and why it is the role of the state to determine this.
State Committee officials have long complained of where religious literature is sold. "Sometimes you even find cases of religious literature on sale in dirty places, and this is regarded as disrespect for religious values and arouses justifiable public dissatisfaction," Forum 18 said the head of the Expertise Department Jeyhun Mamedov told a local news agency in Dec. 2009.
He added, "It is not right to equate the sale of religious literature to the sale of other products. Preventing such cases is the duty of both the government and of every citizen of Azerbaijan."
"Great difficulties" over importing sacred texts
During his June 23 comments to journalists, Iskenderov of the State Committee also admitted that people bringing "sacred books" into Azerbaijan "faced great difficulties, as the Koran and other sacred books were subjected to thorough checking."
Forum 18 reported Iskenderov said that procedures for importing "the Koran and other sacred texts" would be simplified "within the nearest future." He said the changes would mean that any such original texts "which do not contain a translation, additional commentaries or footnotes" would be able to be imported without "additional controls."
Iskenderov did not explain which regulations or law the proposals would amend, or give a timeline.
In its written questions, Forum 18 asked the State Committee whether Iskenderov's proposals would only remove censorship controls on sacred texts in their original language - such as the Koran in Arabic, the Bible in Hebrew or Greek, or the Bhagavad-Gita in Sanskrit.
Forum 18 asked whether controls on the import of Azeri or Russian translations of these and other sacred texts would remain. The State Committee has not responded to this question either.
Members of several religious communities told Forum 18 in early July that they and friends from their communities rarely bring religious books through Azerbaijani customs when they return from abroad for fear that they will be confiscated.
"It's not worth it," one person told Forum 18. "If you have more than two books - and both should be different - it is too much of a risk."
For more background information see Forum 18's Azerbaijan religious freedom survey at www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=1690.
For more information on Forum 18, go to www.forum18.org