Azerbaijan: Conscientious objector jailing "very unexpected decision"

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Author(s)
Felix Corley, Forum 18

On 22 September, a Goranboy court jailed 22-year-old Jehovah's Witness Seymur Mammadov for nine months for refusing compulsory military service on conscientious grounds. On 25 July – two days after his 18th birthday – officers seized conscientious objector Royal Karimov and forcibly took him to a military unit in Ganca, where he is still held. 

Almost exactly a year after the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) in Strasbourg ordered Azerbaijan in October 2021 to pay compensation to two young men convicted earlier for refusing compulsory military service on grounds of conscience, a court has convicted another conscientious objector on the same charges. On 22 September 2022, a court in north-western Azerbaijan jailed 22-year-old Jehovah's Witness Seymur Mammadov for nine months. He had repeatedly expressed readiness to perform a civilian alternative service.

"It was a very unexpected decision, especially given the recent [ECtHR] decisions against Azerbaijan," Jehovah's Witnesses told Forum 18 from the capital Baku. They added that Mammadov intends to appeal as soon as he gets the verdict in writing (see below).

"We're not to blame," an officer at Goranboy District State Service for Mobilisation and Conscription insisted to Forum 18. "There is no alternative service." He declined to discuss Mammadov's case further (see below).

Another Jehovah's Witness, Royal Karimov, was seized and handed over to the army on 25 July – two days after his 18th birthday - despite telling conscription officials in Gadabay, the police and personnel in the military unit that he cannot perform military service on grounds of conscience but is ready to perform a civilian alternative service. He remains confined in a military unit in the north-western city of Ganca (see below).

Gadabay District State Service for Mobilisation and Conscription refused to discuss with Forum 18 why Karimov was forcibly taken to a military unit (see below).

Despite a pledge in January 2001 to the Council of Europe to introduce a civilian alternative service for those unable to perform military service on grounds of conscience, and repeated calls by the United Nations and other international bodies, Azerbaijan has failed to do so (see below).

Forum 18 asked the Human Rights Ombudsperson's Office in Baku in writing on the morning of 29 September what action it will take (if any) to defend Mammadov's rights and what action it will take (if any) to ensure that Azerbaijan introduces a civilian alternative service for those unable to serve in the army on grounds of conscience. Forum 18 received no response by the end of the working day in Baku (see below).

(In 2018 the Sub-Committee on Accreditation of the Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions downgraded the Azerbaijani Ombudsperson's Office to B status because it "has not adequately spoken out in a manner that effectively promotes protection for all human rights, including in response to credible allegations of human rights violations having been committed by government authorities".)

Regime ignores repeated calls for alternative to military service

Military service of 18 months (12 months for those with higher education) is compulsory for all young men. Article 76, Part 2 of Azerbaijan's Constitution declares: "If the beliefs of citizens come into conflict with service in the army then in some cases envisaged by law alternative service instead of regular army service is permitted." However, no mechanism exists to enact this provision.

Ahead of its accession to the Council of Europe in January 2001, Azerbaijan promised "to adopt, within two years of accession, a law on alternative service in compliance with European standards and, in the meantime, to pardon all conscientious objectors presently serving prison terms or serving in disciplinary battalions, allowing them instead to choose (when the law on alternative service has come into force) to perform non-armed military service or alternative Civilian service".

Azerbaijan has never done this, and conscientious objectors to military service have been repeatedly prosecuted and even jailed under Criminal Code Article 321.1. This states: "Evasion without lawful grounds of call-up to military service or of mobilisation, with the purpose of evading serving in the military, is punishable by imprisonment for up to two years [in peacetime]".

United Nations (UN) human rights bodies, as well as the Council of Europe's Venice Commission and its European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI), have repeatedly criticised Azerbaijan's failure to introduce a civilian alternative to compulsory military service.

On 7 October 2021, in the latest of several such decisions, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) in Strasbourg accepted Azerbaijan's admission that it had violated the human rights of two Jehovah's Witness young men who had been convicted in 2018 for refusing compulsory military service on grounds of conscience. Both Emil Mehdiyev and Vahid Abilov had declared a willingness to conduct an alternative civilian service. Both lost their appeals against their suspended jail terms in Azerbaijan's Supreme Court before taking their cases to Strasbourg. The ECtHR ordered that the victims be paid compensation and costs.

Despite the October 2021 ECtHR decision that the regime had violated the human rights of two more conscientious objectors, Saadat Novruzova of the Presidential Administration's Human Rights Protection Unit told Forum 18 the following month that changing the law to introduce a civilian alternative to compulsory military service "is not under discussion".

The 7 October 2021 ECtHR decision reminded Azerbaijan of a similar earlier decision that "calls in principle for legislative action" to satisfy "the obligations incumbent on it of assuring .. the right to benefit from the right to conscientious objection".

Forum 18 asked the Human Rights Ombudsperson's Office in Baku in writing on the morning of 29 September 2022 what action it will take (if any) to ensure that Azerbaijan introduces a civilian alternative service for those unable to serve in the army on grounds of conscience. Forum 18 received no response by the end of the working day in Baku of 29 September.

Refused alternative service, jailed

Seymur Mammadov is a 22-year-old Jehovah's Witness from the north-western district of Goranboy. Goranboy District State Service for Mobilisation and Conscription summoned him on 4 May and conducted a medical examination.

Mammadov informed officers about his religious position as a conscientious objector to military service who is ready to perform civilian alternative service, as provided for by the Constitution and the decisions of the European Court of Human Rights (see above). Mammadov was subsequently informed that he had been restricted from leaving the country.

"We're not to blame," an officer at Goranboy District State Service for Mobilisation and Conscription insisted to Forum 18 on 29 September. "There is no alternative service." The officer declined to discuss Mammadov's case further and put the phone down.

On 21 June, Goranboy District Prosecutor's Office summoned Mammadov, where he again explained his religious position. Prosecutors charged him under Criminal Code Article 321.1 ("Evasion without lawful grounds of call-up to military service or of mobilisation"). On 6 August he was informed that his case was being referred to court.

Babek Aliyev of Goranboy District Prosecutor's Office refused to explain why a colleague opened the criminal case against Mammadov. "We are not allowed by law to give information on criminal cases," he told Forum 18 from Goranboy on 29 September.

On 22 September, Judge Taleh Mustafayev of Goranboy District Court sentenced Mammadov under Criminal Code Article 321.1 to nine months' imprisonment, the Judge's assistant told Forum 18 from the court on 29 September. He insisted that the court has already sent the written verdict to Mammadov "to the place where he is" and that he can appeal if he does not agree with the decision.

Mammadov was arrested in the courtroom at the end of the trial and was taken to a prison in Ganca. "It was a very unexpected decision, especially given the recent [ECtHR] decisions against Azerbaijan," Jehovah's Witnesses told Forum 18 from Baku on 29 September. They added that Mammadov intends to appeal against his conviction to Ganca Appeal Court. They say he has not yet received the written verdict.

Forum 18 asked the Human Rights Ombudsperson's Office in Baku in writing on the morning of 29 September what action it will take (if any) to defend Mammadov's rights. Forum 18 received no response by the end of the working day in Baku of 29 September.

Forcibly seized by army

Royal Karimov, a Jehovah's Witness from the western district of Gadabay, turned 18 on 23 July. Two days after his birthday, Gadabay District State Service for Mobilisation and Conscription summoned him. Once there, he explained his position that he could not serve in the army on grounds of conscience but was ready to perform an alternative civilian service. Officers assured him that he could return home after submitting documentation establishing his conscientious objection.

Instead, officers immediately took Karimov to Gadabay District Police. There Karimov again explained that he could not serve in the army on grounds of conscience but was ready to perform an alternative civilian service. Officers held him overnight at the police station. The following day he was taken to a military unit in Ganca against his will.

After being taken to military unit No. 777 in Ganca, Karimov again explained his position to officers but was not allowed to leave. He continues to be "illegally detained against his will" at the unit, Jehovah's Witnesses told Forum 18 on 29 September.

Forum 18 was unable to find out why officers seized Karimov and forcibly took him to a military unit. The man who answered the telephone at Gadabay District State Service for Mobilisation and Conscription on 29 September refused to discuss anything with Forum 18.

The man who answered the telephone of the head of Gadabay District Police on 29 September listened while Forum 18 outlined Karimov's case, then put the phone down before Forum 18 could ask any questions. Subsequent calls went unanswered.

Author information

Felix Corley, Forum 18. This is a shortened version of an article first published on Forum 18 on 29th September 2022.

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About the authors

Felix Corley, Forum 18. This is a shortened version of an article first published on Forum 18 on 29th September 2022.