A Baptist pastor in Azerbaijan must remain in jail for at least two more months while a criminal investigation against him continues, a court ruled Aug. 22.

But supporters of imprisoned pastor Hamid Shabanov welcomed the court’s decision to transfer him to a district neighboring the one where he was arrested June 20 on what friends say was a trumped-up firearms charge. Supporters said they didn’t think Shabanov would receive a fair trial in his hometown, with its long reputation of harassing religious minorities.

“We insisted that they take the investigation away from the Zakatala District as we don’t trust the investigators and the court in that district,” Ilya Zenchenko of Azerbaijan’s Baptist Union told the Christian news service Forum 18. “Hamid is now being held at the police station in [neighboring north] Balakan and this is where any trial will now take place.”

Zenchenko said he would continue to fight to have criminal charges against Shabanov dropped. He said the judge in the case scheduled the Aug. 22 hearing did not inform Shabanov’s family or lawyer. Zenchenko called it a “clear violation” of Shabanov’s rights. At the hearing the judge rejected a defense request that Shabanov be released pending possible trial, ordering him to remain in jail two months while the investigation against him continues.

Shabanov, 52, was arrested after police in the remote northern village of Aliabad near Azerbaijan’s border with Georgia searched his house and claimed to find an illegal firearm and ammunition. Family members say Shabanov does not own a gun and allege that police planted the evidence in the most recent of systematic efforts to intimidate and harass religious minorities.

Shabanov’s arrest came three months after another Baptist pastor in the same village was released from prison on charges of resisting arrest that his supporters also claimed were trumped up. Pastor Zauer Balaev was set free in March after a worldwide campaign calling for his release, which included former U.S. President Jimmy Carter.

Leaders of the European Baptist Federation and Baptist World Alliance protested both arrests.

Shabanov won a partial victory July 29 when a judge decided not to convict him of criminal charges and referred the case back to the prosecutor for further investigation. The original investigation was supposed to be completed by Aug. 23, presumably followed by a trial, but at the Aug. 22 hearing the court gave prosecutors more time.

Shabanov’s village, Aliabad, is a small town near Zakatala of some 10,000 people. It is made up almost entirely made up of members of the Ingilo minority, ethnic Georgians who were converted to Islam from Orthodox Christianity several centuries ago. Local officials there distrust the Baptists because they view them as unpatriotic.

While Azerbaijan’s constitution provides that persons of all faiths may choose and practice their religion without restriction, the latest report on international religious freedom by the U.S. State Department found “sporadic violations of religious freedom by some officials.”

Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.

Previous related stories:

Azerbaijani Baptist Pastor Avoids Prison, For Now

Second Baptist Pastor Jailed in Small Town in Azerbaijan

International Baptists Protest Arrest of Pastor in Azerbaijan

Baptist Pastor in Azerbaijan Sentenced to Two Years in Prison

Jimmy Carter Appeals for Release of Imprisoned Baptist Pastor in Azerbaijan

Azerbaijan’s President Frees Imprisoned Baptist Pastor

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