|Azerbaijan on Wednesday released a Baptist pastor from the remainder of a two-year prison sentence that drew protests around the world labeling it a false arrest.
European Baptist Press Service reported Wednesday that 45-year-old Zauer Balaev was released unexpectedly after 10 months in jail. He was one of 58 prisoners pardoned by Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliev to mark the spring festival of Novruz.
Balaev's May 20 arrest and conviction prompted the leader of the European Baptist Federation to call on 53 member Baptist unions and conventions to protest his imprisonment and demand his release. The campaign received a recent boost when former U.S. President Jimmy Carter wrote a personal letter asking Azerbaijan's president to set Balaev free.
"We won," Balaev reportedly told the Norwegian-based news service Forum 18 hours after his release. "It's a great joy to be free." Ilya Zenchenko, president of the Baptist Union of Azerbaijan, welcomed the news. "We thank God and those who prayed and supported Zaur," Zenchenko told Forum 18. "But there is a lot more work still to be done to defend religious freedom in Azerbaijan."
Aliev pardoned 58 prisoners and reduced the sentence of one more in a Tuesday decree commemorating an ancient holiday celebrating the vernal equinox and the symbolic renewal of spring.
Named after a Farsi word for "new day," Novruz has been celebrated in parts of the Mideast and central Asia since pre-Islamic times. It is divisive in some Islamic countries, because of its association with pagan roots, but in Azerbaijan both political and religious leaders celebrate it as a national holiday.
On Wednesday Aliyev issued a statement on the occasion congratulating the Azerbaijani people for national excellence and thanking soldiers for serving in the military.
"The Spring Holiday ... has been welcomed in the Land of Fire with special ceremonies and traditional public festivities over the long years," Alieyev said. "This popular holiday, which symbolizes the most delicate shades of our national existence and rich world of spirit of our ancestors and its great traditions that stand the test of centuries are enthusiastically welcomed, marked and protected today."
The presidential amnesty list did not include a Jehovah's Witness described by Forum 18, along with Balaev, as a "prisoner of conscience." Samir Huseynov was imprisoned for 10 months in October 2007 for refusing compulsory military service on religious grounds.
Forum 18 quoted an unnamed Jehovah's Witness who said he wasn't surprised that Huseynov was not released, because there was no reason to imprison him in the first place. All Huseynov wanted to do, he said, was to perform alternative non-military service, an option Azerbaijan promised to introduce when it joined the Council of Europe in 2001 but has not yet implemented.
Government officials claim Azerbaijan is a country of religious toleration, but religious minorities like evangelical Christians and Jehovah's Witnesses complain of harassment including denial of birth certificates to children with Christian names.
Balaev's Baptist congregation has tried unsuccessfully to register for 15 years, earning it the distinction of being the member of Azerbaijan's religious community denied legal status for the longest time.
Balaev was arrested after police broke up an allegedly illegal meeting of his house church. He was charged with "violent resistance against the representatives of the local government," a serious crime punishable by up to three years in prison. Authorities claimed he beat up five policemen and damaged a police car.
Eyewitnesses denied that Balayev resisted arrest, describing him as a "thin" man physically unable to manhandle five strong police officers. Fifty people in his town, including non-Christians, signed a letter describing him as "a man of peace" incapable of doing the things of which he was accused.
In August Balaev received a two-year prison sentence. He lost an appeal of his conviction last October and was transferred to a prison in the capital of Baku. The country's Supreme Court hasn't responded to his final appeal, and Balaev's supporters are considering an appeal over what they regard an unjust sentence to the European Court of Human Rights.
While grateful for his release, Baptists in Azerbaijan point out that Balaev still has a criminal record. "Zauer was given a certificate that he had been pardoned, while the original verdict stands," Elnur Jabiev, general secretary of the Baptist union, told Forum 18. "We want the original sentence overturned. We have to decide now how to proceed."
In an e-mail to the European Baptist Federation, Jabiev thanked Baptists around the world for prayers and letters for Balaev's release. In his letter, President Carter, who is also a Baptist, appealed to Azerbaijan's president to release the imprisoned pastor on humanitarian grounds and in the interest of good relations with the European Union.
David Coffey, president of the Baptist World Alliance, called Balaev's release "wonderful news" and an answer to prayer.
BWA General Secretary Neville Callam in October wrote a letter to President Aliev's wife, who is a United Nations goodwill ambassador, appealing for Balaev's release. Callam said Thursday he would invite Balaev to speak to Baptists about his faith and experience and explore other ways to support the freed pastor and his family.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.
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Baptist Pastor in Azerbaijan Sentenced to Two Years in Prison
Jimmy Carter Appeals for Release of Imprisoned Baptist Pastor in Azerbaijan