Date:                  June 18, 2020
By Felix Corley, Forum 18

Former parliamentary staff member Rahim Akhundov, who says he was dismissed
from his job at the Milli Majlis in December 2018 on the orders of the
secret police because of his Christian faith, will take his suit for
reinstatement to Azerbaijan's Supreme Court. He failed to overturn the
earlier rejection of his suit at Baku Appeal Court on 10 June 2020, and
told Forum 18 that he is still waiting for the written decision so that he
can appeal to the Supreme Court.

Akhundov – who from 1998 worked at the Milli Majlis (Parliament) – met
friends and relatives at his Baku home for Christian worship, study, and
discussion. However, the State Security Service (SSS) secret police learnt
of these meetings and began spying on them. In 2017, the SSS spied on who
came to the meeting, tried to recruit one participant as a spy and sent an
officer to attend a meeting on false pretences (see below).

Akhundov said the SSS secret police wrote to the Milli Majlis demanding his
dismissal. Milli Majlis officials denied this to Forum 18. Ilqar
Farzaliyev, head of the Milli Majlis Human Resources Department both in
December 2018 and now, denied that Akhundov had been fired because of his
faith. "It was not because of his Christianity, absolutely," he told Forum
18 (see below).

The SSS secret police refused to answer any questions from Forum 18 on 18

Akhundov has made numerous appeals, including twice in court. Courts
rejected his arguments that his dismissal letter is illegal because it is
unsigned, and that he could not submit an appeal before he did because the
Milli Majlis waited nine months to give him the dismissal letter in

Farzaliyev of the Milli Majlis Human Resources Department claimed to Forum
18 that the signed original was in the archives and Akhundov was sent an
unsigned copy, and that "we sent him the letter when he asked for it" (see

Akhundov told Forum 18 that "the courts cannot be independent here when it
comes to face the Parliament, Presidential Administration and high ranking
officials. So their ruling was a predetermined and ordered issue" (see

Secret police surveillance

Rahim Akhundov began work at the International Relations Department of the
Milli Majlis in Baku in June 1998. By February 2010, after spending some
years translating parliamentary documents and interpreting for visitors, he
had worked his way up to become Head of the Milli Majlis Section for Work
with International Parliamentary Organisations.

Some of Akhundov's friends and relatives met for Christian worship, study,
and discussion in his Baku home. However, the SSS secret police learned of
the meetings and began spying on them. Akhundov says that at least on two
occasions, one in 2017 and one in 2018, an officer was seen hiding in the
courtyard by his home on Sundays, spying on who was arriving.

The SSS officer then came to one meeting in August in either 2017 or 2018,
Akhundov said, with someone who used to come to the meetings, although
neither had been notified of the date and time. The man claimed to be a
military officer from Tovuz District in north-western Azerbaijan and asked
for prayer for healing. He later came to thank Akhundov for the prayer, and
said he had been healed.

The same SSS officer called the management of the flats where Akhundov
lives at least twice in 2017 and 2018, Akhundov said, asking if he was
criticising the government. Akhundov also thinks that the SSS secret police
was interested in knowing if he shared his faith with other residents of
the block.

In April 2017, two other SSS secret police officers twice in a tea house
approached one person who had come to the meetings. Claiming to be
concerned for the person's safety, the SSS officers asked questions about
Akhundov and the meetings, and offered money for the person to become an
informer. However, they refused. Another person who came to the meetings
separately confirmed the encounters to Forum 18 in June 2020.

SSS officers also asked a local Christian leader in 2018 if he knew
Akhundov, and which Christian community he belonged to.

"This could not have happened. We have complete tolerance here"

In 2017 and 2018, police and SSS secret police surveillance on people
holding religious meetings in their homes frequently led to raids. Officers
raiding such meetings – including of Muslims, Protestant Christians and
Jehovah's Witnesses – seized religious literature, with courts
subsequently fining many leaders and participants.

Akhundov told Forum 18 that a friend, who led a similar home Christian
meeting elsewhere in Baku, told him that the SSS secret police also
conducted surveillance on people who came to those meetings.

The then Head of the Milli Majlis International Relations Department Rashid
Ibrahimov, now an ordinary staff member, denied to Forum 18 on 17 June 2020
from Baku that SSS secret police surveillance of Akhundov's home had
happened. "This could not have happened. We have complete tolerance here,"
he claimed.

Ibrahimov put the phone down when Forum 18 reminded him about SSS secret
police surveillance and raids on homes, with confiscations of religious
literature and subsequent fines of meeting participants. "I am not ready to
answer your questions," he claimed, before putting the phone down.

Forced resignation or dismissal?

While Akhundov was being treated as an outpatient at the Special Treatment
Health Complex in Baku in late November and early December 2018, Milli
Majlis officials phoned the hospital and ordered that they halt treatment
and send him back to the Milli Majlis "for dismissal due to my acceptance
of Christianity", Akhundov told Forum 18. "The doctors treating me told me
this and the doctors were very afraid of keeping me there."

On 26 November 2018, officials of the Milli Majlis began pressuring
Akhundov to resign, as he wrote in his subsequent suit to court.

"When I came back from the Kazakh capital Astana [now Nur-Sultan] on 26
November 2018, the very first question to me from the Parliament leadership
was whether I was a member of a sect or not," Akhundov told Forum 18. "Some
deputies confirmed to me that the SSS secret police sent a letter about me,
saying that Rahim has accepted Christianity and that he was a member of a
sect and involved in proselytising at home."

The SSS letter to the Milli Majlis leadership called for Akhundov to be
fired, he told Forum 18.

On 18 June 2020, Forum 18 asked Ilqar Jafarov, head of the Milli Majlis
Division for Work with Confidential Documents, about the SSS secret police
letter and what reason it contained for the demand to dismiss Akhundov.
Jafarov immediately put the phone down. Subsequent calls went unanswered.

Akhundov said the then head of the Milli Majlis International Relations
Department, Rashid Ibrahimov, told him in December 2018 that when they get
a letter from the SSS secret police they cannot keep an employee in their

However, Ibrahimov denied to Forum 18 that he had any knowledge of an SSS
secret police letter ordering Akhundov's dismissal.

Ilqar Farzaliyev, head of the Milli Majlis Human Resources Department both
in December 2018 and now, refused to comment on Akhundov's contention that
the SSS secret police had asked the Milli Majlis to fire him. "I don't know
about that," Farzaliyev claimed to Forum 18 from the Milli Majlis on 12
June 2020.

On 3 December 2018, Akhundov wrote to President Ilham Aliyev to complain of
this pressure. "They threaten me with dismissal .. and the leadership of
the Milli Majlis demands that I resign, saying that if I do not write a
voluntary resignation they will dismiss me on other grounds. In this case
my employment record will be tarnished."

The Presidential Administration sent on his complaint to the Milli Majlis
on 6 December 2018, asking it to investigate. However, Akhundov received no
response from the Milli Majlis, despite the requirements of the Labour Code
and the Civil Service Law.

On 18 December 2018, several media outlets claimed that Akhundov had been
fired "for converting to Christianity".

On the afternoon of 25 December 2018, Akhundov lodged a resignation letter.
However, earlier in the day the Milli Majlis dismissed him.

Farzaliyev of the Milli Majlis Human Resources Department denied that
Akhundov had been fired because of his faith. "It was not because of his
Christianity, absolutely," he told Forum 18. "It wasn't because of that. He
uses this to pursue his case."

Similarly, the then Head of the Milli Majlis International Relations
Department Ibrahimov also denied that Akhundov had been dismissed because
he was a Christian. "His faith played no role in his dismissal," he claimed
to Forum 18.

Asked why Akhundov had been fired, head of the Milli Majlis Human Resources
Department Farzaliyev responded: "He knows the reason."

Fired for "translation mistakes" 18 years earlier?

Farzaliyev of the Milli Majlis Human Resources Department then claimed that
Akhundov had been fired because of mistakes in his work. "He had two
warnings about serious mistakes in his work." Asked to identify them,
Farzaliyev claimed Akhundov had made "very serious mistakes" in his
translations during a visit to Baku of Russell Johnston, President of the
Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe from 1999 to 2002. Johnston
died in 2008.

Akhundov told Forum 18 that he translated for Johnston in 2001 or 2002. "I
have never heard that for an ordinary mistake you dismiss a person after 18

Illegally unsigned dismissal letter

The brief letter dismissing Akhundov (Order No. 228-V) dated 25 December
2018 (seen by Forum 18) was issued on behalf of the then Speaker of the
Milli Majlis, Oqtay Asadov. The dismissal letter has the rubber stamp of
the Milli Majlis, but is unsigned.

"However, Oqtay Asadov was on an official visit to the Islamic Republic of
Iran on that date and could not sign the Order," Akhundov pointed out. He
noted that information on Asadov's official visit to Iran was posted on the
Milli Majlis website.

Akhundov noted that "according to the Article 84 of the Labour Code, when
an employee is dismissed the dismissal order must contain important
information such as signature and legal address". He added that "the
dismissal letter does not have the signature of the Speaker of Parliament
and the legal address of the Parliament. It is another [example of]

Asked why the dismissal letter was unsigned, Head of the Milli Majlis Human
Resources Department Farzaliyev claimed to Forum 18 that the original with
the signature of Speaker Asadov was in the archives and Akhundov was sent
an unsigned copy. Asked how Asadov could have signed the letter on a day
when he travelled to the Iranian capital Teheran, Farzaliyev insisted that
Asadov had left only at 10 am and had signed the letter before he left.

Akhundov added that the dismissal letter, "which affects my rights and
responsibilities", was sent to him only in early October 2019. No
explanation was given for the delayed issuing of the dismissal letter.
Without the written dismissal letter, Akhundov was unable to challenge it
in court.

Asked why the Milli Majlis had not sent Akhundov his dismissal letter until
early October 2019, more than nine months after his dismissal, Head of the
Milli Majlis Human Resources Department Farzaliyev responded: "We sent him
the letter when he asked for it."

Repeated appeals fail

During the months after his December 2018 dismissal, Akhundov repeatedly
appealed to the Milli Majlis, the Presidential Administration and other
state agencies.

On 24 July 2019, a senior official of the Department on Inter-Ethnic
Relations, Multiculturalism and Religious issues at the Presidential
Administration received him.

"I thank him that he listened to me for more than half an hour," Akhundov
noted on his Facebook page the same day, "during which I explained to him
that due to my faith in Jesus Christ I was watched by some unprofessional
staff of the SSS secret police, and following their letter to parliament I
was dismissed from my job in December 2018. I pleaded with him to help me
get my job back in parliament, because it was not right and lawful to
dismiss a civil servant like me for believing in Jesus Christ and
worshipping God at home."

Akhundov added that the Presidential Administration official said he was
unable to raise his dismissal with President Ilham Aliyev. "So the question
is how can the President help me if his staff do not report to him about a
crucial issue like a freedom of religion and belief violation?"

Akhundov said that he hoped that the new leadership of the SSS secret
police installed in June 2019 would have "a more professional approach than
the former one to individuals' rights to conduct religious worship at

Suit rejected first time despite illegal actions of Milli Majlis

In October 2019, the same month he received the dismissal letter in
writing, Akhundov lodged a suit against the Milli Majlis to Baku's
Administrative Economic Court No. 2, seeking to have his dismissal
overturned and to be restored to his job.

At the hearing on 28 November 2019, the Milli Majlis was not represented in
court and sent no documents, Akhundov complained to Forum 18. Judge Zaur
Tagiyev ordered that both Akhundov and the Milli Majlis provide
documentation before the next hearing.

However, the court system was then changed and the case was transferred to
the new Baku Administrative Court. There it was assigned to Judge Miminat
Hajibayova, who heard the suit on 30 January 2020.

Akhundov insisted at the hearing that Speaker Asadov could not have signed
the dismissal letter because he was on a visit to Iran on 25 December 2018.
Shahin Guliyev, who represented the Milli Majlis in Court, claimed in
response that Asadov left for Iran at 8 am that day and that he had signed
the dismissal letter before leaving for Iran.

Judge Hajibayova also upheld the Milli Majlis' assertion that Akhundov had
not filed his suit within the prescribed nine months of the contested 25
December 2018 decision. She rejected Akhundov's proof that he had received
the document only in early October 2019 and had lodged his suit within

Judge Hajibayova then rejected Akhundov's suit, according to court records.

Second refusal of suit

Akhundov then appealed to Baku Appeal Court, where the case was assigned to
a panel of three judges headed by Judge Hamid Hamidov. A hearing on 1 April
2020 was postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic.

On 10 June, the three Judges rejected Akhundov's appeal, according to court
records. The hearing lasted only 20 minutes, Akhundov noted.

The Judges insisted that Akhundov had lodged his suit outside the time
allowed for such suits. They rejected his argument that the time began when
he received the dismissal notice in writing in October 2019, and that the
statute of limitations is one year when illegality is involved.

"The courts cannot be independent here"

"Just because parliament endorses them as judges, they are very careful
with the parliament and therefore do not dare to pass a ruling in my
favour," Akhundov noted after the hearing. "So the courts cannot be
independent here when it comes to face the Parliament, Presidential
Administration and high ranking officials. So their ruling was a
predetermined and ordered issue."

Akhundov added: "I insisted several times that I was fired due to my
accepting Christianity, which is the obvious evidence that could easily be
used as the violation of my basic human rights, including religious and
conscientious rights. And only due to this fact the Judges should not have
raised the issue of running out the statute of limitations - even legally
it has nothing to do with me, it was parliament that violated the
provisions of the law and did not submit to me the Order on time."

Akhundov says he will appeal further to the Supreme Court as soon as he
gets the Baku Appeal Court decision in writing. (END)

Full reports on freedom of thought, conscience and belief in Azerbaijan

For more background, see Forum 18's Azerbaijan religious freedom survey

Forum 18's compilation of Organisation for Security and Co-operation in
Europe (OSCE) freedom of religion or belief commitments

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