Government authorities in Azerbaijan released a Baptist minister from prison Wednesday after holding him in custody for seven months.
Zaur Balaev was arrested by government authorities in May 2007 on charges of using violence against state representatives. Church members continue to insist that the charges were false.
After his appeal failed in October, Balaev was transferred to a prison in the capital city.
The pastor was pardoned under an March 18 decree from President Aliev, which was published on the presidential Web site. The decree also pardoned 58 other prisoners and reduced the sentence of one more.
Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter was among those who had appealed for Balaev's release. He had written a letter on Balaev's behalf to the Azerbaijan president last month.
"It's a great joy to be free," Balaev told the Forum 18 News Service after his release.
More Work to Defend Freedoms
Ilya Zenchenko, head of the Baptist Union, welcomed the release.
"We thank God and those who prayed and supported Zaur," he said. "But there is a lot more work still to be done to defend religious freedom in Azerbaijan."
State officials have refused to disclose whether Balaev and his congregation will be safe from future official harassment. Protestants have been repeatedly threatened with jail in Azerbaijan, but none of these threats have come to fruition.
One Religious Prisoner Remains in Prison
Jehovah's Witness Samir Huseynov was not on the presidential amnesty list and remains in prison.
He was sentenced to 10 months in October 2007 for refusing compulsory military service on religious grounds.
"We weren't surprised that Samir Huseynov wasn't freed," one Jehovah's Witness told Forum 18 News Service. "Otherwise they wouldn't have imprisoned him in the first place."
Huseynov is still awaiting his appeal hearing.
Source: Forum 18 News Service