The Azerbaijani authorities have arrested hundreds of religious Shias in recent weeks, according to local independent media and rights activists.
Pro-government media - which have reported on only a few of these cases - have branded a number of the detainees as spies working for Iran, even though that is not reflected in the charges filed against them.
The process appears to have accelerated since the gun attack on an Azerbaijani MP in late March which Baku has suggested was Iran's doing. That incident followed the lethal armed assault on the (now closed) Azerbaijani embassy in Tehran in late January, which President Ilham Aliyev directly blamed on "some branches of the Iranian establishment."
On April 6, Azerbaijan's law enforcement bodies released a joint statement saying that they carried out "joint special complex operational measures" to prevent "criminal acts aimed at destabilizing the country that were being orchestrated by a group of people manipulated and financially compensated by the Iranian special services."
The statement named eight people, saying that two ethnic Azeris living in Iran and cooperating with Iranian special services instructed an Azerbaijani citizen living in Azerbaijan's central Tartar district to create a "resistance group" for the purpose of violently seizing power and then "forcefully changing the constitutional structure of the Republic of Azerbaijan" to make the country a Shia theocracy. The group managed to recruit more members beyond the eight named detainees, the statement asserted.
"The detained persons carried out the tasks they received from abroad in order to harm the traditions of tolerance formed in Azerbaijan by promoting Iran and religious radicalism on social networks and at ceremonies where people gather, portraying themselves as 'people of faith' in the society," it read.
"At the same time, gang members organized the sale of drugs from Iran and spent their huge revenues from this on promoting religious radicalism and financing other disruptive activities in Azerbaijan."
These eight arrests are the only ones confirmed by the authorities. But media and rights activists have reported the arrests of hundreds.
Rufat Safarov, director of the local human rights group Defense Line, says that more than 500 religious Shias have been arrested in recent weeks. "It's true that Iran had a spy network inside Azerbaijan, and our citizens fell into this trap knowingly or unknowingly. In that regard, I stand by the law enforcement bodies who carry out the crackdown," he told Berlin-based news outlet Meydan TV.
"However, I can also presume that there are innocent people among the detainees, who were only practicing their religion, and perhaps criticized the government's policy regarding religious freedoms."
Nearly all the detainees identified by rights groups as having been religious Shias were in fact arrested on drug-related charges. Pro-government media outlets have leapt to declare some of them spies and traitors in the absence of any such official charges.
One Shia, who was originally charged with aiding the armed attack against MP Fazil Mustafa in late March, was cleared of that charge but kept in custody on drug charges after a Meydan TV aired a report on his case. The report showed CCTV footage from the man's cafe proving that he was there at the time of the attack.
Amid the crackdown, Azerbaijan's relations with Iran continue to deteriorate. On April 6, Azerbaijan's Foreign Ministry announced that four diplomats at the Iranian embassy in Baku had been declared personae non gratae and told to leave Azerbaijan. Iran condemned that move as "in conflict with the principles of good-neighborliness."
On April 8, the foreign ministers of the two countries spoke by phone. "A detailed discussion was held regarding the existing dissatisfaction and misunderstandings between the two countries," the Azerbaijani ministry's readout of the call said.
"The importance of continuing negotiations towards eliminating misunderstandings was emphasized. It was agreed that existing projects between Azerbaijan and Iran should be implemented."