Authorities in Azerbaijan are trying to erase the line between legitimate dissent and religious extremism in an attempt to stifle criticism of their policies.
An ongoing trial in the Baku suburb of Nardaran highlights the trend. The proceedings, which began in August, involve 18 defendants, who face a variety of charges, including illegal weapons possession, conspiracy, murder, terrorism and inciting religious hatred.
The defendants were arrested after a November 2015 police raid on the house of Taleh Bagirzade, a young Shi’a cleric and outspoken government critic who heads the unregistered Movement for Muslim Unity, a moderate group that calls for the use of non-violent means in the pursuit of democratic reform and religious liberty. Seven people were killed during the November raid. Several others were wounded.
Bagirzade faces 30 criminal charges, including supposedly plotting a coup with the aim of establishing Sharia rule in Azerbaijan. Bagirzade, who studied theology in Iran, is an outspoken advocate of believers’ rights, and has denounced President Ilham Aliyev as a tyrant. Already, he has served a two-plus-year prison term on illegal drug possession charges, a common accusation leveled against the government’s political opponents.
According to the official version of events, the defendants fired weapons at police officers, as well as hurled Molotov cocktails, during the raid. But so far, those assertions have not been substantiated by eyewitness testimony.
Fariz Namazli, a lawyer for one of the accused, Abbas Huseynov, maintains that numerous procedural violations marred the police investigation of the violent episode, alleging that supposed witnesses were summoned only once the defendants had been detained.
The 18 accused men, on trial in Baku’s Court for Serious Crimes, insist they are innocent of the charges against them, and, like many human rights activists, characterize the case as fabricated. On the witness stand, some have alleged torture.
Foreign and Azerbaijani observers alike have depicted the trial as part of a government systematic and intentional effort to conflate dissenting views with terrorism.
“The government appears determined to crush the Muslim Unity Movement, as well as any other religiously-inspired grouping that the government fears could challenge its authority,” noted Felix Corley, editor of Forum 18, a Norwegian religious-freedom advocacy group.
Bagirzade’s refusal to register his group with the Caucasus Muslim Board, which Azerbaijan, counter to its international human rights obligations, requires all Islamic civic groups and congregations to join, proved one such threat, Corley elaborated.
Bagirzade has advocated for the release of scores of political prisoners, including those jailed for protesting the ban on hijab in Azerbaijani public schools.
That has made Bagirzade “the subject of intense interest and harsh treatment by the Azerbaijani government,” emailed Catherine Cosman, senior policy analyst for Eurasia at the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, a bipartisan federal body.
From jail, he also supported a protest against a September 26 referendum that would extend the president’s term from five years to seven.
As do others, Cosman believes that Bagirzade was tortured before going on trial “in a vain effort to make him incriminate political dissidents.” The cleric sent a letter to the pro-opposition Azadliq newspaper claiming this, as did other trial testimony.
The Nardaran arrests were followed by the arrest of Fuad Gahramanli, a deputy head of the opposition, secular Azerbaijan Popular Front Party, who had posted on Facebook about the Nardaran case.
At the same time, the government has adopted Turkey’s argument that followers of the Islamic cleric Fethullah Gülen are also intent on overthrowing governments. A top aide to President Ilham Aliyev, Novruz Mamedov, claimed that “certain opposition circles” are linked to Gülen. At least one Popular Front activist has been arrested on suspicion of having such connections.
Wariness of the intentions of Azerbaijan’s Islamic organizations means that some democratization activists in Azerbaijani are hesitant to voice support for the Nardaran defendants, noted social-media rights activist Cavid Aga. “Some of my … friends fell for the faux paranoia of an armed religious revolution by one village,” he said. “As an atheist, [I would say that the] the same human rights apply to my religious countrymen, too.”
Located a half-hour’s drive from Baku, Nardaran, a village of about 8,000, has been a bastion of conservative Shi’a Islam for decades. It is a world apart from the rest of predominantly secular Azerbaijan: most women wear chadors, and religious banners hang in the streets.
It also differs for its history of anti-government protests, sometimes fatal.
With that background in mind, authorities tightened controls over Nardaran after the 2015 raid. Azerbaijani flags replaced religious flags and banners. And police demand to see ID cards before allowing individuals to enter the village. Journalists are routinely barred. Meanwhile, locals no longer gather on the streets to chat, and avoid talking to reporters by phone.
The government and its supporters deny that the ongoing Nardaran trial is politically motivated. “I’m also Muslim, but we shouldn’t misuse our religion,” said Eldar Quliyev, who serves as a member of the Aliyev-controlled parliament. “All people, regardless of their religion, color, identity, have to answer before the law for what they have done.”
Authorities seem set to implement additional measures to curb religious expression. Under a draft law now before parliament, any public display of religious slogans or flags will incur fines up to 25,000 manats (about $15,272).
To date, international observers and foreign governments have been relatively quiet about the Nardaran case. Among Western governments, only US officials appear to have mentioned the Nardaran controversy publicly – in reports from the US State Department (the 2015 International Freedom of Religion Report) and the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom.
Diplomats from the United States, European Union and Norway did not respond to EurasiaNet requests for comment on the Nardaran trial in time for publication.
Some observers believe that some foreign governments are reluctant to criticize the Aliyev administration’s policies, due to security and economic interests: Azerbaijan is strategically located between Russia and Iran, and possesses an abundance of oil and natural gas.
“Azerbaijan’s international partners have been reluctant to express much straightforward criticism, wrongly prioritizing in many cases strategic or financial interests ahead of the need for human rights reform,” said Jane Buchanan, associate director for Europe and Central Asia at Human Rights Watch.
“The issues aren’t mutually exclusive and governments and financial institutions should set clear parameters for the kind of partner that they want to cooperate with,” Buchanan added.
Durna Safarova is a freelance journalist who covers Azerbaijan.