On November 27, 2019, the family of a 10-year-old girl from Azerbaijan's northwestern Tovuz district appeared on one of the country's most popular programs, Khazar TV's "I'm Looking For You".
The show, now off the air, was a platform for families to make emotional appeals to viewers to help find their missing loved ones. Though it always delivered real-life drama, this episode was an especially gut-wrenching spectacle.
The missing Narmin Guliyeva's grandmother wailed in grief and appeared to faint, sending the studio into chaos.
For the next few weeks, the family appeared regularly on the daily TV show to remind audiences of their plight.
And after 45 days, the family and the captivated viewing public received devastating news: Guliyeva's burnt corpse had been found in a field in the family's village, Dondar Gushcu. Law enforcers deployed to the area from Baku stated that the girl had been killed five days before her body was burned and that there were wounds to her head. On January 9, 2020, three days after the corpse was found, the General Prosecutor announced that the case was under the "special watch" of President Ilham Aliyev.
The next day a 47-year-old fellow resident of Dondar Gushcu named Ilkin Suleymanov was arrested as a suspect in the case. Law enforcement bodies asserted that he had confessed to murdering the girl.
It took three years of investigation and court proceedings for the Ganja Grave Crimes Court to finally hand down its verdict. On June 5, Suleymanov was sentenced to 18 years in prison on charges of murder and kidnapping.
Suleymanov's family had insisted all along that the authorities had the wrong man, and when the verdict was delivered, they staged a loud protest outside the courtroom.
As is common practice among Azerbaijanis who feel they've been wronged by the state bureaucracy, they appealed directly to President Aliyev to intervene.
"Mr. President, it's horrible, horrible. The situation in the country is horrible. They [authorities] are crushing us today. They crush your citizens. They hide crimes. There mustn't be such impiety, such dishonesty," the convict's brother, Adil Suleymanov, said addressing TV cameras after the trial.
The Suleymanovs had their reasons to be angry. A number of discrepancies had been exposed in the case as it made its way through the legal system.
Back in 2021, Adil Suleymanov claimed the investigation materials showed that the blood types of Guliyeva and the corpse did not match. "Besides, the corpse's height certainly should have been mentioned in the materials. But it's not there. And when you look at the photos of the corpse, you see that this doesn't look like it belongs to a 10-year-old," he told RFE/RL's Azerbaijani service at the time.
At a September 2022 court hearing, defense lawyers pointed to what they claimed to be fabricated evidence. In one instance, they said a pair of jeans supposedly belonging to the late child was presented by a detective as forensic evidence. But the corpse that was found was not wearing jeans. And jeans were not among the items taken as evidence from the suspect's house.
These and other discrepancies led large swathes of the Azerbaijani public to believe Suleymanov was innocent. "Ilkin Suleymanov should rightfully be acquitted, as there is no credible evidence of his guilt in the criminal case," lawyer Rasul Jafarov wrote. "At the same time, there are fundamental contradictions in the case, which have not been seriously investigated."
On top of all that, the accused said he had been "badly tortured" in the early days of his detention in order to extract a false confession. That accusation is widely seen as credible given Azerbaijani law enforcement's reputation for using torture and threats as a means to produce the testimony they want.
For many Azerbaijanis, the long-awaited verdict confirmed their distrust of the law enforcement and judicial systems. And it demonstrated to civil society that the tradition of concocting false charges isn't only limited to politically active figures.
"In this country, it is not just political activists who are vulnerable to being sentenced to severe punishment for unproven crimes, it's anyone, including ordinary people who are not involved in politics like Ilkin Suleymanov," chair of the opposition Popular Front Party, Ali Karimli, wrote on Facebook.
"The court verdict issued in the 'Narmin case' shows that there is a very serious need to establish an independent and professional judicial system in our country. An independent and professional judiciary cannot be established in a one-man regime."
But why was Suleymanov selected as the culprit, supposing he is indeed innocent?
"The fact that the president took this case under his watch perhaps forced law enforcement to bring in a suspect in a hurry," human rights defender Rufat Safarov told local news agency Turan. "And the fact that Suleymanov was a 'single, quiet person' made him 'the perfect candidate.'"