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Whither Azerbaijan’s Islamists?

Taleh Baghirov, a religious scholar and activist, was sentenced in November 2013 to two and a half years in prison on illegal drug possession charges after sharply criticizing the government in his Friday sermon. He was released July 31 after serving his full sentence. (Photo: Azadliq Radiosu/RFE/RL)

The overall atmosphere in Azerbaijan is grim when it comes to freedom of speech and freedom of conscience. Yet, the release from prison of Taleh Baghirov, a young, charismatic Shia Muslim cleric, goes against the general trend in Azerbaijan. While it is certainly premature to call Baghirov’s release a “game changer,” it has implications for Azerbaijan’s Islamist politics that are worth pondering.
 
Baghirov was released from prison in late July after serving his full two-and-a-half-year sentence on what were widely seen as trumped-up drug-related charges. Local observers believe the real trigger for his arrest was a fiery sermon he delivered in Nardaran, a town known as a bastion of conservative Shia believers. In his sermon, Baghirov assailed President Ilham Aliyev as a “zalim,” or tyrant. The cleric then went on to recall the fate that befell another “zalim,” Iraq’s late president Saddam Hussein. 
 

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Eldar Mamedov is a political adviser to the Socialists & Democrats Group in the European Parliament. He writes in his personal capacity.

Whither Azerbaijan’s Islamists?

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