Muslims in the northern Azerbaijani district of Zaqatala say they have been harassed by local police for growing long beards, RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service reports.
Two men from a group in Zaqatala visited RFE/RL's Baku Bureau this week and described how they were beaten by police and had their beards forcibly shaved off.
Allahyar Yusubov said he was taken to a police station on September 28.
"They forced me into a police car and took me to the police department," Yusubov said. "They tore my clothes and punched me in the lower body. When I lost my balance and fell down, the policeman came over, rubbed his shoes against my face, and asked why I have a long beard. When I said it is my right, he said I am not allowed to do so in Zaqatala."
Yusubov said he was later released by order of the local prosecutor. But he says he cannot obtain an identity card because his photo shows him with a beard.
Abakir Qaziyev said he left Zaqatala three years ago when local police forcibly shaved off Muslims' beards. He said he now sees his family only every few months due to fear of the police.
"They beat and insulted me in the police department several times," Qaziyev said. "Three men handcuffed me, took me to a restroom, and shaved off my beard. They told me we engaged in antigovernment activity, but we asked them to show documents [to prove that]."
Mustafa Kazimov, also from Zaqatala, said he, too, rarely sees his family because of police pressure.
"They label us Wahhabis. We cannot walk the streets," he said. "Why should we be afraid to walk the streets in a democratic and independent state?"
Zaqatala, which shares a border with the Russian republic of Daghestan, is about 450 kilometers from Baku. It has a population of some 110,000.
The men say they have appealed to Azerbaijan's ombudsman and the Presidential Office, but have received no response.
Interior Ministry official Orkhan Mansurzadeh told RFE/RL that he defends the actions of the Zaqatala police. He said police are entitled to summon men with long beards and short trousers for "a preliminary talk" to determine whether they represent "illegal, radical religious" trends.
Mansurzadeh said Zaqatala deputy police chief Kamandar Hasanov admits he summoned the men for such talks but rejects as "far from the truth" their claims to having been beaten and having had their beards shaved off.
Elshad Miri, an expert on religious issues, told RFE/RL that such actions by police can radicalize believers. He suggested Muslims who have been abused should sue the police.
The U.S. State Department's 2010 Report on Human Rights in Azerbaijan highlighted how the authorities differentiate between groups perceived as "traditional" and "nontraditional."
"Traditional" religious groups include Islamic communities registered with the government, Jewish groups, the Orthodox Church, and the Catholic Church. Groups perceived as "nontraditional" include unregistered Islamic groups, Jehovah's Witnesses, and several Protestant communities.
In general, "traditional" groups reported no problems with religious freedom, while "nontraditional" communities frequently complained they and their members were selectively harassed or denied official registration.