Eighteen men said to be members of an extremist religious group that sought to provoke mass unrest in order to seize power went on trial beginning on August 4 in Baku's Court for Serious Crimes.
They face charges including murder, terrorism, inciting religious hatred, organizing mass unrest, and illegal possession of weapons. All of them without exception reject those charges as fabricated; several say they have been subjected to torture in an attempt to induce them to incriminate themselves, fellow defendants, and respected opposition leaders.
The two most prominent defendants are Taleh Bagirzade (also known as Bagirov), a young Shi'ite cleric who heads the unregistered Movement for Muslim Unity, and Fuad Qahramanli, deputy chairman of the opposition Azerbaijan Popular Front Party (AHCP).
Bagirzade, who studied theology in Iran, has campaigned to uphold believers' rights and openly criticized Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev. He was apprehended in late November 2015 together with 13 other men during a raid by police on a house in the village of Nardaran on the outskirts of Baku. where they were attending prayers.
Nardaran has for decades been a bastion of conservative Shi'ite Islam. Its estimated 8,000 residents regard as their supreme religious authority not Muslim Spiritual Board of Azerbaijan Chairman Sheikh-ul-Islam Allakh-Shukur Pashazade, but Iranian Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Seven people, including at least two police officers, were killed and several others wounded during the police raid, the precise details of which remain unclear. According to a joint statement by Azerbaijan's Interior Ministry and Prosecutor-General's Office, the men opened fire and hurled Molotov cocktails at the police. The accused, however, insist they were unarmed. One of them, Bahruz Asadov, was quoted as saying in court on August 11 that he heard police warning each other to aim carefully so as not to risk injuring their colleagues.
That joint statement also says that Bagirzade created the Movement for Muslim Unity with the aim of overthrowing the constitutional order and establishing "a religious state under Shari'a law." He and his associates are said to have recruited supporters in Baku and other parts of the country and provided them with various types of weaponry, and to have conducted "illegal meetings" in Nardaran to discuss mobilizing the population in a violent uprising against the authorities.
According to the statement, the November raid was undertaken to neutralize "an armed criminal group that acted under the cover of religion and was seeking to destabilize the social-political situation and organize mass unrest and acts of terrorism."
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev (third from right) visited Nardaran in June, bringing gifts.
Oqtay Gyulaliyev of the public group Azerbaijan Without Political Prisoners says there is no evidence to support the allegations of terrorism. Why, he asks, if Bagirzade and his associates were indeed terrorists, were rank-and-file local police deployed to detain them, rather than a specialized counterterrorism force? Why were civilian lives endangered, and why did the police open fire immediately rather than call on the group of men to surrender?
Bagirzade's lawyer Elcin Sadiqov said after the preliminary court hearings last month that many points in the indictment remain unclear. He too claimed there was no evidence that it was the accused who fired on the police, or even that the two dead men identified as police officers were indeed such.
Bagirzade himself stresses that he has never advocated violence. He suggested that the police action to detain him was "carefully planned" in retaliation for the criticism voiced by the Movement for Muslim Unity of blatant falsification during the parliamentary elections on November 1.
Qahramanli, who was nowhere near Nardaran at the time of the raid, was detained at his home two weeks after it took place for comments about it that he posted on Facebook. He was initially charged with antistate propaganda and inciting racial or religious hatred and remanded in pretrial detention. Six months later, a further charge was brought against him of calling for civil disobedience and mass unrest.
Testifying on August 11, Qahramanli said he was being tried solely for having expressed a critical opinion of the Azerbaijani authorities. "The authorities want to frighten those people who come out against corruption [and] arbitrary [reprisals], which is why they fabricate political cases [against such critics]," he affirmed.
Gozyal Bayramli, who like Qahramanli is an AHCP deputy chairman, is on record as saying he is convinced that despite the total lack of any supporting evidence, the Azerbaijani authorities are determined to prove a connection between the party and the purported Shi'ite insurgent group in order to discredit the AHCP in the eyes of the international community.
Bagirzade says investigators tortured him to induce him to incriminate AHCP Chairman Ali Kerimli and Camil Hasanli, the head of the opposition National Council of Democratic Forces, but that he refused to do so.
Up to 50 other persons were apprehended in Nardaran on the day of the police raid. Some were subsequently released; others have been tried individually or in small groups on less serious charges such as illegal possession of weapons.
Since the events of last November, the Azerbaijani authorities have made a concerted effort to placate, if not win the hearts and minds of, Nardaran's population, broadening streets and repairing schools, a clinic, and other infrastructure. Attending the formal inauguration of that infrastructure two months ago, President Aliyev announced that villagers' collective unpaid debts for electricity over the past decade, amounting to 42.2 million manats ($27.7 million), had been written off.