At least four local Shi'ite Muslims and two police officers died on November 26 in violent clashes in the settlement of Nardaran, 25 kilometers northeast of Baku.
Fourteen people, including the charismatic young theologian Taleh Bagirzade and three other members of the Movement for Muslim Unity he founded in January, were taken into custody.
In a subsequent joint statement, Azerbaijan's Interior Ministry and Prosecutor-General's Office said Bagirzade, together with Elmar Agayev, Zulfuqar Mikayilov, and Abulfaz Bunyatov, created the Movement for Muslim Unity with the aim of overthrowing the constitutional order and establishing "a religious state under Shari'a law."
They 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 detentions were 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."
Those allegations should be treated with caution. Granted, Nardaran has been a hotbed of Shi'ite Islam since at least the early 2000s, and its 8,000 residents have clashed with police on numerous previous occasions. In 2007, an RFE/RL correspondent noted militant pro-Islamic graffiti there, including quotations from Iran's Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and such slogans as "Muslims must become the soldiers of Islam and they should defend Islam," "The world is waiting for justice. Justice is waiting for the Mehdi;" and "Red death is better than black life. Allahu Akbar!"
The local population might therefore have been receptive to proposals to overthrow a regime they, and many other impoverished secular Azerbaijanis, consider corrupt and indifferent to the needs of the population at large. But Gaci-Aga Nuriyev, one of the village elders, said categorically on November 27 that "the residents of Nardaran have never risen against the state and never will."
There is, moreover, little hard evidence, that Bagirzade's Movement for Muslim Unity, which was not registered as a religious organization with the Spiritual Board of Muslims of Azerbaijan, had any such subversive intent. At the time of its founding, its deputy chairman, theologian Elcin Qasymov, said its motto was "Islam and the unity of the Umma in national ideology." Bunyatov for his part said it would engage in unspecified "political and social projects."
But Seyavush Geydarov, deputy chairman of Azerbaijan's State Committee for Work with Religious Organizations, nonetheless claimed that the movement "acts according to orders from specific forces," which he declined to identify, and seeks to "exploit" people's religious feelings for political ends.
Geydarov characterized Bagirzade, who studied theology abroad, as "seeking to import into Azerbaijan the national and spiritual values" of a foreign state, presumably meaning Iran.
Certainly Bagirzade's reputation as a preacher is based at least in part on his criticisms of the ruling regime: he has gone so far as to denounce President Ilham Aliyev as a despot. But he has not advocated the introduction in Azerbaijan of Shari'a law.
Bagirzade was arrested in May 2011 for participating in a protest against the government ban on high-school students wearing the hijab, and subsequently sentenced to 18 months in jail for "hooliganism" and "resisting the police." Azerbaijani human rights activists promptly designated him a prisoner of conscience.
In March 2013, he was again arrested just days after declaring in a sermon that "a believer should not be afraid to raise his voice in protest against oppressors." He was sentenced in November of that year to two years in prison for alleged possession of drugs.
Echoing Soviet-era dissident Vladimir Bukovsky, who once characterized the U.S.S.R. as "one big prison," Bagirzade told RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service on his release in July 2015 that he had merely exchanged a small prison for a large one. Affirming that "our struggle continues," he expressed the hope that jailed human rights activists, including Leyla Yunus, would be released, together with activists imprisoned for protesting the hijab ban.
He also said his time in prison had only served to strengthen his beliefs.
Bagirzade was summoned by police for questioning in late September, and detained and beaten several weeks later.
Whether Bagirzade's release from jail in July will come to be seen as a turning point in Azerbaijan's history, as Eldar Mamedov, an adviser to the Social Democratic faction of the European Parliament, has suggested, remains to be seen.
Meanwhile, details of the standoff in Nardaran on November 26 remain unclear. The news portal Caucasus Knot quoted an unnamed Nardaran resident as saying the police opened fire against villagers seeking to prevent Bagirzade's arrest. Bunyatov's wife similarly said police broke down the door of their home, where Bagirzade was a guest, and opened fire.
By contrast, the Interior Ministry/Prosecutor's statement claims residents opened fire on police and hurled Molotov cocktails.
As of late morning on November 27, the situation was said to be stabilizing, although the settlement of Nardaran was still surrounded by police, and residents had not yet started dismantling the barricades they had erected the night before.