The trial, which began October 8, has attracted significant attention at home and abroad, as it puts Azerbaijan in the uncomfortable position of accusing Iran of meddling in its domestic affairs. The young cleric accused of leading the group now on trial says the charges themselves are a "political game" at a time when unsanctioned Islamic faith is on the rise in what has typically been a secular state.
Said Dadasbeyli stands accused of leading a group called the Northern Mahdi Army that, with extensive Iranian funding and training, sought to overthrow the state and impose Islamic Shari'a law on Azerbaijan. Prosecutors say Dadasbeyli and his army were the benefactors of money and tactics from the Quds Force, a secret military wing of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, or IRGC.
Prosecutors on the opening day of the trial accused Dadasbeyli's group of providing Iranian intelligence operatives with information about the U.S. and Israeli embassies in Baku, and of modeling itself after terrorist organizations such as Ansar-i Hizbullah and Hizb ut-Tahrir.
Charges Are Groundless
Elcin Qambarov, the lawyer representing Dadasbeyli, told RFE/RL that the charges are groundless, and that his client had not worked with Iran or sought to undermine Western influence in Azerbaijan.
"The main charges are that Said Dadashbeyli and members of the community he led, conducted activities with the aim of overthrowing the government, to change the constitutional order of the country by violent means. They are also accused of working with Iranian intelligence," Qambarov said. "But the prosecutors don't have any evidence, any facts, any witnesses that can prove that Said Dadasbeyli is connected with Iranian intelligence. This is a baseless charge that comes from nowhere."
Qambar also claimed that narcotics, cigarettes, and weapons were planted on members of the group to buttress charges that the Northern Mahdi Army engaged in illegal activities to raise money.
Dadashbeyli, who has pleaded not guilty to the charges, is considered to be a cleric with rising influence in Azerbaijan. He is well-educated, fluent in five languages, and comes from a middle-class family that worked in the country's oil industry. His mother, Qataba, confirmed in an interview with RFE/RL that her son visited the Iranian holy city of Mashad in August, but she says her son was "not interested in the Iranians" and that he "wanted Azeris to be more pro-Western."
Dadashbeyli says he leads a group called Nima, which -- when spelled backward in Azeri -- forms the word "amen." Supporters of the group say it is involved in charity work. But one witness for the prosecution, Rasim Qaziyev, said on October 8 that the group had tried in 2005 to force him into unspecified "antistate" activities.
Rising Islamic Sentiment
Trials of Islamist groups with purported Iranian ties were held in Azerbaijan as early as the mid-1990s. But the latest case comes amid rising Islamic sentiment. The administration of President Ilham Aliyev supports a state-sanctioned strain of official Islam. But recent years have seen the ascent of multiple private Islamic groups, often funded by Saudi Arabia, Iran, and other countries. Even as the trial of Dadasbeyli was under way, Azerbaijan's National Security Ministry was announcing the arrest of another group it accused of operating a drug-smuggling ring in collusion with Tehran.
Azerbaijan has been careful to maintain friendly relations with Iran, particularly as the issue of the U.S. missile-defense system has taken center stage in international policy debate. Baku, which has played a surprisingly deft balancing act between Moscow, Washington, and Tehran, hosted Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad in September, just days before accepting a high-level delegation of Russian and U.S. officials to examine the Qabala radar facility proposed as a possible deterrent against Iranian missiles.
Iran remains a priority topic in U.S.-Azeri dialogue. Michael Hayden, the director of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, visited Baku last week for talks that were expected to include Iran. Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov and U.S. Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns also discussed Iran on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly last week.
Such meetings are unlikely to have escaped the attention of Iran.