Lawyers for five Azerbaijani citizens accused of fighting alongside militants in Syria say the court is violating the rights of their clients by putting them in iron cages in the courtroom.
The trial of the five defendants -- Tural Gasanov, Elvin Aliyev, Farid Muradov, Namik Mamedov, and Ruslan Mustafayev -- began on March 30, when the Baku Serious Crimes Court held a preliminary hearing, according to the Caucasian Knot news website.
Elmar Suleimanov, the lawyer representing Tural Gasanov, told the Caucasian Knot that the defendants had requested that the court allow them to sit with their counsel during the court hearings rather than being held in iron cages.
"We referred to the fact that, in the case law in the European Court of Human Rights, such treatment of defendants is regarded as torture," Suleimanov said.
Placing defendants in cages also "violates the rights of detainees to effective legal protection, as during the [legal] process they cannot receive assistance from their lawyers," Suleimanov added.
The court also rejected a petition by the five defendants asking to dismiss the case and return it for further investigation. The defendants' lawyers believe that the case should not be heard before the court at this stage of the criminal investigation.
Suleimanov told the Caucasian Knot that Azerbaijani investigators had yet to establish whether the five defendants had been involved in criminal activity in Syria or not.
According to Suleimanov, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had announced an amnesty on the criminal prosecution of combatants following the presidential elections on June 3, 2014.
Assad announced the wide-ranging amnesty on June 10, a week after the elections -- widely considered a sham by the United States and its Western allies -- were held.
As part of that amnesty, Assad said that foreigners who entered Syria to "join a terrorist group or perpetrate a terrorist act" would receive amnesty if they surrendered to the authorities within a month.
All five defendants are accused of involvement in, or the creation of, unauthorized armed groups and supplying them with arms and ammunition. The authorities say that the five men fought alongside militants in Syria in 2013-14 and were arrested in September 2014 when they returned to Azerbaijan.
Suleimanov said that his client, Gasanov, had never even been in Syria.
The state has accused the five defendants of "terrorism," Suleimanov said.
"So let them show exaclty what they blew up or set on fire, or what the object of the terrorism was....After all, if we assume that an object was blown up, then we need some expert opinion about why it exploded. Maybe it was a gas leak," argued Suleimanov.
The Baku court had previously met at a hearing on March 16 to clarify the personal details of the five defendants, according to the pro-government website Day.az.
There are signs that the Azerbaijani authorities are cracking down heavily on those suspected of involvement with militant groups in Syria, as well as on certain religious groups in Azerbaijan.
The news that the Baku Serious Crimes Court had refused the defense's request to return the case against the five for further investigation came amid reports that the Azerbaijani authorities had arrested around 40 people suspected of fighting in the ranks of militant groups overseas.
Azerbaijan's National Security Minister Eldar Makhmudov said that 33 of those arrested had fought alongside militant groups in Syria, while another four had fought in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, according to Interfax.
Another seven individuals were arrested on suspicion of possessing "a variety of firearms and ammunition to commit crimes of a provocative, terrorist nature," Makhmudov said, adding that the seven were "members of radical religious extremist groups."
Makhmudov said that the arrests were part of ongoing efforts by the Azerbaijani authorities to "combat radicalization."
The National Security Minister said that "religious groups and the intelligence services of some regional countries" were behind the efforts to radicalize Azerbaijani citizens.
"Proactive, comprehensive measures" were therefore needed "especially in the run-up to the first European games to be held in this country," Makhmudov explained.
Baku is set to host the 2015 European Games from June 12-28.
Exact numbers of Azerbaijani fighters in Syria are not known. Estimates in news reports have ranged from 200 to 300. The largest group of Azerbaijanis is likely fighting alongside IS. In May, the leader of an Azerbaijani Islamic State faction in Raqqa, Mohammad al-Azeri, gave a video address in which he stated that Islamic State was on the correct path of jihad in Syria.
-- Joanna Paraszczuk