The prosecution has called for lengthy prison sentences for 18 men who are accused of plotting to overthrow the Azerbaijani government, but are considered by human rights activists to be prisoners of conscience.
Most of the 18 were apprehended during a police raid in late November 2015 in the village of Nardaran, where many locals look to Iranian clerics in Qom for religious guidance, rather than to the Baku-based Spiritual Board of Muslims of the Caucasus.
The target of the police raid was theologian Taleh Bagirzade, 33, who in early 2015 co-founded the still unregistered Movement for Muslim Unity, the objective of which, he said, is to establish a democratic secular state in which leaders are popularly elected.
Bagirzade was apprehended on the night of the raid at the home in Nardaran of Movement for Muslim Unity co-founder Vagif Bunyadov.
Two police officers and at least four Nardaran residents were killed in a struggle, accounts of which are contradictory, between police and supporters seeking to prevent Bagirzade's arrest. 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.
The most prominent of Bagirzade's 17 co-defendants is Fuad Gahramanly, deputy chairman of the opposition Azerbaijan Popular Front Party (AHCP). Gahramanly was arrested 12 days after the Nardaran raid on the basis of a Facebook post branding "unjust" the arrest of Bagirzade and other Nardaran residents. He was subsequently charged with calling for mass unrest and violence.
The 18 accused went on trial in early August at Baku's Court for Serious Crimes on charges of premeditated murder, terrorism, organizing mass unrest, illegal possession of weapons, creating armed formations, inciting religious hatred, using force against officials with the aim of overthrowing the government and seizing power, and other more minor offenses.
All pleaded not guilty. Some say they incriminated themselves under torture during pretrial questioning. Others admitted having signed a confession they had not read. The court has refused to investigate the allegations of torture.
Lawyers for the accused say the case against them was fabricated, and that witnesses were pressured. Four of the five police officers summoned to testify in mid-October could not positively identify any of the accused as having participated in the fracas.
Bagirzade's lawyer Yalchin Imanov sought without success earlier this month to have Azerbaijani Interior Minister Ramil Usubov summoned for questioning about discrepancies between his statement in an interview on national TV that the police operation was launched on orders from Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev in light of the criminal situation in Nardaran, and the formal indictment, according to which police had received information that Bagirzade was planning a coup d'etat. In addition, Usubov said five Nardaran residents were killed during the fracas, while the indictment gives the figure as four.
Why Local Police?
A second defense lawyer, Abil Bayramov, similarly made the point during an earlier court session that, if police had obtained information that Bagirzade and his supporters were planning acts of terrorism, National Security Ministry forces with the appropriate training should have been deployed to round them up, rather than local police.
Movement for Muslim Unity deputy head Abbas Guseynov has denied the prosecution's charge that he fired 25 shots at police, without hitting any of them.
Bagirzade has demanded without success that video footage of the raid filmed by the police should be shown in court.
Testifying in early August, Bagirzade accused the Azerbaijani authorities of deliberately seeking to provoke a confrontation in Nardaran in order to create a pretext for quashing his movement. He stressed that he has never advocated violence, and suggested that the police action to detain him was "carefully planned" in retaliation for criticism voiced by the Movement for Muslim Unity of blatant falsification during the parliamentary elections on November 1.
Bagirzade also said that he had been subjected to torture to induce him to incriminate AHCP Chairman Ali Kerimli and opposition National Council of Democratic Forces head Camil Hasanli, which he refused to do.
On December 26, the prosecution demanded life imprisonment for Bagirzade, 11 years in jail for Gahramanly, and between 10 and 20 years for their co-defendants.
Meanwhile, dozens of other men are reportedly still awaiting trial on analogous charges, some of whom were reportedly arrested in Baku, Gence, Lankaran, and other cities.