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Theologian Taleh Bagirzade was the target of a police raid in the Azerbaijani village of Nardaran last year, in which at least six people were died (file photo).

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.

Torture Allegations

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.

Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili announced that neither he nor any member of his staff will take part in the work of the commission.

Plans by Georgia's ruling Georgian Dream party to amend the country's constitution have gotten off to a rocky start. After President Giorgi Margvelashvili's proposal that the commission to draft those amendments be jointly co-chaired by himself, the prime minister, and the parliament speaker was ignored, he announced last week that his staff would boycott its work because it "lacks legitimacy."

Sergo Kapanadze, a member of the opposition United National Movement (ENM) minority parliament faction, had similarly declared earlier that "unless the president is involved to the maximum extent in the work of the parliament commission, the legitimacy of that commission will be open to question."

Shortly after the October 11 parliamentary elections, in which his Georgian Dream -- Democratic Georgia (GD-DG) party ultimately won 115 of the 150 parliament mandates, Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili proposed establishing a group that would draft amendments to what he termed "the very unbalanced constitution" inherited in 2012 from the ENM. The objective, he explained, was "a truly European, democratic constitution" that would "preclude the possibility of a single party ever again usurping and monopolizing power."

That was a clear allusion to the ENM, which during its nine years in office repeatedly amended and fine-tuned the constitution, first to strengthen the position of then-President Mikheil Saakashvili, and then to transfer many of the presidential powers to the prime minister to enable Saakashvili to continue wielding supreme power in that capacity following the expiry of his second presidential term.

The Georgian Dream coalition's resounding victory in the October 2012 parliamentary elections put paid to that scenario. And in December 2013, the new parliament duly established a commission tasked with drafting constitutional amendments within the next 12 months. But although its mandate was repeatedly extended, the commission failed to come up with the hoped-for proposals, partly because the absence of some members frequently left its five working groups without a quorum, and partly because of the sheer volume of issues to be addressed -- some 50-55, according to then-parliament speaker Davit Usupashvili.

The new commission, by contrast, will focus on three key issues, the daily Rezonansi reported on October 18. They are how the president should be elected; moving the Georgian parliament from Kutaisi, the country's second city, to which the ENM had transferred it, back to the capital; and defining marriage as "the voluntary union of a man and a woman." The previous parliament had discussed a draft constitutional amendment to that effect in the first reading in May 2016 but failed to vote on it; Margvelashvili subsequently vetoed a petition calling for the issue to be put to a nationwide referendum.

The presidential office initially hailed Kvirikashvili's declaration that the constitutional amendments would be drafted with the maximum public involvement, and "without any haste." Presidential office head Giorgi Abashishvili commented that such an approach would contribute to ending speculation that GD-DG would use its constitutional majority to push through amendments that would serve to strengthen its chances of remaining in power. At the same time, Abashishvili stated that "the president, as head of the state...who is not a member of any political party, is ready to establish such working group, co-chaired by the president, prime minister, and speaker of parliament.... We are ready to launch consultations over the structure and procedures of such a working group."

GD-DG lawmaker Gia Volsky immediately pointed out that the president is not empowered to create the commission; both Volsky and constitutional lawyer Vakhushti Menabde noted that neither does he have the right of legislative initiative.

Parliament speaker Irakli Kobakhidze, also a specialist on constitutional law, argued that it was "impossible" for the commission to have three co-chairmen as Margvelashvili proposed, as one of them would have to take precedence over the other two, which the president is not constitutionally empowered to do even though as head of state he would be the senior of the three.

A third constitutional expert, Vakhtang Dzabiradze, objected that having three co-chairmen "looks odd" and was illogical, given the pressure the commission will be under to finalize draft amendments in light of the failure of its predecessor to do so.

Parliament first deputy speaker Tamar Chugoshvili for her part recalled in response to Kapanadze's claim that without Margvelashvili's "maximum involvement" the commission would lack legitimacy that the president had not played "a leading role" in the work of any of the numerous previous commissions (i.e. including those created by the ENM).

Those arguments cut no ice with Margvelashvili, who announced on December 12 that neither he nor any member of his staff will take part in the work of the commission. Margvelashvili objected that neither the constitution nor other legislation specifies the procedure either for establishing the constitutional commission or for drafting constitutional amendments.

Chugoshvili expressed regret at Margvelashvili's decision, describing it as "regretful" and "wrong," and expressing the hope that the president will reconsider. Several analysts, including Zaal Anjaparidze, suggested that Margvelashvili acted out of pique at not being named co-chairman of the commission and will try to sabotage its work. Saqvarelidze went further, saying Margvelashvili had behaved "childishly."

The parliament has since formally endorsed setting up the 60-person commission and its statutes. The president's office is entitled to nominate two members of the commission, which also encompasses representatives of all parliamentary parties and of those extraparliamentary parties that polled over 3 percent of the vote; the justice minister; the chairmen of the Constitutional Court and the Supreme Court; the Public Defender; the president of the National Bank; representatives of the Abkhaz and Ajar autonomous republics; the National Security Council secretary (who like Margvelashvili has said he will not participate); and civil-sector representatives.

Its first session is to take place by December 31; it must finalize the package of proposed amendments by April 30, after which they will be the subject of broad public discussion.

Parliament speaker Kobakhidze, who will chair the commission, has pledged to take personal responsibility for its work and for the amendments it comes up with. He declared that the parliament will not approve a single norm that receives a negative assessment from the Council of Europe's Venice Commission of legal experts to whom the package will be submitted for approval. "Our task is to establish once and for all time the sort of constitutional system that will promote the country's long-term democratic development," he added.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL

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About This Blog

This blog presents analyst Liz Fuller's personal take on events in the region, following on from her work in the "RFE/RL Caucasus Report." It also aims, to borrow a metaphor from Tom de Waal, to act as a smoke detector, focusing attention on potential conflict situations and crises throughout the region. The views are the author's own and do not represent those of RFE/RL.

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