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Azerbaijan's Nardaran affair

The Aliyev regime's crackdown on Azerbaijan's Islamic opposition is smoothing the way for further consolidation of power.

22 July: family members wait outside as the Baku Court on Serious Crimes opens proceedings against Taleh Bagirzade, members of Muslim Unity and others. Source: Meydan.TV. This month, a trial underway in Baku is bringing to light the conflict between Azerbaijan’s secular majority and the poor, religious communities found across the countries sparsely populated regions.

It involves an accused aspiring ayatollah, a prominent politician seemingly roped in at random and dozens of ordinary Azerbaijan’s citizens who may be little more than innocent bystanders. The confusion around the proceedings reveal the dichotomies of modern Azerbaijan — rich vs. poor, secular vs. religious, the state vs. the citizen.

Courtroom farce

The defendants are Taleh Bagirzade, a prominent Shiite cleric and former political prisoner, sixteen members of his Muslim Unity movement and one secular politician arrested for a critical Facebook post. These men face a litany of charges, including murder, terrorism, and attempts to seize power through violence.

As with many high-profile trials in Azerbaijan in recent years, a guilty verdict is assured. Perhaps this explains why prosecutors appear untroubled by a trial that so far has hosted an uninterrupted stream of testimony on torture, forced confessions and brutality at the hands of security services. Most notably, the state has yet to provide a clear explanation of what the defendants are supposed to have done.

As with many high-profile trials in Azerbaijan in recent years, a guilty verdict is assured

Even those who managed to gain entry to the courtroom — a few journalists, relatives of the defendants and representatives of foreign embassies — did not hear, literally, a coherent explanation of the state’s case, as the prosecutor spoke quietly and did not use a microphone when laying out the state’s case.

Such courtroom farces are not uncommon in modern Azerbaijan. Earlier this year, Mammad Ibrahim, an adviser to the leader of the Popular Front Party, was sentenced to three years imprisonment for hooliganism, despite the fact that prosecution witnesses refuted the government’s case and instead complained of extra-legal pressure to testify.

No politician

Taleh Bagirzade is not a politician. The head of Muslim Unity, an avowedly non-violent, conservative Shiite Islamist movement, Bagirzade has already served two terms as a political prisoner in the last five years. Prior to his current legal troubles, Bagirzade’s greatest offense appears to have been representing a moderate Islamist alternative to the state.

Taleh Bagirzade, head of Muslim Unity, has been accused of plotting a coup and establishing "a religious state under Sharia law". Source: MeydanTV.Reports of torture at the hands of security services have been common since Bagirzade and the first of 76 other defendants (not all are being tried at once) were swept up in a raid on the evening of 26 November 2015 in the town of Nardaran, a conservative Shiite community about an hour’s drive north of Baku with a long history of anti-government protests. Inside a modest house, the imam and several fellow believers were celebrating the sacred month of Muharram when armed riot police arrived from Baku and surrounded the building.

Everything that happened next is in dispute.

The official narrative is that authorities were tipped off that Muslim Unity was planning an armed insurrection against the state. Officials at the scene claimed someone inside the house opened fire on police. At some point a grenade was thrown. In the end, six people were dead, two of them police officers, and 15 men were in custody.

Testimony from the defendants and witnesses described a chaotic scene where peaceful citizens are set upon by black-masked security forces, and dragged, conscious and unconscious, into a waiting furniture van, according to testimony reported by the independent news agency Contact.az:

“We were thrown into a furniture van, where they began to beat us with rifle butts. It was there that our friend Farahim died from the beatings. Besides him in the car there already were several bloodied prisoners unconscious." 

“When I was examined by the doctor, a police officer told him to cut off my nose," said the defendant. The last defendant Ali Nuriyev said the police knocked out his tooth and smashed his face, and later he was put four seams so that he could speak with his broken lips.

In reporting on the second day of testimony (which is worth reading in full), investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova described one defendant’s ordeal. Shamil Abdulaliyev spoke of lengthy extralegal detentions and repeated beatings at the hands of security personnel. He declined to describe either as torture: 

"I haven't been tortured like others", said in Baku Grave Crimes Court Shamil Abdulaliyev, who carries in his body two of the three bullets shot at him in Nardaran by the police. Only one day after he passed surgery in hospital he was taken out of intensive care for interrogation. He said he was threatened to be killed in hospital and forced to sign papers with false confession reading that as if Muslim Unity Union gave him arms for overthrow. He says he was not tortured. Two months incarceration in the penitentiary hospital for no reason, he thinks is not a torture… 

Farhad Balayev was beaten and arrested inside the hospital. The real ordeal started after that. He was taken to Bandotdel (anti-organized crime unit of the Interior Ministry) and kept there illegally for more than two weeks. Interrogations followed beatings, beatings followed interrogations when Balayev refused to sign testimonies on his behalf, falsely accusing Tale Bagirzade and Muslim Unity Movement in preparing an armed coup. Finally he had to give up. 

Official press coverage of the trial in Azerbaijan largely consists of lengthy descriptions of defendants’ disavowed pre-trial testimony, which they universally argue was obtained through torture. No reference is made to why they may have recanted.

The town roundly rejected the official story, and men and women took to the streets. Townspeople held rallies demanding the return of the bodies for proper burial, and local journalists who were able to enter the town before the government closed the roads and shut off electricity and other services, uploaded emotional, often harrowing footage that spread quickly across Azerbaijan’s gossipy social media.

November 2015: Independent Azeribaijani news station MeydanTV interviews people affected by the raid in Nardaran.

Searches continued for a week, dozens of local residents were detained, and a total of 78 alleged Muslim Unity members were arrested in a nationwide sweep. Some, according to police, were carrying both weapons and narcotics at the time of their arrest — an apparently commonplace habit in Azerbaijan, according to police reports of arrests of journalists, politicians and their friends and family. 

Many of the accused claim they aren’t members of Muslim Unity — something the group’s leadership has argued as well, said human rights activist Anar Mammadli. “The judge didn’t pay attention to this,” Mammadli told me, “or about the facts of torture by the staff of the Major Police Department… These facts were not reviewed by the court either.” 

The disorganised nature of the trial raises the question of what exactly the Azerbaijani state hopes to achieve 

The absurdity hit a fever pitch when opposition politician Fuad Gaharamanli was arrested on 11 August for objecting to the accused’s treatment in a Facebook post. He stands charged with three violations of the criminal code, including Article 281 (making public appeals for the violent overthrow of the state).

According to Bagirzade, the defendants were tortured and asked to implicate Gaharamanli’s party, the Azerbaijani Popular Front Party (APFP), in the alleged uprising. Other defendants have testified to their bewilderment at the charges leveled against them and the methods used to force them to confess.

Misplaced paranoia 

The disorganised nature of the trial raises the question of what exactly the Azerbaijani state hopes to achieve. 

Although both secular and religious opposition leaders have been swept up in a single move and will almost certainly stay in prison at president Ilham Aliyev’s whim, the complete dearth of incriminating evidence or a coherent narrative guarantees their convictions will be eventually overturned upon appeal to the European Court of Human Rights, according to observers and human rights activists following the case. 

As cases take years to make their way through the overloaded Court, mass convictions in the "Nardaran affair" could guarantee years of negative foreign press and uncomfortable conversations with the international lenders it will rely upon to build gas pipelines crucial to the state budget. 

Over the past ten years, Nardaran has gained a reputation for being a "troublesome town". (c) Peter Leonard / AP / Press Association Images. All rights reserved.Further muddying the waters is the lack of widespread popular support of the accused. Although the Popular Front Party managed a good showing in the rigged 2013 presidential elections, the thorough crackdown on civil society that followed left the democratic opposition fractured and disorganised. Bagirzade himself readily admits that there is neither the support nor ideological infrastructure to establish an Islamic state in today’s Azerbaijan. 

It is possible the state has completely misapprehended the threat posed by both parties. Although the Azerbaijani security services face few limits on their ability to detain, interrogate, and torture citizens at will, it would be a mistake to confuse this authority with competence.

Perhaps Azerbaijan believes a few dozen convictions of so-called Islamic terrorists will aid its efforts to become a vital ally in the west’s ongoing war on terror 

If misplaced paranoia is not the culprit, perhaps Azerbaijan believes a few dozen convictions of so-called Islamic terrorists will aid its efforts to be remain a vital ally in the west’s ongoing war on terror — an increasingly valuable diplomatic objective in the face of Europe’s slow realisation that Azerbaijani gas can only minimally reduce the continent’s dependence on Gazprom. 

As the primary battleground has shifted from Afghanistan to Syria, Azerbaijan is now less important as a transit route for US troops, and Baku has been keen to compensate by proving itself an important actor in the fight against ISIS.

State media regularly publishes detail-free reports of arrests of Azerbaijanis returning from or heading to Syria to take up arms, but independent analysis has only identified about 200 (including non-combatant family members) — a miniscule portion of the estimated 27,000 or so foreign fighters that have made the trip. Furthermore, there is no record of a Shiite Azerbaijani traveling to fight in Syria, despite attempts in the Azeri press to tie conservative, Iran-friendly towns like Nardaran to this larger global conflict. 

Despite the superficiality of the narrative, it is never wise to underestimate Azerbaijan’s willingness to push its agenda through high-priced lobbyists

President Aliyev may be trying to build a reputation as the key actor preventing Azerbaijan from slipping into religious chaos by padding his government’s statistics with a few dozen convictions — a tactic common in Central Asia, and also practiced by the FBI.

Despite the superficiality of the narrative, it is never wise to underestimate Azerbaijan’s willingness to push its agenda through high-priced lobbyists and the odd unscrupulous parliamentarian.

Policymakers may decide that the potential domestic political cost for supporting political prisoners like Bagirzade is too great. Rights groups have long struggled to get official support for Azerbaijan’s several dozen less-famous political prisoners, and few of them have been accused, however spuriously, of seeking to emulate Ayatollah Khomeini.

To date, a passing reference in the US State Department’s annual International Religious Freedom Report constitutes the sole official foreign statement from a foreign government on the nearly year-long affair.

A curious silence

Most curious is the impact, or lack thereof, that the case is having on Azerbaijan’s politically engaged community. 

Some activists and journalists have aggressively covered the trial, but Azerbaijani social media has been much more engaged in a scandal around an activist’s cheeky video of an MP’s oversized dacha and the Ministry of Education’s decision to charge fees for university entrance exams. 

Even a highly critical essay condemning Bagirzade (and Nardaran in general) by prominent human rights activist Eldar Zeynalov failed to make an impact. In the course of reporting this story, the author did not speak with anyone who had read it of their own accord. A rally led by opposition politician Ali Karimli attracted only a few dozen, and the video of it has been viewed less than 2,500 times.

The Nardaran affair has been pushed out of the headlines by a crackdown on Azerbaijan’s secular civil society 

“I am not surprised that no one is talking about it. It’s a sensitive topic to openly discuss, and I think some people are afraid of what they might say and how it might backfire,” said Azerbaijani journalist Arzu Geybulla. Liberal-minded Azerbaijanis may worry that expressing concern for the Nardaran defendants could be interpreted as support for their politics, and keep quiet to avoid unpredictable backlash from their peers.

Geybulla added that even Azerbaijani human rights lawyers seemed disinterested in the case. Many of the defendants relied upon public defenders, who they complained actively worked against their interests until several days into the trial.

On the other hand, the incomplete and polarised coverage of the events — which was largely split between emotionally-charged cinema verite-style footage from independent media and dry, bare bones accounts in official outlets — has left average Azerbaijanis uncomfortable expressing strong opinions on the case, says veteran human rights activist Anar Mammadli.

“At the beginning of the case, local and international audience didn’t get proper information… We hoped the court would clarify all questions and concerns on the operation. However, the current court process is under political control of the government and the independence of the judge is under doubt,” said Mammadli.

At the time of writing, the Nardaran affair has been pushed out of the headlines by a fresh crackdown on Azerbaijan’s secular civil society. This is likely tied to an upcoming constitutional referendum in September which will centralise more power in the office of the president. Youth activists, journalist, opposition politicians and three unknown employees of mobile telecomms companies have been detained with regularity over the past ten days.

It is too early to predict how these parallel crises will resolve, or whether Azerbaijan’s Islamist or democratic opposition will be in anything but shambles by the end of the year. No matter the fate of the persons involved, they represent the challenges of reconciling the authoritarian, democratic, and Islamist strains of modern Azerbaijan — none of which are disappearing anytime soon.


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