Religious billboards are a common locale in Nardaran, as are chadors, scarf-clad women, and clerics. The bastion of traditional Shia Muslims, the 8,000 people village is one of Baku’s 32 settlements, but the conservative atmosphere is a stark contrast to the modern glamour of Azerbaijan’s capital. The square, called among locals as “Imam Huseyn,” is the centre of religious celebrations, with hundreds of people converging to the town for the Eid celebration at the end of the month of Ramadan or the Ashura, a major commemoration in Shia Islam that marks the death of Imam Hussein in battle, a grandson of the Prophet Muhammad.
The South Caucasus’ republic is an overwhelmingly Muslim country, with an estimated 85% of people adhering to Shia Islam – the world’s second largest Shia population after neighboring Iran.
Unlike Iran, Azerbaijan is secular and the Constitution ensures freedom of faith and worship. Yet, Nardaran’s conservatism has been often at odds with the secular government and an already tense situation spiraled off control at the end of 2015.
On November 26, officers from the Ministry of National Security stormed the village carrying out what was called “a special security operation.” Clashes broke out between policemen and villagers and, according to police reports, six people died – two police officers and four residents. Over a dozen were arrested and a large crowd gathered outside the police station to protest and about 70 people more were arrested. Most were released after a few days, but the others were sentenced for up to two years and half years. For others, the trial started in July and is not over yet.
Fourteen people, including Taleh Bagirzade, a prominent Shia scholar and founder of the Muslim Unity Movement of Azerbaijan, remain behind bars, charged with illegal weapons possession, conspiracy, murder, terrorism, and inciting religious hatred.
Azerbaijani authorities claimed the operation was ordered as extremist Shias like Bagirzade were planning a coup to overturn the constitutional order and install a religious state under Shari’a law.
The ongoing trial has restricted access with only a few relatives of the accused allowed in the court and journalists banned from filming the proceedings.
The defendants’ lawyers claim that detailed information about what actually happened on that day remains sketchy and vague.
Witnesses stated that the police officers entered the village in garbage and furniture trucks, with officers wearing black clothes, covering their faces with masks. The villagers say that they did not expect such an incident and did not show any kind of resistance.
The unrest did not ease off after the arrests. Some residents gathered in the Imam Hussein Square and set up tents a few days, and for one month only residents could enter the village showing their ID card.
Since then, life in Nardaran has changed. Religious slogans have been removed, cameras have been installed, and the police is closely monitoring the mosques. Access from other villages is still under control. Inhabitants claimed that basic staples like bread were rationed, and electricity and water were cut off.
It was not the first time Taleh Bagirzade has been in the authorities’ crosshairs. The Iran-educated theologian, an outspoken critic of President Aliyev’s administration, was arrested in 2011 for taking part in a protest against the government’s ban on the hijab in schools. He was charged with hooliganism and jailed for 18 months.
In 2013, after a Friday sermon in which he openly criticized the government, he was sentenced to two and a half years in prison for illegal drug possession, a common imputation against the government’s political opponents.
He had been a free man for four months when he was detained again in the aftermath of the Nardaran events - his second and third child were born while he was in jail and the scholar met both children for the first time in the courtroom.
He refused to testify against Ali Karamli, leader of the opposition party Azerbaijan Popular Front Party (APFP), and Jamil Hasanli, chairman of the National Council, formed by country’s opposition in 2013. In court he denounced that he was humiliated and tortured, an allegation that the Interior Ministry’s deputy spokesman Ehsan Zahidov labeled as a lie.
"They tortured me when I was fasting,” Bagirzade denounced in court. “Every day, officers would come to my cell, put a bag over my head and start to beat me. They beat me so much that my legs were swollen.”
The case resulted also in the arrest of the APFP’s chairman, Fuad Gahramanli, for his comments on social networks supporting the people in Nardaran. His wife, Zumrud Yagmur, attended the court hearings and has openly called the unrest and its aftermath, as Azerbaijan’s worst case of torture in recent times.
"One of the young people arrested was shot, and the police did not allow doctors to remove the bullets,” she told Chai Khana.
Nemat Karimli, Gahramanli’s lawyer, denounced that the tortured people who suffered in prison resemble those of wartime.
“We saw such things in the movies and in books,” he decries.
The deadly clashes are not the first in the troubled relation between Nardaran and the central government, since Azerbaijan gained independence. In 2002 riots broke out in the town as residents protested the poor standard of living and in January 2006 the same discontent resulted in confrontation with the police which left three people dead.
Rights’ groups, both nationally and internationally, have denounced the government’s actions in the town, adding pressure to years of criticism for the country’s poor human rights record.
Azerbaijan is member of the Human Rights Council and the Council of Europe, yet, independent bodies like Human Rights Watch have highlighted a system of arbitrary arrests, abuse of administrative detentions, beatings, torture. Journalists and activists are often harassed, assaulted, and locked up.
In an interview with US-based media outlet Eurasianet, Human Rights Watch’s associate director for Europe and Central Asia, Jane Buchanan, said that “Azerbaijan’s international partners have been reluctant to express much straightforward criticism, wrongly prioritizing in many cases strategic or financial interests ahead of the need for human rights reform.”
Official complaints are indeed rare as Western governments look kindly on Azerbaijan in light of the country’s economic and political role in a troubled region. The government for its part invests millions in raising its profile as a progressive, secular, and modern country, organizing cultural and sport events on large scale - like the first European Games in June 2015 and the European Grand Prix of Formula 1 in summer 2016 - as well as lobbying, a frenzy activity labelled “caviar diplomacy.”