Islamic Games: Repression of Believers in Azerbaijan

The opening of the Islamic Games took place in Baku on May 12. In addition to preparations for the games, the capital of Azerbaijan became witness to another process: repression against religious believers.

The opening of the Islamic Games took place in Baku on May 12. In addition to preparations for the games, the capital of Azerbaijan became witness to another process: repression against religious believers.

Meydan TV reports on the shadowy side of the sporting holiday.

In the athletes’ village, located alongside the Baku Olympic Stadium and the National Gymnastics Arena, flutter the flags of Morocco, Cameroon, the United Arab Emirates and Palestine. May 12 in Azerbaijan marked the start of the IV Islamic Solidarity Games. Fifty-seven countries from four continents will take part in the sporting event, as stated on the official site of the IV Islamic Solidarity Games:

The history of the Islamic Solidarity Games is not a long one, and the games are held once every four years. The first Islamic Games took place in Saudi Arabia in 2005. The second games were to take place in Iran in 2009. But Iran wrote “Persian Gulf” on the competition’s logo, which outraged Arab states, who refer to this same body of water as the “Arab Gulf”. So the event in Iran had to be cancelled. In 2013, after the Islamic Games in Indonesia, Azerbaijan was entrusted with holding the next games.

Over the past several years in Azerbaijan international sporting events have taken place on an almost yearly basis. An order from the President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev, dated September 8, 2015, asserts that, after the European Games, holding the prestigious Islamic Solidarity Games in that same place will “strengthen Azerbaijan’s commitment to the principles of tolerance, and will increase the country’s sporting reputation and its international reputation”. In Azerbaijan, 2017 has been declared the year of Islamic Solidarity.

The government has taken this business seriously. The organizing committee is headed by the president’s wife, the First Vice President of Azerbaijan, Mehriban Aliyeva.

Games and Arrests

Human rights activists note that major, international events in Azerbaijan are often accompanied by a tightening of control over the mass media and increased pressure on dissidents. Now, in addition to preparations for the games, the capital has become witness to another process: repression aimed at believers. Judicial processes are underway in the Baku Court on Grave Crimes for the case of those arrested in the Baku village of Nardaran in 2015 and afterwards. More than seventy people were detained at the time of the events in Nardaran, led by Taleh Bagirzade – leader of the Muslim Unity movement.

Nardaran, 2015
Nardaran, 2015
Nardaran, 2015
Nardaran, 2015
Nardaran, 2015
Nardaran, 2015

More than seventy people were detained at the time of the events in Nardaran

The public prosecutor accuses them of attempting to create a fundamentalist, Islamic government by means of a takeover. On January 25, the court pronounced sentences for seventeen of the accused: Bagirzade was sentenced to twenty years in prison, the rest received from ten to nineteen years. Judicial processes for another twenty-four cases are underway; people are accused of terrorism, illegal possession of weapons, and failing to fulfill the lawful demands of a police officer.

One of those accused of illegally possessing weapons is believer Seyfeddin Shirvanov. He was detained two weeks after the events in Nardaran, on December 9, 2015. According to his brother, Jamaleddin, Seyfeddin Shirvanov studied religion in the city of Najaf in the south of Iraq, is married and has four children. Jamaleddin tells how his brother was tortured in the Organized Crime Department but declined to mention this in court, sparing his elderly parents, who were present at the trial. “At the Organized Crime Department they told him that weapons had been found in his home. The charge sheet said that they allegedly brought Seyfeddin home and he gave up the weapons with his own hands. Syfeddin wanted to deny this, but he was told that his wife had already signed a similar document, and that if he refused, a criminal case would be launched against his wife. Seyfeddin had to sign. Later he found out that his wife hadn’t signed anything. He was tricked. They came and searched the home in me and my mother’s presence, found nothing, and left.”

The pressure didn’t end after Seyfeddin Shiranov’s arrest, his relatives were fired from their jobs: “My cousin and my sister’s husband have been fired. I am also now without a job on the pretense that work is suspended”, says Jemaledin.

The Muslims arrested in Nardaran are Shiites. 65 percent of Azerbaijan’s population are adherents of the Shi’a branch of Islam. Sunnis make for 35 percent of the population. Four percent are adherents of the Russian and Georgian orthodox churches, Molokans, members of other Christian denominations, Jews, Baha’i, and so on.

Lawyer Fariz Namazli notes that at the time of the trial, the defense demonstrated the groundlessness of the accusations being made:

“During the trial it became clear that the events are not consistent with the statements of the prosecutor general’s office and the Ministry of Internal Affairs. These people are not guilty. They were arrested for being believers. After being freed from prison in 2016, Taleh Bagirzade was once again arrested because of his harsh criticism directed at the government. These people’s goal was not to declare an Islamic state. Taleh has stated this on more than one occasion, both when he was still free and in court. He has noted that he is for a democratic government”.

The religious scholar Bagirzade has a rich political biography. As noted by the Working Group for Political Prisoners of Azerbaijan, this graduate of the Azerbaijan State University of Economics, who received religious education in Iran, ‘earned’ his first prison term in 2011. For his participation in the ‘hijab protest’ (ed. – a protest action against the ban on girls wearing hijabs attending schools) he was sentenced to one and a half years in prison. After being set free, Bagirzade continued to criticize the government and in 2013 was arrested once more, this time on accusations of possessing narcotics. While he was serving his prison term, the Islamic Unity Movement was created in Azerbaijan, and they declared Bagirzade their chairman.

Baghirzade on trial in 2016
Baghirzade on trial in 2016

Taleh Bagirzade, chairman of the Muslim Unity movement, was sentenced to twenty years in prison

The government of Azerbaijan has indicated that the persecution of believers is justified by the threat from a neighboring, theocratic state: Iran. That being said, law enforcement agencies have tried to establish a connection between believers and the secular opposition.

In a report from the State Department of the USA on the situation with human rights in Azerbaijan in 2016, it states that Taleh Bagirzade was tortured in the Organized Crime Department of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Azerbaijan, in order to make him testify against the leaders of the secular opposition, the heads of the Azerbaijani Popular Front Party (PNFA) Ali Krimli, and the chair of the National Council of Democratic Forces, Jamil Hasanli.

“After the situation with civil society and the secular opposition deteriorated, political Islam appeared in the arena as the representative of protest in the country. In this way, the government is limiting the freedom of religious actors, locking them up in prison so as not to give them the opportunity to strengthen the religious opposition in the country”, says historian Altay Geyushov. Among those detained in connection with the events in Nardaran are the deputy chair of the opposition PNFA, Fuad Gahramanly. Gahramanly, accused of making anti-governmental calls to action, and inciting religious hatred and enmity, has been sentenced to ten years in prison.

Ilham Aliyev: “if we don’t show cruelty, there will be explosions everywhere”

In response to Russian TV journalist Vladimir Solovev’s question, “Why are you arresting so many people?” Ilham Aliyev responded, “Our country is such that if we don’t show cruelty, bearded men will wander around everywhere, explosions will thunder all around”.

Back in 2015, after being freed from his first imprisonment and before his arrest, Taleh Bagirzade replied to the accusations about the creation of an Islamic state in his interview with Meydan TV. He noted that there is no such possibility:

“Today in Azerbaijan, the creation of a fundamentalist, Islamic state is not possible. There is no such prospect. An Islamic state has a very complex structure and dozens of mujtahids (a high religious and scholarly position in Islam, similar to a secular professor) are necessary for its judicial system. Great Islamic figures are needed for Islamic law. But there are no such figures in Azerbaijan. It is naïve to speak of something that is not a possibility.”

Reports show that the situation with religious freedom in the country has deteriorated. The US State Department states that in 2014, 52 political prisoners were religious figures, and in 2015 this number was 46.

On April 10, 2017, the Working Group for Political Prisoners of Azerbaijan announced that 97 of 147 political prisoners were believers

Closed mosques

Pressure is being put on Shiites using arrests, whereas the Sunnis are having their mosques closed. In 2008, after a terror attack in the Abu-Bakr mosque, where primarily Salafists congregated, the mosque was closed. Two grenades were thrown into the building, as a result of which two people died and more than ten were wounded. A decision to restore the mosque to working condition has yet to be made. In that same year, under pretense of renovation, yet another Baku mosque, the Shahidlyar, was closed. In July, 2016, the Ashur Mosque, also known as the Lezgi Mosque, in the Old Town was closed. And this was not the last instance.

The 2014 opening of the Heydar mosque was dedicated to former president Heydar Aliyev
The 2014 opening of the Heydar mosque was dedicated to former president Heydar Aliyev

According to data from the State Committee on Work with Religious Organizations, there are 2,166 mosques in Azerbaijan, of which 136 are in Baku. One of them was ceremoniously opened in 2014. It is named “Heydar” and is supposed to memorialize ex-president Heydar Aliyev. Government functionaries say it is the largest in the South Caucasus.

Namaz (prayer) in Heydar Mosque
Namaz (prayer) in Heydar Mosque

Toughened laws

In 2009, after adoption of the law “On freedom of religion”, it became more difficult to register religious organizations in Azerbaijan. For example, according to the old standards the signatures of ten people were enough for registration; in accordance with the new standards, fifteen are needed.

As a result, previous to 2009, according to statistics, 534 religious organizations were registered in the country; after the changes there were 749, of which only 28 are non-Islamic.

Bans on wearing the hijab

Protest actions against the ban on wearing the hijab in Azerbaijan began in 2010, when the minister of education barred girls in middle school from coming to class in hijabs. In 2011 and 2012, thirty-five people were imprisoned for their participation in protest actions against the Ministry of Education.

In diplomatic documents published by Wikileaks, the USA notes that the exact number of women who wear the hijab in Azerbaijan is unknown. In Baku, it is 1-3%, though their numbers are growing.

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