Unrest in Nardaran after Six Die in Police Raid

Tensions remain high in the village of Nardaran the day after a police raid resulted in fourteen arrests and the deaths of four local citizens and two police officers. Authorities claim the raid broke up a “criminal gang” called Muslim Unity seeking to impose Sharia law in Azerbaijan, but witnesses and local residents insist the police attacked a peaceful prayer meeting.

Details are scarce, as the detained and injured have not been allowed contact with the outside and the police station and hospital, where an unknown number of injured are being treated, are under heavy guard. Hundreds of local residents have organized a protest in the town's main square and are demanding the police return the bodies of the deceased to their families. Negotiations have so far not been successful, and a journalist on the scene described the situation as “very tense.”

An official statement released yesterday evening claimed Muslim Unity, a national organization led by the prominent Shi'a cleric and vocal government critic Taleh Bagirov, was seeking to “change the constitutional order of the country and create a religious country governed by Sharia law. During the operation, the members of the criminal gang opened fire from an automatic weapon, put up armed resistance to the police officers and threw a hand grenade. In response to the continuous firing by the attackers, the special operation group used service weapons and killed four members of the criminal gang, while several people got [sic] injured.” 

Nardaran residents and witnesses interviewed by Meydan TV angrily disputed this account and insisted the raid was a sudden attack on a peaceful prayer gathering. Women who attended the rally and were not arrested claimed they had no weapons to fight back, and the two police officers could not have been killed by Nardaran residents. They showed a reporter for Meydan TV bullets, bullet casings, and damage done to the house where the raid took place.

It is unclear why the police chose to move against Muslim Unity in Nardaran, which the local news site Contact.az, calling official statements on yesterday's events “ridiculous and unconvincing,”noted Muslim Unity has an office in Baku that is well-known to and frequently visited by law enforcement. To date, Azerbaijani law enforcement has not explained why or how the alleged extremists were planning a national uprising from a heavily-surveilled Baku suburb.

Nardaran has been the focal point for anti-government religious protests since the early 2000's. In an echo of previous unrest in the town, national authorities are arguing all discontent is fomented by radical, Iran-financed, and well-armed Islamist terrorists, while locals instead point to longstanding economic and social difficulties and insist they fight only in self-defense, armed with little more than stones and makeshift cudgels.

Bagirov is one of Azerbaijan's most prominent religious activists with a history of fiery speeches decrying official corruption, and has previously served two prison sentences totaling three-and-a-half years. Both cases were widely considered politically motivated by domestic and international human rights activists. He was last released from prison less than four months ago.

Azerbaijan positions itself as a key counter-terrorism ally in the fight against ISIS and al-Qaeda, and Azerbaijani diplomats and state media often play up the government's role in supporting the American invasion of Afghanistan. Stories of apprehended ex-ISIS fighters abound in the pro-government press, but details of their cases are often scarce.

According to domestic and international observers, there are currently more than three dozen religious activists and theologians in prison in Azerbaijan on politically-motivated charges, raising questions as to whether the threat of religious extremism in the country is real or if the government is pursuing benign religious activists for political gain.

Earlier today, police in the city of Ganja arrested a man for publicly calling for support of Muslim Unity. It was later reported he was also carrying a handgun and several grams of heroin.

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