Upon graduation from Azerbaijan State Economic University, Tale Baghirzade (Haji Tale), a well-known theologian born in 1984, received religious education in Iran. Upon completion of his study in Iran, he returned to Azerbaijan.
He peacefully attended the rally held before the Ministry of Education on 6 May 2011 in protest of the hijab (headscarf) ban at schools. Baghirzade was arrested along with other participants of the rally and a criminal case was opened against him. He was sentenced to 1.5 years of imprisonment without any grounds. After serving his full sentence, he was set free in November 2012.
Four months after his release from prison, he continued his criticism of the hijab ban. Additionally, in his sermons in Baku and regions, he criticized the government and its policy, which resulted in his arrest on 31 March 2013 under drug possession charge, a widely used accusation against activists. On 1 November 2013, Tale Baghirzade was sentenced to 2 years in jail by Sabunchu District Court. On 25 March, a few days before his arrest, he had posted one of his critical sermons on his YouTube channel.
In that speech, he stated that it won’t be possible to divert him from his way by arrests and that a true believer who seeks God’s protection must not be afraid of a dictator’s oppression. The part of Baghirzade’s speech where he criticized the government is as follows:
“We are in such a situation that we haven’t spoken out until now. And now they tell not to come to this mosque. We have kept silent until now. They have occupied so many Azerbaijani places. With wrongly gained money, with the people’s money they have bought so many places. Yet we are not talking about the settlement thereof. Where you have taken the lands of people, eaten the oil of people and the goods of people…You are sitting there without anyone telling anything to you. You have crossed the line. Now you want to rule inside the mosque. If it is not the crossing of a line, then what is it? This is God’s place. No official, no matter how thick his neck is, cannot rule inside the mosque. Yes, they are afraid that they can lose the goods, the properties they have accumulated”.
The Muslim Unity Movement
While Baghirzade was in prison, the Muslim Unity Movement was presented on 13 January 2015. The event started with the national anthem of Azerbaijan. Then the acting chairman of the Movement Elchin Gasimov opened the event and said that the chairman of the Movement is Tale Baghirzade. He added that the Movement is led by a Management Board. Several members of the Board spoke in the event. Baghirzade’s letter with regard to the Movement was read out in the event.
The Muslim Unity Movement applied to the Ministry of Justice for registration three times. Every time, the Ministry refused registration citing various excuses. According to the Charter of the Union, its purpose is to educate the youth in the field of development and protection of sovereignty, peace, tolerance, democratic governance, and religious and racial unity. The Charter also notes that the Movement operates in accordance with the Constitution and laws of the Republic of Azerbaijan.
In addition to the Movement, Baghirzade has also been a member of the National Council of Democratic Forces, a coalition of several opposition parties and organizations. Despite pressures on him, he refused to quit the Council.
The activities of the Muslim Unity Movement
and Tale Baghirzade after his release
After Baghirzade’s release from prison on 31 July 2015*, the operation of the Movement became more active. On the day of his release, Baghirzade severely criticized the government and its policy in his interview to media. He said that he left the “small prison” for a “bigger prison”. He added that the country is in miserable condition and that they will continue to fight the oppressor for release of political prisoners.
In his widely discussed interviews given to media after his release, Baghirzade said that the hijab problem at schools still remain unsolved. He noted that for getting a passport, hijab-wearing women are still not allowed to present photos where they wear a hijab. He added that the government needs to solve these problems rather than pressuring the believers. He described the government as illegitimate for violating rights and freedoms rather than conducting reforms. In another interview, he said that there is no perspective for creation of an Islamic state in Azerbaijan.
Baghirzade and the Movement’s members started to pay visits to regions, hold meetings with people, make religious conversations and speeches as a theologian. In the 50- year anniversary event of Movsum Samadov, jailed head of Islamic Party of Azerbaijan, held on 4 September, Baghirzade made a speech saying that there is no free society in Azerbaijan and that the attitude towards political prisoners is no different than the attitude to Azerbaijani hostages in Armenia. In his speech, he talked about the importance of religious unity, the safety of Azerbaijani people, welfare and danger of conflict in a religious context.
On 27 September, in the Congress of APFP where the government position was strongly criticized, the deputy head of the Movement Elchin Gasimov made a speech. In his speech, he blamed the government for subjecting the believers to repression and thanked APFP for protecting believers.
The position of the Muslim Unity Movement (MUM) on the parliamentary elections held in Azerbaijan on 1 November 2015 coincided with that of several oppositional parties; they decided to boycott the elections due to lack of suitable environment for free and fair elections.
Tale Baghirzade also commented on the termination of the Ministry of National Security and arrests of several high-ranking officers saying that a true high treason has been committed by these persons. He also criticized the SOCAR for supplying free gas to an Armenian church in Georgia, but not supplying gas to Nardaran settlement of Baku. He strongly criticized the authorities for violation of rights in Azerbaijan.
Pressures on Tale Baghirzade and
other members of Muslim Unity Movement
The refusal to register the Muslim Unity Movement (MUM) was aimed at preventing it from operating.
For the interview he gave on the night he was released from prison, Baghirzade was summoned to Yasamal District Police Office for two days. He was told that he should not make remarks like “to leave the small prison for a bigger prison” and that he should not defend people like Leyla Yunus. Shortly afterwards, Baghirzade publicly stated that he received a threat message via a special means and that preparations were underway for his arrest. He also noted that all mosques have been ordered not to let him into mosques to read sermons. Baghirzade added that he only reads sermon in mosques located in Nardaran and Mashtaga villages of Baku. On 22 September, Baghirzade was summoned to the former Ministry of National Security for a so-called preventive conversation. They discussed the socio-political and religious situation in the country, saying that some remarks made by him in mosques located in Nardaran were against the state. Baghirzade blamed the government for the tension and called for a solution to the problems.
Three days later, on 25 September, Baghirzade and some of his supporters were detained and taken to police department when they were heading to Yevlakh region to attend a celebration ceremony. The police told him that they were informed of an anti-state speech to be made in Yevlakh mosque. Baghirzade told them that no speech was planned and that he was going to the mosque to pray, so he and his supporters were set free. In an interview given after their release, he once again stated that he is not afraid of guns, referring to the armed police officers who besieged the mosque.
On 3 November, two days after the parliamentary elections of 1 November 2015, Baghirzade was summoned to Yasamal District Police Office. The police chief Isfandiyar Mehbaliyev started to talk to him rudely, blaming him for organizing an event on the commemoration day of National Hero Mubariz Ibrahimov and bringing people together. Since it was prayer time, Baghirzade asked to be allowed to pray, but the chief didn’t allow praying in the police office. When Baghirzade insisted, he was subjected to violence. He was hit in the jaw and not allowed to pray. His complaint lodged with the prosecutor’s office against the actions of the police chief didn’t receive serious examination.
Elchin Gasimov detained
Elchin Gasimov, the deputy head of the MUM, strongly criticized the government for failure to hold transparent elections and for the violence committed against Baghirzade in police office in some news portals and on Facebook. The next day, on 5 November, he was detained by police officers when coming home located in Mastaga village and taken to Sabunchu District Police Office. On 6 November, he was sentenced to 30 days of administrative detention by Sabunchu District Court and charged with resisting police, a widely used charge against activists. In the meantime, another operation was held resulting in arrest of other members of MUM in Nardaran. Thereafter serious charges were brought against Elchin Gasimov as well and a criminal case was opened. He was sentenced to pre-trial detention.
On 5 November, MUM activists gathered in front of the police office to learn the reason for his arrest, to support him and to call for his release. The police used force and arrested activists. The activists were initially put in administrative detention; however, a criminal case was later opened against them and they were imprisoned.
26 November operation in Nardaran
Three weeks later, on 26 November, the Ministry of Internal Affairs and State Security Service held a joint operation in Nardaran settlement, where Baghirzade was temporarily settled, resulting in the death of 7 persons, including two police officers. Baghirzade and 16 more persons were detained as a result of the operation. Following this incident, the supporters of MUM were arrested both in Baku (mainly in Nardaran) and in regions.
Following the incident of 5 November, a systematic and large-scale campaign against Baghirzade kicked off in media. On 10 November, pro-governmental politologist Ilgar Altay addressed an appeal to the Prosecutor General asking for opening of a criminal case against Baghirzade and investigation of his activity. In his appeal, he described the activities of Baghirzade as strengthening of the Iranian-Persian agents’ network. Smear materials, including this appeal, started to spread. Xazar TV station, which is broadcast nationwide, aired a program titled “Committing provocation under the guise of religion,” in which the MUM members are described as criminals, thereby violating their right to presumption of innocence.
On 10 November, MUM activists made a statement with regard to this campaign against the MUM, saying that they are facing a smear campaign. The statement went on to say that the MUM is not engaged in anything illegal and that they have no demands outside of the framework of the Constitution and laws of the Republic of Azerbaijan. Baghirzade himself also had told the media that preparations were underway for his third arrest and that he can face provocation at any time. He stated that they are struggling in peaceful ways and that they will sue those who slander them. Part of the campaign against MUM concerned its lack of registration as a religious community. Mubariz Gurbanli, head of the State Committee for Work with Religious Organizations, told TV stations and newspapers that the organization did not have official registration as a religious community and that this was inadmissible. Commenting on the issue, the MUM said that it is a non-governmental organization, not a religious community and that their application for registration with the Ministry of Justice had been turned town several times.
Following 26 November operation, the public campaign against MUM and its members continued. State-run news agencies and pro-governmental mass media outlets started to publish appeals from various communities and regions criticizing the activity of MUM, accusing its members of committing crimes and supporting President Ilham Aliyev’s policy. 47,48,49 The Caucasian Muslims Office released a statement with political content at the late hours of the day the operation was held.
Baghirzade was continuously summoned to law enforcement agencies after his release and received warnings. Nonetheless, he always responded to summons and visited relevant state bodies in time. His organization also had applied to the Ministry of Justice for registration. Baghirzade gave regular interviews to media, stating that they are guided by the Constitution and laws.
Charges, court proceedings and treatment (claims of torture)
Following the operation carried out on 26 November, the Ministry of Internal Affairs and General Prosecutor’s Office released a joint statement. The statement says that Tale Bagirov, Elman Agayev, Zulfugar Mikayilov and Abulfaz Bunyatov “created a movement called Muslim Unity with the intent to change constitutional structure of the state by force and build a religious state governed by laws of shariah.” The statement goes on to say that said persons collected supporters from Baku and other regions of the country, provided them with various types of firearms, supplies, explosives and created a criminal gang. Moreover, “they organized illegal meetings in Nardaran settlement of Baku where they discussed the ways of raising the population against the government, gave instructions to their supporters and distributed summons to the people”. Concrete tasks of every member of the armed criminal gang, as well as persons in charge of committing terror acts against public officers, were determined.
A criminal case was opened at the General Prosecutor’s Office. Heavy charges brought against the imprisoned persons could result in their lifetime imprisonment. The case of a group of persons, including Tale Baghirzade, whose investigation has been completed, has been sent to the Baku Court of Grave Crimes and proceedings are ongoing. Of four persons mentioned in the statement released by the Interior Ministry and General Prosecutor’s Office on the operation day, only Tale Baghirzade’s investigation has been completed and sent to court, whereas it could be concluded from the statement these four committed the same criminal actions and their investigation would be done together.
Imprisoned believers reported that they were subject to heavy torture and forced to testify against themselves. In particular, Baghirzade and people arrested together with him stated at the trial that they were subject to terrible torture and insults. Their reports regarding torture were not examined by the court. The judges disregarded this issue with silence. The activists said in the court, that the tortures were aimed at obtaining confessions in the crimes they have never committed and testimonies against the leaders of the Muslim Unity Movement. Tale Baghirzade said in the court that there was an attempt to force him to testify against the National Council of Democratic Forces, an opposition movement and the Popular Front Party of Azerbaijan in order to obtain “evidences” of their involvement in radical extremist religious activities. Deputy chairman of the Popular Front Party Fuad Gahramanli is also arrested within the same case for calling for civic protest against police violence during Nov 26, 2015 operation in Nardaran. None of the torture allegations had been investigated by the court or law-enforcement agencies. Petitions of the lawyers to investigate tortures were dismissed on several occasions.
The observation of court proceedings showed that the investigation failed to prove the charges brought against them. The investigation had not examined the fingerprints of arrested persons; the lawyers’ motion in this regard was not granted.
The police officers who are recognized by the investigation as victims failed to explain in their testimonies in the court who and under what circumstances threw the grenade that left a police officer dead. The investigation claimed that a hand grenade killed one police officer. However, the absence of a grenade-imposed hole at the incident scene, separation of only one fragment from the grenade hitting the police officer without hitting anyone else casts serious doubt on this issue.
All police officers deemed as victims gave similar testimonies saying that the persons arrested by them had grenades and firearms in their rear pockets and only knives in their hands that allowed the police officers to easily contain and arrest them. They failed to explain what makes them a victim; the investigation also stated that they suffered moral damage. The families of killed police officers didn’t join the court hearings as victims.
During the hearings, the believers subjected to torture recognized the police officers torturing them and explained in detail how those specific police officers tortured, insulted and treated them.
Number of witnesses invited to the court refused from their previous statements to investigation explaining that those statements were taken under torture and threats. After their testimony in the court several witnesses were summoned or detained and taken to the Anti-Organized Crime Unit of the Interior Ministry and further subjected to threats.
Forum 18, an organization which monitors and spreads information regarding the situation of freedom of conscience enshrined in Article 18 of Universal Human Rights Declaration in different countries, released a statement on Nardaran incident. Catherine Cosman, senior analyst of US Commission on International Religious Freedom, told media that she does not believe the claims regarding MUM’s attempted overthrow of power adding that there are serious doubts regarding the charges brought against the imprisoned.