What was the point of taking up arms?
The trial for the case of Taleh Bagir-zade, a Shia cleric, and a group of his supporters, began in the Baku Court of Grave Crimes. They have serious charges against them, including murder, an attempt to overthrow the constitutional order, illegal possession of firearms, etc. Only 18 out of the 72 individuals arrested in the case are in the docks. That’s approximately how many people can fit into the court’s steel cage. As a result, this court hearing is likely to set the general tone for the series of trials to come.
It seems this won’t be a trial based on the actions of the defendants in question, but rather of the traditional lifestyle in the village of Nardaran, where they come from. Located not far from Baku, this village, with a population of 9,300 people and 5 mosques, managed to rise to fame as an ‘enclave of Iran.’ Many activists of the banned Islamic Party of Azerbaijan, as well as a number of Shia clerics, are natives of this village. The Muslim Unity Movement (MUM) was set up here in early 2015 and its supporters are on trial now.
I remember Nardaran in 2002: absorbed in a revolt, besieged by the police, with barricades from burned down police cars, bullet-riddled walls and graves that Nardaran residents dug up for themselves. The population was armed with sticks and stones, but united by solidarity. The poice were using the place 20-30 meters away from the epicenter and of the ongoing developments as their headquarters. The authorities claimed that this station was burned down to the ground and destroyed, but in fact, Nardaran residents demonstrated their respect for the public institutions, and they hadn’t touched either the building or the police officers (mind that it was inside a village blocked by the police)!
A committee, comprising civil society experts, arrived to the conclusion that the protest had more social, rather than religious, roots. After giving up on their attempts to forced thier controlled municipality upon Nardaran residents, they started exerting economic pressure on them, as well as undermining their greenhouse economies and fisheries. As soon as this problem had been partially solved, Nardaran residents went back to construction.
These Nardaran residents were ready to die. Whereas people in present-day Nardaran are absolutely different, ready to surreptitiously fire at police officers from the stillness of the peaceful village yards. However, the situation following recent developments proved that there were few people with such courage. Most people are scared, hiding in their homes, probably more concerned about writing off electricity debts than about politics.
Nardaran residents are still religious and restive. But there is no one willing to die anymore and the crowd dispersed after three days, despite four mosques being closed and the arrests of 2 Akhunds (Islamic clerics), as well as dozens of fellow villagers.
The gap between these “two” Nardarans, separating the faithful from the Islamists, emerged on November 26, 2015, when law enforcement, who arrived in the village to conduct a police raid, opened fire. A faithful person trusts God, relies on himself and trusts in the wisdom of the ‘sovreign father’. On the contrary, an Islamist trusts in the Islamic revolution and has the hope that the secular power will be replaced by the rule of the Sharia. Therefore, it’s no coincidence that under Islamist influence, Nardaran has been long opposing the formation of any soviet institutions, be it a municipality or even a fire station.
When one month before the shooting, the MUM chairman stated that ‘we don’t want the Islamic Revolution and the change of constitutional order in Azerbaijan,’ he apparently was telling a fib. Meanwhile, in neighboring Iran, Mojtahed Shabestari, a representative of Iran’s religious leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, firmly stated that, “What happened in Nardaran is a natural, revolutionary movement.
Respect for Azerbaijan’s constitutional order should be manifested in the recognition of the separation of religion and state, as well as in the observance of the laws. For instance, the Law on Non-governmental Organizations (NGOs) prohibits them from being engaged in politics. As per the Law on the Freedom of Religion, neither NGOs, nor the graduates of foreign Islamic universities, may be involved in religious activities (Bagir-zade studied in Iran and Iraq for 6 years). In this regard, the MUM’s call to boycott the October 2015 elections doesn’t fit into the NGO mandate at all.
Bagir-zade made no secret of his goals. Almost immediately upon his release from prison in July 2015, the cleric stated that he was ‘released from a small prison to enter a big one’ and that he was going to ‘vigorously’ continue the struggle: “I believe that a cleric can be a politician, and a politician can be a cleric. It’s erroneous to think that religion should be separated from politics. If you look at the history of Islam, the Islamic law was applied in Azerbaijan until the 19th century.
For me, far more important than weapons and drugs is that the MUM wanted to abuse the freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution, in order to bring us back to the 19th century, where there were no such freedoms.
This policitical statement made by Bagir-zade completely negates his later assurance of the Movement’s loyalty. That was when the police officers didn’t let the cleric enter the mosque in Yevlakh. He was then detained and allegedly beaten by the police. There were riots in connection with this in Sabunchi, which were followed by the arrest of the MUM supporters.
In addition to this, their statement of loyalty didn’t justify itself in the course of subsequent developments. And that is when the question came about: why do Democrats, who abide the Constitution, need weapons? During Bagir-zade’s previous arrest in 2013, a gun had been seized from his driver. Back then the gun went unused, whereas now, 2 police officers and 5 civilians (including non-residents), have fallen victims to it. The weapons and ammunition were found during the arrests of MUM supporters in Nardaran, Gyanja and other regions.
Someone might say that everything was “planted”. But there are still questions: from where were the police in Nardaran fired at and, most importantly, why? After all, one may receive short-term imprisonment for possession of the firearms, whereas now they are facing a life sentence.
If any laws or officials’ actions violate the rights of believers, it should be settled in court, rather than by resorting to the use of violence, especially since it is possible now to file a claim even with the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).
In the case of Kasymakhunov and Saybatalov vs. Russia, the ECHR noted that “a political organisation may promote a change in the law or the legal and constitutional institutions of the State on two conditions: firstly, the means used to that end must be legal and democratic; secondly, the change proposed must itself be compatible with fundamental democratic principles. It necessarily would follow that a political organisation whose leaders incite violence or put forward a policy which fails to respect democracy or which is aimed at the destruction of democracy and flouting the rights and freedoms recognised in a democracy cannot be placed under the Convention’s protection against the penalties imposed for those actions.
The developments in Nardaran gave a tangible impetus for toughening legislation. The Law on the Fight Against Religious Extremism was passed in Azerbaijan just a week after the aforesaid developments. Whereas on July 18, 2016, the President proposed an amendment to Article 24 of the Constitution that suggests adding the phrase ‘the abuse of rights should not be permitted.’ As a renowned Russian revolutionist, Plekhanov, would have put it, ‘It was easy to foresee this set of circumstances. Therefore, they shouldn’t have taken up arms.
Nardaran residents, who have been manipulated by politicians for so many years, are going to start with a new leaf. The authorities seem to be catching up with things they haven’t done for over a quarter of century: the rehabilitation of inner roads has finished, the relationship between the mosque and the state is being improved, the gas and power supply is being increased, people are promised to be provided jobs. Even a secular House of Knowledge has been set up here. The country’s president has recently visited Nardaran, pledging to ensure that the infrastructure of the village would be ‘at an appropriate level.’
It should come as no surprise that the police and national security service departments have also been opened. Time will tell whether it is going to bring stability and order or police control. But I wish that both the authorities and Nardaran residents, could display wisdom.