Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Azerbaijan: Rebel Village Remains Defiant

Residents of a blockaded Azerbaijani village continue to voice their fury over the government’s crackdown on its Islamist critics.
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Tensions between the Azerbaijani government and the rebellious village of Nardaran escalated this week, after prominent Islamist politicians from the besieged settlement were arrested.

There had been reports of a breakthrough in negotiations between the two sides on Saturday, June 8, but this correspondent managed to make it through police checkpoints into the blockaded village the following day to find the atmosphere still tense, with residents refusing to negotiate until men arrested after clashes between police and demonstrators the week before - which left one man dead - were released. (See IWPR Caucasus Reporting Service, No. 132).

The villagers defiance was fuelled by the arrest on Monday of two leaders of the Islamic Party of Azerbaijan, Haji Aliakram Aliev and Mirmehti Darafarin, both from Nardaran. The villagers resumed demonstrations, while all entrances and exits to the village remain strictly controlled by the security forces.

It proved very difficult for an outsider to visit Nardaran. No Baku taxi-drivers would agree to take this correspondent to the village, about 30 km away. A driver in the neighbouring village of Mashtagi did agree, but my first attempt to go in as a journalist failed, when a police captain at a checkpoint one km from Nardaran said that he had instructions “from above” not to let any visitors, including members of press, past without written permission from his bosses.

My driver then suggested we take another road, where we told police that we were from the next village and had come to pray in the Nardaran mosque. Luckily, the policeman at the checkpoint decided not to examine the extent of my religious knowledge. He merely wrote down my identity details and asked a couple of questions about the geography of the Apsheron peninsular, which, as a native of these parts, I could answer without difficulty.

The mosque in Nardaran is a holy place not only for Shiite pilgrims from Azerbaijan, but also from neighbouring Iran, as Rahima, the sister of the eighth Imam, Reza, is buried there. There were about 20 worshippers inside, far fewer than normal.

Coming out of the mosque, I met Jeyhun, a swarthy 13-year-old boy, who agreed to be my guide. First of all, he took me to the central square, named after Imam Hussein. This name tells you a lot. Even in Soviet times, the Nardaranis were famously devout. You do see women wearing headscarves and the shops do not sell alcohol. But I was most struck by how all the walls lining the road from the mosque to the square were inscribed with quotations from the Koran and precepts of the Prophet. All of these phrases, and also the names of the streets, were still written in the Cyrillic alphabet, despite a presidential ban on the script one year ago.

There were about 100 Nardaranis in the square at 11 o’clock in the morning. They seemed fairly calm and it was clear they had come out to exchange information and discuss the situation. The spot where 52-year-old Alihasan Agayev was killed in last week’s clashes was covered in carnations, laid out to form the word shehid, or martyr. Nearby, bullet casings were similarly arranged to say gatil, or murderer. The villagers had taken down their barricades, but I could see the marks of bonfires and broken glass was strewn on the ground.

Jeyhun introduced me to 50-year-old Mamedali Agayev, the brother of the dead man. “Like most people in Nardaran, my brother was very hard up,” he said. “He has left five children behind, three daughters and two sons. The oldest daughter is 11. When the executive head of Baku Hajibala Abutalibov visited us, he promised to build a new school. Why should we have a new school, when our children don’t even have shoes to go to school in?”

Many believe that Nardaran’s protests stem mainly from socio-economic discontents. In demonstrations that began in January this year, the villagers, who live mainly from the cut flower trade, demanded gas for heating their greenhouses, work for the young and cheaper bus travel.

Since the violence of June 4, they have added more demands: the release of men arrested in the disturbance and a criminal investigation into the death of Alihasan Agayev.

Mamedali Agayev said that no government official had expressed condolences to his brother’s family, taken any interest in their problems or helped organise the funeral.

The Azerbaijani authorities continue to insist that the demonstrators in Nardaran were armed. “We are convinced that a large quantity of weapons was being stored in Nardaran,” said Sadig Gezalov, the press secretary of the interior ministry. “Our officials have appealed to the villagers to give them up voluntarily. If they do not, we cannot rule out carrying out a search operation.”

Baku police chief Yashar Aliev told ANS television that all the detainees had been arrested lawfully and there was “no question” of them being released. He claimed most of the Nardaranis wanted the police to “impose order” in their village.

However, the villagers all emphatically deny that they were armed. One elderly man, Haji Mursal said, “If we had had weapons, we would probably have used them. Because even on January 20, 1990 [when Soviet troops entered Baku and more than 120 people died, then Soviet defence minister Dmitry] Yazov’s army was not as brutal as this towards unarmed civilians. We only threw stones.”

The Nardaran violence has become the main topic of political debate in the country. A proposal by the opposition for a parliamentary debate on June 10 on the troubles was thrown out by the speaker, Murtuz Aleskerov, who said that a full investigation should be held first.

The Islamic Party said that the authorities was trying to “play the Nardaran card against the Islamic Party of Azerbaijan” by arresting its leaders.

“The punitive organs of Azerbaijan - I won’t call them law enforcement organs - have made yet another mistake, arresting Haji Aliakram, one of the most respected elders of Nardaran,” agreed Araz Alizade, leader of the Social Democratic Party. “Now the authorities are trying to whitewash themselves, by forcing innocent people to confess to things that didn’t happen.”

According to our information, the Islamic leaders are being held by the interior ministry’s Organized Crime Department and no charges have been laid against them. Thirty Nardaranis are now under arrest. New negotiations are underway and hundreds of villagers on Imam Hussein Square continue to wait nervously for news.

Shahin Rzayev is IWPR’s Azerbaijan Editor.