Azerbaijani authorities have conducted mass arrests of people who they accuse of planning to take part in a coup on behalf of Iran to establish a religious state in the country.
On Thursday, the Interior Ministry, State Security Service, and General Prosecutor’s Office released a joint statement about the ongoing operation.
The roundup of Shia people in the country has stepped up since the shooting of MP Fazil Mustafa last Tuesday, with the number of people detained possibly in the hundreds.
Azerbaijani authorities have hinted Mustafa was targetted because of his hardline views on Iran.
The accusations come as tensions with Iran continue to spiral. Azerbaijani authorities have frequently arrested Shia figures during periods of heightened tension.
In their statement on Thursday, the Azerbaijani authorities accused two Iran-based Azerbaijani citizens, Rufulla Akhundzade and Bakhtiyar Bayramov, of leading the plot with the Iranian special services.
They said the two men had contracted Arif Jumshudov, a resident of Azerbaijan’s Tartar District, to create a ‘resistance group’. Jumshudov was among six people initially detained over Fazil Mustafa’s shooting.
According to the authorities, Jumshudov was to seize power through armed riots in order to establish a state governed by Sharia law.
They said Jumshudov had conducted ‘secret meetings’ in his home to recruit others to the cause.
‘The detained persons described themselves as “religious” in society and carried out propaganda in favour of Iran and religious radicalism on social networks, as well as in ceremonies where people gather’, the statement continued.
The authorities also accused the group of obtaining large amounts of money through the sale of illegal drugs sent by Iran.
‘If he prays, he is a terrorist’
Since the reported shooting of Fazil Mustafa on 28 March, doubts have been raised over the official story.
The Interior Ministry initially announced they had arrested six people over the shooting.
However, the independent news site, Meydan TV, published CCTV footage appearing to show one of the six, Ilkin Suleymanov, at a cafe at the time the shooting was supposed to have taken place. The charges against him were subsequently changed to drug charges.
In an interview with Meydan TV, Suleymanov’s relatives also insisted he was innocent, and said his family had been kept in the dark about his current whereabouts.
Fazil Mustafa has himself not been seen or heard from since he survived the reported shooting, leading some to question if it had even occurred.
‘No one can convince me that there was an attack against Fazil without giving evidence’, wrote Saygin Rustam, an activist from the opposition Popular Front Party.
‘After spreading the news about the incident and checking the pulse, they got an excuse to arrest about a thousand people’, he continued. ‘They came up with the absurd idea of “if he prays, he is a terrorist”.’
Ahmad Mammadli, the chair of the Azerbaijani pro-democracy group, Democracy 18, also suggested people should not accept the version of events presented by the government. He said the government could ‘target any person to support itself and justify its claims’.
‘As it is, [the state] has prepared “legal” grounds for its next step.’
Samad Shikhi, a Baku-based writer and political commentator, also connected the arrests with the heightened tensions with Iran. He said Azerbaijan was arresting religious believers in order to ‘send a message to and threaten Iran’.
‘It is a fact that there have been more than 500 of these arrests, whose numbers are increasing day by day. I don’t know what else to call it, it’s repression.’