A Shia theologian has become the latest to be arrested in Azerbaijan in an apparent roundup of prominent Shia figures in the country.
On 25 October, Ahliman Rustamov, a theologian and former prayer leader of the Haji Javad Mosque in Baku, was detained by the State Security Service and taken for questioning, before being released shortly after.
His son, Gasim Rustamov, told OC Media that Security Service agents confiscated ‘about 15 religious books’ belonging to his father. ‘We were not told why he was detained’, the younger Rustamov said.
Rustamov’s is the latest of a series of arrests which some in Azerbaijan have connected to growing tensions with Iran. While both countries have majority Shia populations, the secular authorities in Azerbaijan have previously been suspicious of religious figures.
On 19 October, Sardar Babayev, Jalal Shafiyev, Gadir Mammadov and Tamkin Jafarov, all members of the Union of Clergy, an organisation representing Shia scholars and religious figures in Azerbaijan, were detained.
Relatives said that police had confiscated phones and laptops during the arrests.
Ilgar Ibrahimoglu, a theologian, prominent Shia cleric, and chair of the Centre for the Defense of Freedom of Religion and Conscience, was also detained on 19 October. He was released several hours later after questioning.
Shafiyev, Mammadov, and Jafarov were released without charges on 26 October. Sardar Babayev, meanwhile, has remained in custody and has been charged with high treason, and is facing up to life in prison if convicted.
Babayev, the imam of the Juma Mosque in Baku’s Masalli district, was previously sentenced to three years in prison in 2017 on charges of violating the requirements for conducting religious ceremonies.
He was released in February 2020.
Azerbaijani authorities have not commented on the detentions nor on Babayev’s charges.
Tensions with Iran
The detentions have come amidst a worsening of Azerbaijan-Iran relations.
Earlier in October, Iran held war games near the border with Azerbaijan, as Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei made veiled threats to Baku, apparently concerning the alleged presence of Israeli ‘agents’ in Azerbaijan. Shortly thereafter Azerbaijan, closed the office of the representative Khamenei in Baku, ostensibly as an anti-COVID-19 measure.
[Read more: Analysis | What is behind the growing Iran-Azerbaijan tension?]
Some in Azerbaijan have speculated that the arrests signal a belief on the part of authorities in Baku that Azerbaijan’s Shia clerics have a connection with Iran’s security services.
Zardusht Alizade, a political analyst and former opposition politician, told Turan that the arrests were likely ‘directly related’ to the tension between Iran and Azerbaijan.
‘We have witnessed this from time to time. Both during the Soviet era and after independence, there have been such arrests’, he said.
‘I do not think that a few theologians will stage a coup in Azerbaijan. Of course, this image is being created and society is already accustomed to it. If there was a threat to the security of the state, why didn't they take security measures in advance?’
‘As relations with Iran soured, they again arrested “those who serve Iran” to create the image they wanted in the public’, Alizade said.