Crackdown widens in Azerbaijan’s second city as police kill assassination suspects

In the wake of the attempted assassination of the mayor of Ganja, Azerbaijan’s second-largest city, four suspects have been killed and dozens of others have been detained in what human rights activists have said is an attempt to stoke fear of Islamic terror and stifle dissent in the country.

The crackdown follows a series of still-murky events in Ganja. On July 3, there was an assassination attempt on Ganja mayor Elmar Valiyev. A week later, the authorities reported that two senior police officers were killed in demonstrations in support of the assassination suspect.

The next day, two people were placed on a wanted list, Azerbaijani law enforcement announced. One of them, Farrukh Gasimov, was immediately detained and the second, Rashad Boyukkishiyev, was killed in detention, according to Azerbaijan’s Interior Ministry. Fifteen more alleged participants were detained on July 17.

On July 21, another suspect, Anar Bagirov, was killed and another eight people were detained, according to a statement by the Interior Ministry. Then, on July 25, the alleged mastermind of the attack, Agha Sarhani, was killed by police, law enforcement agencies said. The last suspect pronounced dead was Fuad Samedov, who police say was hiding in a neighboring town, security forces told Trend News.

In total, 61 people have been arrested so far and a further 13 have been placed on a wanted list.

“The July terrorist attack against the mayor of Ganja and the killing of two police officers created a need for the state to intervene to maintain political stability,” said Azerbaijan’s Prosecutor General Zakir Garalov, the regional news website Caucasian Knot reported.

According to Garalov, the case is being investigated by working groups formed under the Prosecutor General’s Office, the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the State Security Service.

But activists in Azerbaijan say the government is using the unrest as a pretext to clamp down on political opposition. Members of Muslim Unity, a religious movement that been pushed underground since 2015, told Caucasian Knot that Agha Sarhani was innocent and that his murder was an attempt to smear the group.

Muslim Unity says Sarhani was an active member and participated in numerous peaceful protests with the group.

“The murder of suspects in the ‘Ganja case,’ including Sarhani, are a consequence of the government’s desire to foment fear in society,” the group said in a statement. The group drew parallels with the events of 2015, when members of Muslim Unity were arrested and convicted of organizing riots that began in Nardaran. Seven people died during the unrest, including two policemen.

Authorities say the group’s leader is connected with Yunis Safarov, the prime suspect in the Ganja assassination attempt and an accused Islamist radical.

On July 6, the government issued a statement claiming that “Safarov’s main purpose in committing a terrorist act was to establish an Islamic state governed by Sharia law in Azerbaijan, killing a number of well-known civil servants in the country, creating scandal, chaos, panic and, ultimately, the forced seizure of power.”

But the official account leaves many questions unanswered, some analysts note.

“In the official narrative, contradictory [pieces of information] were threaded together, [saying Safarov] studied in Qom in Iran [a Shia city] and then joined ISIS [a Sunni terrorist outfit that is hostile to Shia Muslims],” Leyla Aliyeva, a political analyst, told Ekho Kavkaza, RFE/RL’s Caucasus news service. “In other words, these were completely contradictory versions.”

Other activists have noted the opaque nature of the investigation and potential for human rights abuse.

“We cannot say whether [those detained] committed crimes or not, but the fact that their relatives are not provided with information about the place of their detention, and many are not allowed lawyers, is very alarming,” Ogtay Gulaliyev, a representative of the Center for the Protection of Political Prisoners (CPPP) told Caucasian Knot. “Their relatives are so scared they do not want to make official statements.”

According to CPPP’s January 2018 data, Azerbaijan has over 161 political prisoners. Activists from Muslim Unity constitute the largest group.

Bradley Jardine is a freelance journalist who covers the Caucasus.