by Mustafa Hajibeyli, investigative journalist

Nardaran, a Baku suburb known for its Shiita religious conservatism and vocal criticism against the government, is seen as a village that generates many protests in Azerbaijan. Nardaran residents regularly gather at the main village square with make social demands.  As a result, there are often clashes with the police deployed to disperse the protesters. The Minister for Interior Affairs, Ramil Usubov told journalists that in general (so far) there have been 23 reported incidents between residents of Nardaran and the police. Up until November 2015, Nardaran had a reputation for being a constant ‘headache’ for the local authorities, especially for police.  However, on 26th of November 2015, news spread about another new confrontation between the police and local residents in Nardaran.  But, this news was different from the other occasions because this time a weapon was used.  As a result, two police officers and four civilians were killed. The alleged 'murder' of the two police officers, Vugar Nasibov and Ismayil Tagiyev, gave the ‘green light‘ to law enforcement officers to carry out tougher measures and mass arrests in Nardaran. It also helped to change the perception (in favour of the local authorities) about Nardaran residents who were known publically as ‘long fighters‘. The incident also created a convenient ‘justification’ to arrest dozens of residents accused of acts of terrorism and made possible the pretext to give life prison sentence to Taleh Bagirov, 33, the former prisoner of conscience, representative of the religious community, by accusing him of plotting to overthrow the government. The major target of the police raid was Bagirzade,  who in early 2015 co-founded the still unregistered Movement for Muslim Unity, the objective of which, he said, is to establish a democratic secular state in which leaders are popularly elected.



So who killed the police officers?

Before answering this question, it is worth mentioning the court process known as ‘Nardaran affair’ has been underway since June 2016. According to the defendants’ lawyer Nemat Karimli, several criminal cases were being brought to trial at the same time.  In total, 87 residents had been arrested, 7 were still at large and on wanted lists.  The accused had been divided into different categories and the criminal proceedings started at the Court for Serious Crimes in Baku. According to criminal case files provided by defence lawyer Karimli and testimonies given at the court by the members of Main Organized Crime Department (MOCD) of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the murdered police officers were severely injured by splinters from a grenade thrown by the supporters of Taleh Bagirzade and by gunfire when they attempted to enter the yard that belonged to Abulfaz Bunyatov.

No Evidence of grenade 

According to the formal indictment, the grenade was thrown by a Nardaran resident, Akbar Babayev who was killed at the scene.  the indictment stated that while being neutralised by the riot police Babayev was injured but managed to escape inside the house where he then opened fire on the police. However, a second defense lawyer, Yalchin Imanov stated this version of events was not proved at court.  Imanov said “During the court testimonies the accused stated that Akbar Babayev had no illegal objects (weapons or ammunition) on him, and therefore he did not throw the grenade - yet he was immediately shot by black masked police officers during the raid.  It is not possible to identify anything relating to a grenade in the protocol (account) drafted by Karim Alimardanov, the MOCD's officer in charge of the police raid on the 25 November 2015.  Neither is there any reference in the official account to a grenade or any splinter damage caused by the alleged grenade in the garden.”   

 

Gunfire was from the outside


Further contradictions can be found in another account (protocol) dated 3 December entitled ‘Viewing the crime scene’.  In this account there is no evidence of damage caused by a grenade explosion at the scene – no signs of shrapnel or fragments from a grenade on the garden walls, the gate, rooms, the yard or on the trees.  Instead, the only indication of a violent confrontation at the property (from the front gate to the bedrooms) owned by Bunyatov is from blood splatter and damage from the impact of six bullets.  If Akbar Babayev did indeed fire from inside the house how can you explain why the only indication of damage is to the outside facing walls? Imanov (defence lawyer) stated the lack of evidence raised questions that remained unanswered by the court. Imanov said “We obtained the images of Nardaran shooting and it is obvious from the pictures that there is no evidence of grenade damage or holes in the courtyard where the clash took place. According to the criminal case files, police officer Vugar Nasibov had been severely wounded by the bullet fired by Sarvan Safarov.  However, the accused stated in their court testimonies that this was not possible as Safarov was killed immediately at the start of the raid by black masked police officers.”  

Contradictory ‘Evidence’

The autopsy of Ismayil Tagiyev’s body reveals that he died from two splinters from a grenade that exploded a distance away from where he fell. The testimonies of MOCD’s officers stated that Tagiyev and Nasibov were the first two police officer to enter the yard. They were injured within a few seconds from shrapnel from a grenade that was thrown into the middle of the yard and bullet wounds from gunfire.  Both officers later died from their injuries in the Ministry of Internal Affairs hospital named after A. Heydarov.


 

 

But (lawyer for the defence) Imanov think there are serious contradictions to these testimonies. Imanov said, "The incident took place in front of the house in the courtyard area that measures 30 × 20 meters. It was not clear what ‘a distance away' actually means. If the grenade had been thrown out into the middle of the yard (at the police) it should have landed near the front entrance door. The coroner reported that the other police officer Nasibov died from the injury of one bullet and one piece of shrapnel. According to the coroner, the injuries from the grenade shrapnel and gunfire had the characteristic of being thrown and fired from a distance -  ‘The distance that was not affecting any additional factors’. But what does that mean?  How is it possible that if two people entered the yard together - at the same time, in the same place - one of the injured was considered to be ‘nearby' while the other person was considered to be further away. Imanov stated that the prosecution were unable to these discrepancies. 

Why is the video recording of the operation kept hidden?

On December 14, we took part in the hearing of the "Nardaran affair" held at the Baku Court of Grave Crimes.  During the court hearing, (lawyer for the defence) Imanov said the raid in Nardaran had been filmed by the police officers and it would be in the interest of the prosecutor to release the video so that the court can properly determine how the police officers were actually killed. Imanov subsequently filed a motion to request that the MOCD show their video footage of the raid in court.  However, the public prosecutor, Nasib Bayramov, objected to this motion and Judge Alovsat Abbasov rejected the request.  During his speech at the court hearing, Taleh Bagirov indicated that he wanted eight witnesses who had been directly involved in the incident to give their testimonies.  Bagirov noted that to date all those that had testified as ‘victims’ and ‘witnesses’ were police officers. According to him, neutral witnesses would add credibility and could help clarify how the actual events unfolded.  However, the prosecutor yet again objected to Bagirov’s motion and this request was also rejected by the judge.

 

Are Police Officer being used and made victims? 

Namat Karimli, the lawyer for the defence told us that there was insufficient evidence that the two police officers were killed by the residents of Nardaran. Karimli speculated that the two police officer were possibly victims of a conspiracy to put false blame on the accused. Karimli said: “Either there was a ‘3rd party’, or the police officers were made deliberate victims” It is clear from the investigation that all the police officers involved in the raid had firearms (called ‘Zafar’ revolver).  However, apparently, the dead police officers carried non-lethal weapons. When asked to explain why police officers with the non-lethal weapon were deployed to enter the yard first, the prosecution responded the police officers had no intention to use their firearms. However, it is clear that this was not the case because there were traces of bullet damage outside the gate to the courtyard. This clearly indicates that the police intended to use lethal force. So the question is why did the police officers open fire even before they entered the Bunyatov‘s property? There appears to be no comprehensive answer from the prosecution to this question. Karimli added that the accusation that Nardaran residents had automatic firearms was not proved by the court. The prosecution also claimed that most of the accused carried hand grenades in their pockets when they were caught. At the same time, it was said they were all wearing jeans. But how can you fit a grenade into the pocket of jeans? There is no clear answer to this question either.

 

''The purpose was to silence us''

We spoke to the father of one of the accused who wanted to stay anonymous.  He said that the alleged weapons

listed during the court proceedings have never been in Nardaran.  “If you mention my name, they will arrest me as well.  All accusations are fake – there were no grenades, no automatic firearms or any other ammunition with the people of Nardaran.  We only prayer and worship. Since when has praying been a crime? They have deliberately put us in the wrong light" – he said.

As for the incident, the prisoner's father said that the police raid was unexpected. He added: "The operation took place in the house of the villager called Bunyatov. Bunyatov’s wife told reporters that they had been preparing to celebrate the ‘40th day in the month of Muharram’ and they had planned to host an iftar dinner on November 26.  Haji Taleh had been  invited to attend as a guest. But during prayers the house was suddenly attacked by police officers and black masked police officers. My son, who had been praying at that time there, says, he did not know how the incident happened.  The house was suddenly attacked.  They used stun grenades and bullets and arrested the rest of the people. It seems the purpose of this operation was to arrest Haji Taleh and to silence us. They succeeded". 

Lengthy prison terms

The 18 accused went on trial in early August at Baku's Court for Serious Crimes on charges of premeditated murder, terrorism, organizing mass unrest, illegal possession of weapons, creating armed formations, inciting religious hatred, using force against officials with the aim of overthrowing the government and seizing power, and other more minor offenses. On December 26, the prosecution demanded life imprisonment for Bagirzade, 11 years in jail for the senior opposition politician Fuad Gahramanly, and between 10 and 20 years for their sixteen co-defendants, who are accused of plotting to overthrow the Azerbaijani government.  Human rights groups consider the accused to be prisoners of conscience.  All pleaded not guilty. Some say they incriminated themselves under torture during pretrial questioning. Others admitted having signed a confession they had not read. The court has refused to investigate the allegations of torture. In one of the trials, Bagirzade claimed that he had been subjected to torture to induce him to incriminate opposition Popular front Party chairman Ali Kerimli and opposition National Council of Democratic Forces head Jamil Hasanli, which he refused to do. 

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