Azerbaijan news

Targeting Faith: Azerbaijan’s Controversial Crackdown on Religious Believers as Response for Regional Tensions

Arzu Abdulla: “It is despicable to use one’s citizen as a tool for problems with another country”

People of religious faith have been arrested en masse for some time in Azerbaijan.

The arrests come amid strained relations between Iran and Azerbaijan and are billed as an operation against Iran’s spy network.

Relatives of the arrested persons argue that the arrests took place due to the deterioration of relations between Iran and Azerbaijan and that they were all sentenced for alleged drug charges and espionage for Iran.

Fatima Rzayeva, the wife of Seyran Rzayev, who is currently in prison, says that it is excruciating that people are drugged and presented in the media as spies:

“Let them answer us for that. What kind of business is this?”

“There may be a problem between the two countries, it may even reach the level of war, but how absurd it is to take your anger out on your ordinary citizens,” says Tahmina Gurbanova, the wife of arrested Afig Gurbanov.

According to Zahra Suleymanova, Ruhulla Novruzzade’s sister, none of the arrested individuals are charged with spying for Iran, but with drugs. But when they ask questions in the investigation, they only ask about Iran:

 ” This shows that drugs are an excuse. They put this article just to imprison for a long time. Iran’s roads are closed. How can these people bring drugs from Iran? “

Exact information about the number and identity of arrested believers is not disclosed to the public by official institutions.

A timeline of events

The mass arrest of religious believers in Azerbaijan began in January, after the armed attack on the Azerbaijani embassy in Iran. At that time, the Ministry of Internal Affairs announced that more than 45 “Iranian spies” were detained, but no detailed information was given about the details of this operation. From the words of relatives and lawyers of the detainees, it became clear that they were arrested on drug charges.

This year, on February 1, the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MIA) announced that police officers conducted a particular operation. The information said that as a result of the measures, 39 people who carried out acts of sabotage and disruption under the “veil of religion” were identified and detained in Azerbaijan. However, the public was not informed about the identity of the detained persons and the charges against them.

Sabuhi Salimov, a member of the Azerbaijan Islamic Party, died in prison on March 3. In November 2022, by the decision of the Baku Court of Serious Crimes, he was found guilty under Article 274 (treason) of the Criminal Code and sentenced to 17 years in prison. However, Salimov denied these accusations. Most of the people who came to his funeral were either arrested or involved in further investigations.

On March 12, the State Security Service, the Ministry of Internal Affairs, and the General Prosecutor’s Office announced the first operation against people of the Islamic faith. The public was informed that 32 people were detained that day.

Although they were reportedly charged with various charges ranging from espionage to drug trafficking, the details are still unknown.

It was reported that on March 28, Fazil Mustafa, a deputy of the Milli Majlis, the chairman of the Grand Establishment Party, was shot in front of his house.

A day before the incident, the Ministry of Internal Affairs reported the arrest of persons who cooperated with foreign special services and tracked state officials in Azerbaijan based on an assignment, obtained information about working hours and state registration plates of official vehicles, and carried out their pursuit.

After the incident, it was reported in the media that 4 people who were found guilty of shooting Fazil Mustafa were arrested. There are still drug charges among those detained.

According to information as of the beginning of April, the number of religious believers arrested from Baku and regions has reached about 400 people.

The Muslim Union Movement (MUM) claims that 27 members of the organization were arrested in the last 3 months. All those arrested were also charged with drugs. Former Nardaran prisoners are among those arrested. 


On April 16, the National Council of Democratic Forces issued a statement saying that it is worried about the mass arrest of religious citizens in Azerbaijan and in some cases the torture of the arrested persons, at the same time as the tension between Azerbaijan and Iran. The National Council called on the authorities not to mass arrest the innocent people of the country in search of Iranian spies.

The Muslim Union Movement believes that the discrediting of faith in the country and the presentation of Shiism as a dangerous trend are hidden behind this case.

The statement of the movement noted that as the arrests expanded, the agenda, which included illogical accusations such as “spy” and “drug user”, after a while, was made clear that “this game was a hoax with the arrest of hundreds of believers”.   

The movement called on the authorities to stop the continuous arrests.

There were also reactions from the international world. The US State Department issued a report on May 15 and emphasized that Azerbaijan is among the countries that grossly violate religious freedom.

It was noted that the government’s control over all religious activities in Azerbaijan had been strengthened.

A first in prison

Journalist Arzu Abdullah, the wife of the arrested believer Bakhtiyar Babashov, told Meydan TV that the massive arrest of Shia believers on drug charges is a first, and the persecution of religious people on drug charges began at the end of 2022.

“The arrests started with the activists of the Muslim Union Movement (MUM). MBH members Samir Babayev, Nijat Aliyev, and Mirtofig Huseynov, whose case is currently being heard at the Baku Court of Serious Crimes, have been accused of drug charges. Arrests continue today. “Last week, more than 20 religious people were detained in the territory of the country.”

Abdullah states that people of faith are arrested in all regions of the country, and court proceedings are held without notifying the relatives of the arrested persons:

” When relatives find the detained person, it becomes clear that he has already been charged, the court has set a 4-month investigation period for him.”

The journalist noted that people accused of drug use are presented to the public as “traitors”, “Iranian spies”, and “founders of the Karima state”.

“My husband Bakhtiyar Babashov never had a foreign passport. He never went to Iran. It was stolen on March 9, 2023. Together with his lawyer Zibeyda Sadygova, we questioned him from all relevant institutions. But it was not found. We applied to the Ministry of Internal Affairs, they said that they have no information about this. On March 11, his lawyer found him at the Narimanov District Court. It turned out that on March 9, he was taken from the place where he was standing under the overpass in the Nasimi district and taken to the Narimanov police station. Bakhtiyar Babashov was detained because of his faith. 33 people detained in the first decade of March were presented in the state media as a special group. Allegedly, they brought narcotics from Iran to Azerbaijan and sold them to establish a Karim state in Azerbaijan. It is a ridiculous claim.”

According to Arzu Abdulla, the issue regarding Iran is very disturbing:

” What opportunities does an ordinary citizen have, what state secrets might he have to spy on Iran or collude and attempt a coup d’état in Azerbaijan?” It is very abominable to use one’s citizen as a tool for problems with another country, to malign one’s citizen, to steal, to present to the world as a drug courier, drug lord, spy, traitor, but this situation has become a bitter reality in Azerbaijan for years.”

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