A raid on a Shia religious ceremony in Azerbaijan has left at least four people dead as Baku launches a fresh wave of crackdown on the country’s majority Shia population.
The Interior Ministry said in a statement on Thursday that the country's security forces had killed four members of the Movement for Muslim Unity (MMU) during a raid earlier in the day north of the capital Baku.
Reports by independent Azeri media said that the attack came as Shias gathered for a religious ceremony in the village of Nardaran to mark Araba'een, the 40th day after the death of Imam Hussein (PBUH) and his followers in a battle of Karbala. Arab'een falls on December 2 this year.
The reports said violence erupted when security forces attempted to arrest Tale' Bagirzade, the leader of the MMU, who was delivering a speech on the occasion. At least four people were killed as police used live fire. Witnesses also said Wahhabi Takfiri elements killed two police officers at the scene.
This is while the government claims police forces were attacked with a grenade and automatic fire. It said the operation was launched to liquidate the “unregistered” group operating in Nardaran.
“As a result, four group members were liquidated and several more injured. Two policemen died in the clash,” said the statement, adding that 14 people were nabbed in the raid, including Bagirzade, who is also known as Sheikh Bagirov. Opposition sources said 16 people were arrested in the raid.
The arrest of Bagirov came months after he and a number of respected Shia clerics in Azerbaijan met Iranian senior cleric Ayatollah Nouri Hamedani in Azerbaijan. State media aired images at the time showing Bagirov welcoming the Ayatollah, a source of emulation for Shias around the world, accusing the leader of MMU of working for foreign states and seeking to overthrow the government of strongman President Ilham Aliyev.
Bagirov was released from prison in July; however, he has been summoned by security officials on several occasions. People say he has been subject to torture and physical abuse during his detention.
The MMU enjoys a large public support as attested by the participation of thousands in a protest called by the movement near Baku against the detention of another leader Elchin Gasymov earlier this month. Police briefly arrested some members of the group.
Azerbaijn is a majority Shia state of more than nine million people, with Shias accounting for 85 percent of the population. The secular government of Aliyev suppressed a Shia-dominated popular uprising in 2010 amid international outcry over his heavy-handed crackdown.