More than a hundred Azerbaijani villagers were arrested in the village of Bananyar in the Nakhchivan enclave on January 5, 2010. Initially, several arrests reportedly took place the day after the Day of Ashura, on which Shia Muslims mourn the death of Muhammad’s grandson, in late December 2009. Thesedetentions were allegedly a reaction to the villagers’ performance of ritual mourning practices on Ashura. Those detained were subjected to interrogations and physical abuse by local security forces. Their detention inspired strong protests from family members, including one young man who set himself on fire in an attempt to free his relatives.

After the initial arrest of several Ashura participants, security forces returned during the night of January 5 and violently arrested others thought to be responsible for organizing the ceremony. The prisoners were taken to the Interior Ministry headquarters and a pretrial detention center to be questioned. Almost all the prisoners were released within a week of the arrests; a few, however, were held in mental institutions and jails within the Nakhchivan enclave.

Initially, the Nakhchivan Interior Minister denied the allegations of arrests, but later admitted that arrests had been made. The Minister blamed the opposition, the Popular Front Party, and a mentally ill villager for the trouble. Nakhchivan officials claimed that the young man who set himself on fire was mentally ill and was provoked by villagers, led by the leader of the Popular Front Party, to threaten suicide if closed kiosks were not reopened. Meanwhile, the head of the pretrial detention center denied that any villagers were held at his facility.

Less than one week after the clashes between security forces and villagers led to these arrests, Norwegian and U.S. Embassy officials were not allowed into the Bananyar village on a  fact-finding trip. The trip was halted by a group of neighboring villagers, allegedly organized by Nakhchivan enclave authorities to deter the officials’ progress. Azerbaijani human rights groups also requested official permission to enter the area, but did not receive a response from Nakhchivan authorities. Officials from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) were able to meet with activists in Baku, however, to evaluate the situation.

The United States joined Norway on January 14 in encouraging Azerbaijani officials to investigate the events that led to the detention of Shia Muslim worshippers. The joint statement issued by the two countries also expressed objections to the access to Bananyar during their fact-finding trip. Azerbaijan has already been repeatedly accused of persecuting devout Muslims, a practice which rights groups attribute to the government’s fear of Islamic influence in the country.

According to Human Rights Watch, new laws instated in the last year in Azerbaijan are furthering restrictions on freedom of conscience and religion. These laws include a requirement that each religious organization register with the government and conduct its activities solely at its legal address. In addition, organizations need express permission from a government agency, the State Committee for Work with Religious Organizations, to publish literature, and the organizations can only be headed by Azerbaijani citizens educated in the country. These restrictions violate the norms of freedom of religion and conscience practiced by other states in the OSCE and the Council of Europe; Azerbaijan is a Member State of both. Azerbaijan has come under increasing scrutiny for restricting multiple basic freedoms; hopefully the events in the Nakhchivan enclave are not a harbinger of more abuses to come.