YEREVAN, Armenia, Jan 25 (IPS) – On July 29, 2023, Vagif Khachatryan, a 68-year-old Armenian retiree, woke up early in Nagorno Karabakh —a self-proclaimed republic in the Caucasus region—to travel to Armenia. He needed to undergo delicate heart surgery.
Despite the pressing medical emergency, it was not an easy decision. The only road that connected Nagorno Karabakh with Armenia and the rest of the world had been cut off for seven months by the Azerbaijani army. Even if he was travelling in an International Committee of the Red Cross car, Khachatryan knew he could face trouble.
He was arrested that day by the Azerbaijani border guard service. Four months later, a military court in Baku handed him a 15-year sentence for crimes allegedly committed during a war fought more than 30 years ago.
Vagif Khachatryan is yet another victim of a conflict that has its roots in the Soviet Union. After the collapse of the USSR in 1991, Armenians remained the majority in Nagorno-Karabakh, but the enclave was officially on the territory of the newborn Republic of Azerbaijan.
A war was already unravelling in Karabakh. The Armenian victory also led to the forcible displacement of hundreds of thousands of Azerbaijanis. In September 2020, the latter launched an offensive through which they took over two-thirds of the territory under Armenian control.
But there were still more than 100,000 Armenians left.
In December 2022, Baku blocked the only road connecting Artsakh with Armenia and the rest of the world, depriving its inhabitants of the most basic supplies including food and medicines. It was that lack of medical assistance that pushed Vagif Khachatryan to his fate seven months later.
With Khachatryan already in prison, the blockade on Nagorno Karabakh was lifted in September 2023 in the wake of a new Azeri attack. The road was opened so that the Armenians remaining in the enclave fled en masse to Armenia.
Senior international bodies like the European Union Parliament accused Azerbaijan of carrying out “ethnic cleansing” against the Armenian residents of Nagorno-Karabakh. Today, Karabakhis are restarting from scratch in Armenia, the Khachatryans among those.
“The fact that my father has a heart disease gives me hope that he will not be tortured in Azerbaijani custody,” Vera Khachatryan told IPS by telephone from Jermuk, 170 kilometres southeast of Yerevan.
Her father’s arrest, she said, has also had an impact on her mother. “She suffers from new health and psychological problems which only add to those derived from forced displacement,” explained the displaced woman.
On September 28, Karabaj authorities issued a decree dissolving the self-proclaimed Nagorno Karabakh Republic as of January 1, 2024.
On December 13, 2023, a prisoner exchange took place: Azerbaijan released 32 Armenian soldiers in exchange for the last two Azerbaijani soldiers under Armenian custody. Armenia’s support for Azerbaijan to host the United Nations Climate Summit in Baku was also part of the deal.
Both sides described it as “a sign of goodwill.”
“Azerbaijan uses the prisoners´ issue as a political tool to put pressure on Armenia or to obtain something in return,” Siranush Sahakyan, representative of the Armenian prisoners’ interests at the European Court of Human Rights told IPS by phone.
“No repatriation conducted by Baku other than the prisoner swap was held under an amnesty or any other legal procedure,” stressed Sahakyan.
Armenia claims that more than 100 prisoners of war and civilians remain in Azerbaijan, including three former presidents of Nagorno-Karabakh, the speaker of parliament and members of the cabinet. Baku says the total number of Armenian prisoners in its custody is 23.
Other than the contradicting figures, their state also poses a major source of concern. In a March 2021 report, Human Rights Watch denounced that the Armenian prisoners of war suffered abuse in Azerbaijani custody and called on Baku to release “all remaining prisoners of war and civilians.”
Faced with Baku’s inaction, Yerevan appealed to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).
“Azerbaijan is obliged to submit a report on arbitrarily detained senior officials to the ECHR before the end of January 2024,” Hasmik Samvelyan, spokesperson for the Armenian Representation for International Legal Affairs, reminded IPS in a telephone conversation.
For the time being, the International Committee of the Red Cross is the only independent body that has access to Armenian prisoners.
“Our representatives have visited all the captives detained in Baku and checked the conditions in which they are held,” Zara Amatuni, ICRC communications officer in Armenia, told IPS by telephone.
Several of the prisoners’ relatives confirmed to IPS that they had the opportunity to speak with them. The ICRC mediates to facilitate communication by telephone every 30 to 40 days. The organisation avoided giving more details after appealing to the importance of confidentiality.
“We present our observations only to the competent authorities,” the ICRC press officer stressed to IPS.
Repatriated prisoners have also consistently refused to talk to journalists about the conditions of their imprisonment, and that´s also the Armenian state´s policy. Many see it as a way to avoid triggering a reaction from Azerbaijan that could worsen the imprisonment conditions.
Waiting for justice
During an international forum on the future of Nagorno Karabakh held on December 6 in Baku, Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev declared that the Armenian prisoners “are waiting for Azerbaijani justice to rule.”
The recent wave of repression against the media and any voice critical of the Government does not invite hope. Last December, Amnesty Internationaldenounced the arrests of at least six independent Azerbaijani journalists in just one month on “fabricated” charges.
In its latest world freedom report, the Freedom House claimed Azerbaijan is one of the 57 countries classified as “not free” out of the 159 studied. The Washington-based NGO denounced “numerous arbitrary arrests and detentions”. It also described Azerbaijan’s judiciary as “corrupt and subordinate to the executive.”
Another of those waiting for Azerbaijani justice to rule is Vicken Euljeckjian. This Lebanese who also has Armenian nationality was captured along with Maral Najarian —another Lebanese Armenian— by Azerbaijani soldiers while driving from Yerevan to Nagorno-Karabakh on November 10, 2020, a day after the Russian-brokered ceasefire was announced.
Four months after their arrest, Beirut secured Najarian´s release, but not Euljeckjian´s. The latter was sentenced to 20 years in prison in June 2021. His name, however, appeared on the list of prisoners to be swapped on December 13, 2023, but a last-minute surprise prevented it.
“After three years of separation, pain and despair, we were very excited to hear that he would finally be released. Suddenly, his name was replaced with that of another prisoner three hours before the exchange,” Vicken´s wife Linda Euljeckjian recalled to IPS by phone from Beirut.
Hoping to ease the process, Linda and her daughter travelled to Yerevan to meet with Armenian officials. But the latter could do little, so the family also approached senior Lebanese officials.
“After pressure from the local media, the Lebanese government appears to be interested in discussing the issue of my husband’s repatriation with Azerbaijani officials,” said Linda.
While she waits for the release of her husband, the issue of Armenian prisoners of war and civilians in Azerbaijan remains among those to be settled in a conflict inherited from the 20th century.
© Inter Press Service (2024) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service
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