With the release of 32 Armenian prisoners of war at the end of last year, the issue has not been resolved and Armenian prisoners continue to be held in Azerbaijani prisons. It has already been officially announced that there are 23 of them, 17 of whom are captured as a result of the 2023 aggression: citizens, servicemen, and 8 are Artsakh officials.


At the same time, human rights activists warn that there are factual data regarding the forced disappearance of 32 people after the 44-Day War in 2020, about which Azerbaijan is silent.


“Besides the issue of POWs, we have the issue of forced disappearances and missing persons, which is unresolved. The fate of hundreds of Armenians has not yet been properly investigated and the families’ right to know the truth has not been realized. It causes suffering to those people and creates additional uncertainty,” said Siranuysh Sahakyan, president of the Center for International and Comparative Law, to Forrights.am. She has filed a complaint with the European Court of Human Rights regarding the issue of numerous Armenian prisoners.


“Besides the issue of POWs, we have the issue of forced disappearances and missing persons, which is considered unresolved. The fate of hundreds of Armenians has not yet been properly investigated and the families’ right to know the truth has not been fulfilled. It causes suffering to those people and creates additional uncertainty,” says Siranuysh Sahakyan, president of the Center for International and Comparative Law, to Forrights.am, who filed a complaint with the European Court of Human Rights regarding the issue of many Armenian prisoners.


Chronology of repatriation


After the 44-Day War of 2020, the last major repatriation took place on December 13, 2023. Before that, on December 7, the staff of the Prime Minister of the Republic of Armenia and the administration of the President of the Republic of Azerbaijan issued a joint statement, in which it was said that the Republic of Azerbaijan releases 32 Armenian servicemen and Armenia, in turn, releases 2 convicted Azerbaijani servicemen.


The exchange took place on December 13 at the Kazakh-Ijevan border, after Azerbaijan received the de facto right to host the UN Climate Change Conference scheduled for November 2024 in its country. In return for the sending back the prisoners, Azerbaijan demanded from the RA authorities to abandon the request to organize the forum in Armenia. The Armenian side also met that political demand of Azerbaijan.


When there was uncertainty in Armenia as to which prisoners of war would be returned, the Azerbaijani media clarified that the persons to be returned to Armenia are those “arrested during anti-terrorist measures carried out in the direction of Hadrut in December 2020”, the remaining 6 were arrested at the border at different times and have already served most of their sentences. To remind, we are talking about the reservists protecting the Hin Tagher and Khtsaberd villages of Hadrut, who were mostly from Shirak. About a month after the announcement of November 9, 2020, it was reported that the Azerbaijani forces took control of the last two remaining Armenian villages in the Hadrut region, Hin Tagher and Khtsaberd, capturing 64 reservists. Some of them were returned by Baku at different times, and 26 are still held in Azerbaijani prisons, having been sentenced to up to six years in prison on various charges.


Reservist Gagik Voskanyan was also among the returned prisoners of war in December, who only participated in training sessions at the Jermuk, Armenia positions. The Ministry of Defense of Armenia announced that the reservist was not oriented in the area and got lost, but later Azerbaijan presented the same reservist as “a member of the Armenian subversive intelligence group that tried to penetrate into the Azerbaijani territory” and sentenced him to 18 years in prison in a trial lasting several months. Azerbaijan accused the Yerevan serviceman of illegally crossing the border and carrying out terrorism, although Gagik Voskanyan did not accept any accusation.


“I am a peasant, not a terrorist:” Armenians before the Azerbaijani court


Vagif Khachatryan, 68, from Artsakh, who was arrested by the Azerbaijanis at the Azerbaijani checkpoint on the Hakari bridge, in the presence of his daughter, when he was moving to Armenia to solve his health problems, did not accept the accusation until the end. The Azerbaijani law enforcement system accused Vagif Khachatryan of “genocide”, in particular, it was stated in the accusation that “in 1991, during an armed attack on the village of Meshali, 25 Azerbaijanis were killed, 14 people were injured in various degrees, and 358 Azerbaijanis were deported from their places of legal residence.” Then it was stated: “A decision was made to involve Vagif Khachatryan as an accused under articles 103 (genocide) and 107 (displacement or forced resettlement of the population) of the Criminal Code of Azerbaijan.”


Vagif Khachatryan was sentenced to 15 years in prison by the verdict made after months of trial. The Artsakh resident appealed the verdict to the Court of Appeal, but the sentence remained unchanged. Nevertheless, until the end, Vagif Khachatryan insisted that he was not guilty and that he was not present during the mentioned events. “I am an innocent person, I did not participate there, I was not there. I am not a terrorist; I am a peasant. I was arrested not as a terrorist; I was arrested as a resident of Badara: I was from the village of Badara.


Vagif Khachatryan’s daughter, Veronika Khachatryan, insists that her father is not guilty, the accusation has nothing to do with him and her father did not participate in the events of Meshali village at all. “My father is not guilty. We can say it as many times as necessary: he is not guilty. Undoubtedly, he is an innocent person,” Veronika Khachatryan tells Forrights.am.

Siranush Sahakyan says that it is a formality that the case of Vagif Khachatryan has reached the Court of Appeal, because in this way Azerbaijan is trying to show that domestic courts apply the internationally required mechanisms in the protection of human rights.


“In international structures, we repeatedly raise the fact that there are serious problems with legal aid in that country. We call these processes imitative. The outcomes of court cases are predetermined from the beginning and they are predetermined in the president’s staff,” Sahakyan emphasizes.


A few days after the arrest of Vagif Khachatryan, on August 1, 62-year-old Rashid Beglaryan, who appeared in Aghavno village as a result of getting lost in the area, was arrested by the Azerbaijanis. The Azerbaijani side accused the elderly Artsakh citizen of participating in the so-called “Khojalu pogroms” and Beglaryan himself allegedly admitted this during the interrogation. According to the State Border Guard Service of Azerbaijan, Rashid Beglaryan, while testifying, showed in detail the places on the spot where criminal actions were allegedly committed against the civilian population. Beglaryan was displaced from the city of Shushi as a result of the 2020 war; before his arrest, he was in Hin Shen village of Shushi region.


71-year-old Madat Babayan, a resident of the Getavan village of Artsakh, appeared in Baku during the events of September 2023, when the Azerbaijani armed forces attacked Artsakh. After the panic in the village on the day of the Azerbaijani attack, Babayan, who was left alone and without a telephone, was considered missing until a phone call came from Baku. He called and informed the family that he was in Baku, in captivity. The family received the call on October 9. Babayan is also represented by the Azerbaijani law enforcement officers as a terrorist and accused of “participating in the events of Khojalu, committing atrocities”.

The military and political leadership of Artsakh


Except ordinary Artsakh citizens, the military and political leadership of Artsakh, high-ranking officials, including former Artsakh presidents Arkady Ghukasyan, Bako Sahakyan, Arayik Harutyunyan, National Assembly Speaker Davit Ishkhanyan, generals Levon Mnatsakanyan and Davit Manukyan, former Minister of State Ruben Vardanyan, former Foreign Minister Davit Babayan also are in captivity.


Baku accuses Ruben Vardanyan under various articles, including for “financing terrorism”; Davit Manukyan — for committing a terrorist act in Karabakh; Levon Mnatsakanyan, the commander of the Artsakh Defense Army in 2015-2018 — for “joining an illegal group and for capturing and torturing a group of Azerbaijanis in the village of Alkhanli in 2002.


Three former presidents of Artsakh and the Speaker of the National Assembly have been charged with particularly serious occusations: terrorism under 7 articles of the Criminal Code of Azerbaijan. Specifically, they are accused of “engaging in the formation and activities of illegal armed groups”, “arming these groups, supplying military equipment, including explosives, military hardware, ammunition”, “financing terrorism” and other charges related to terrorist activities.


Siranush Sahakyan says that the legal process regarding the protection of the rights of high-ranking officials of Artsakh is being carried out in the European Court of Human Rights within the framework of the 4th complaint of Armenia against Azerbaijan.


“It will take years before legal processes lead to making binding decisions. They are a serious counterbalance and are combined with political processes,” Sahakyan notes.


The lawyer is well aware of Azerbaijan’s way of working: the staged trials will continue, especially since the presidential elections of Azerbaijan are ahead. “Without these trials and their political benefits, Azerbaijan will not release the officials for the time being,” predicts Sahakyan.


The Prosecutor General of Azerbaijan announced on January 26 that the trial of the former presidents of Artsakh will take place in Azerbaijan. “Separatists will be sentenced in Azerbaijani courts,” said Kemran Aliyev.


Before the trial, Azeri news channels regularly publish photos of Artsakh officials from the prison cell, and Azerbaijani users on social networks mock and make fun on them.


“Political concession against prisoners is a crime, a violation of international law”


According to political analyst Andrias Ghukasyan, the return of Armenian prisoners held in Azerbaijan is not a priority for the current authorities. “They consider that if the Russian Federation decided to hand over these people to Azerbaijan, then they have no responsibility or interest in that matter,” Andrias Ghukasyan told Forrights.am, stressing that most of the captives are Pashinyan’s political opponents, therefore he has no interest in returning them.


In the current political situation, the role of the EU and the USA in the repatriation of Armenian prisoners in Azerbaijan is great. “The only way is pressure on Azerbaijan by the EU and the USA. Russia does not put pressure on Azerbaijan in that matter. Moreover, it can be said that these people ended up in the prisons of Azerbaijan with its permission.”


The political scientist excludes the possibility of repatriation of prisoners in exchange for political concession. “From the point of view of the constitutional regulations of Armenia, the repatriation of prisoners in exchange for political concessions is impossible. Territorial change in Armenia is possible only through a referendum. Even theoretically, there can be no question of returning captives to Armenian territories. The international community has a negative position regarding such blackmail. “Such agreements exclude international relations,” Ghukasyan emphasizes. According to the political analyst, Azerbaijan is holding hostages in the form of Armenian prisoners, and if it makes a political demand to Armenia in return, it is a crime, a gross violation of international law. In that case, according to him, the Republic of Armenia can raise this issue in international courts.


Ghukasyan says that an opportune moment has been created for Azerbaijan and that country is holding Armenian officials as hostages extracting testimonies from them. In particular, they extracted testimonies from Arkady Ghukasyan against Serzh Sargsyan, from Robert Kocharyan, Bako Sahakyan against Serzh Sargsyan, from Ruben Vardanyan against international structures and figures, from Levon Mnatsakanyan against former military leaders, and they will try to obtain testimony from Arayik Harutyunyan against Nikol Pashinyan for hitting the so-called civilian population in Ganja.


“They are extracting testimonies from those persons to “substantiate” that Armenia allegedly occupied the territory of Azerbaijan, as if Artsakh was an artificial structure created by Yerevan, and during that entire period Armenia was a gross violator of international law,” Ghukasyan presents.

Hasmik Hambardzumyan

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