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Home » Concerns About Victor’s Justice As Nagorno-Karabakh’s Leaders Are Behind Bars And Facing Trial In Azerbaijan

Concerns About Victor’s Justice As Nagorno-Karabakh’s Leaders Are Behind Bars And Facing Trial In Azerbaijan

by Ceyxun Aghanazarov
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Up to the end, Ruben Vardanian remained defiant: Nagorno-Karabakh could not be part of Azerbaijan.

“The only way we can keep the Armenian state is if Artsakh remains Armenian,” he told RFE/RL on September 19, using an alternative Armenian name for the territory. The interview took place as Azerbaijan was launching a blitz offensive to retake the territory, which Armenian forces had controlled for the past three decades. “If we lose Artsakh, we lose Armenia,” Vardanian said.

Just hours later, Karabakh was in fact lost: the territory’s de facto leadership surrendered the next morning. And barely a week later, Vardanian was in handcuffs, being filmed as masked Azerbaijani security officers led him into a Baku jail cell, his head forcibly bowed.

Vardanian is one of several current and former senior officials from the self-proclaimed Nagorno-Karabakh Republic who now find themselves behind bars, facing wide-ranging charges for their leading roles in what, under Azerbaijani law, amounted to the creation and sustenance of an illegal armed formation on Azerbaijani territory. The charges mostly refer to “terrorism” — either financing, organizing, or carrying it out — and the acquisition and movement of firearms.

In addition to Vardanian, at least seven other top political and military officials have been arrested. They include former de facto presidents Arkady Ghukasian, Baho Sahakian, and Arayik Hartyunian.

For many Azerbaijanis, it is long-awaited justice.

Kerim Kerimli was forced to leave his home in the Nagorno-Karabakh town of Susa (Shushi in Armenian), when Armenian forces took control of the area in the first war between the two sides in the 1990s. He later formed an association advocating for the rights of the more than 600,000 Azerbaijanis displaced in that conflict.

Following the arrests of the officials, Kerimli wrote a Facebook post recalling a visit back to Karabakh in 1998 in which he met Ghukasian, who was de facto leader at the time. “The day will come, we will have you put behind bars in Baku and judge you,” he recalled telling Ghukasian. “He laughed at me. It’s true, it took a bit of a long time, 25 years and a month, but what I said happened in the end,” wrote Kerimli. “Who is laughing now?”

Many Armenians see it differently.

“They are being prosecuted simply for protecting their own people and fighting for self-determination,” wrote Artak Beglarian, a former human rights ombudsman in the de facto government, on Twitter. “All of them are now political prisoners in the hands of one of the world’s top dictators,” a reference to Azerbaijan’s authoritarian leader, President Ilham Aliyev.

Baku and Yerevan were locked in a conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh for decades. Armenian-backed separatists seized the mainly ethnic-Armenian-populated region from Azerbaijan during a war in the early 1990s that killed some 30,000 people. Diplomatic efforts to settle the conflict brought little progress and the two sides fought another war in 2020 that lasted six weeks before a Russian-brokered cease-fire, resulting in Armenia losing control over parts of the region and seven adjacent districts.

With its September lightning offensive, Azerbaijan effectively regained control of the rest of Nagorno-Karabakh. More than 100,000 ethnic Armenians, virtually the entire population, have fled to Armenia.

It was among that exodus that Vardanian, a Russian-Armenian billionaire who moved to Karabakh only last year and had a short stint as state minister, was arrested on September 27 at an Azerbaijani checkpoint on the Armenian border. After being ferried to Baku, he met with Azerbaijan’s human rights ombudswoman, who reported that the defendant was able to phone his family and “expressed satisfaction with the conditions of detention.” (A spokesperson for Vardanian conveyed a request from RFE/RL to speak to his family; they did not respond.)

Azerbaijan’s State Security Service, its main domestic intelligence agency, released a slickly produced video about Vardanian’s arrest, with a narrator detailing the charges he faces, against a backdrop of before-and-after images of him. In the first images, there are clips of him proudly giving interviews to the global media in Karabakh; then, being forced into a jail cell by heavily armed officers, with a grave, uncertain expression on his face.

Harutyunian, who was de facto leader during the 2020 war, was the subject of a similarly formatted video that highlighted his wartime leadership, when he visited frontline military positions dressed in combat fatigues. It also depicted scenes from the aftermath of a rocket attack on Ganja, an Azerbaijani city well outside the conflict zone; Harutyunian publicly announced he had ordered the attacks. Armenian strikes there, and in other cities in Azerbaijan, resulted in the deaths of 40 civilians. In his video, Harutyunian is unshaven and disheveled as he is led into a cell. The last image is of a key turning in a lock.

After every war, there is always a conflict between the needs for accountability for crimes that occurred in the past and for stability and forging a new future on the other, said Laurence Broers, an associate fellow at the London-based Chatham House’s Russia and Eurasia Program. But the indications so far about the Azerbaijani prosecutions indicate that “this is much more about the regime legitimacy and putting the whole [Nagorno-Karabakh Republic] project on trial,” he told RFE/RL. “The videos that have been released, the way they’re being paraded, it’s very much about public humiliation.”

Selective Justice

Shortly after the 2020 war, Azerbaijan’s Prosecutor-General’s Office made the unprecedented step of opening investigations into Azerbaijani soldiers, who were accused of committing war crimes, including executing civilians. But the cases quickly disappeared from public view.

The soldiers in those cases were ultimately convicted but were given probation rather than prison sentences, said Rasul Jafarov, a lawyer and the chairman of the NGO Baku Human Rights Club, who monitored the cases. But the convictions were never made public; Jafarov told RFE/RL he was informed about the outcomes by a military prosecutor. (Azerbaijan’s Prosecutor-General’s Office did not respond to requests for comment.)

“If only Armenians are tried for war crimes in 2020, it starts to look like victor’s justice,” Broers said. “There might be due punishment for crimes committed, but as a wider implementation of justice it loses legitimacy if one who ordered missile strikes on a city languishes in jail and one who severed civilian heads walks free.”

It’s not clear what punishments await the defendants. But all signs point to virtually inevitable convictions.

President Aliyev has for years referred to the ethnic Armenian leaders in Karabakh as an “illegal criminal junta,” and in the Azerbaijani justice system, “judges [are] not functionally independent of the executive branch,” the U.S. State Department wrote in its most recent human rights report on the country. “Credible reports indicated that judges and prosecutors took instructions from the presidential administration and the Justice Ministry, particularly in politically sensitive cases.”

Jafarov, however, says that in this case political interference may be moot

“There will be control, there will be, let’s say, eyes watching these hearings, not just from the government but from people around the country. Any outcome is going to be watched,” Jafarov said. But there is already a preponderance of evidence supporting the prosecutions, and “if there is enough evidence and if this evidence corresponds to the charges brought against these people, there will be no questions to raise” about the politicization of the trial, he said.

Foreign Influence

Armenia’s government has attempted to intervene in the prosecutions; all of the defendants are Armenian citizens. The Foreign Ministry called the arrests “arbitrary” and vowed that it would “take all possible steps to protect the rights of the unlawfully arrested Nagorno-Karabakh representatives in international bodies, including judicial bodies.” Armenia has already appealed to the UN’s Hague-based International Court of Justice to adopt provisional measures demanding that Azerbaijan refrain from “punitive actions against current or former Nagorno-Karabakh leaders or military personnel.”

Since the 2020 war, the Armenian government’s relationship with the de facto authorities in Karabakh had grown increasingly distant. According to most experts, Yerevan’s focus now is on shoring up the viability of its own state and trying to minimize further threats from an Azerbaijan seeking to eradicate the last of Yerevan’s levers in Karabakh. Following the Armenian Foreign Ministry’s statement on the arrests, Azerbaijan’s own Foreign Ministry shot back saying that the intervention “clearly displays Armenia’s failure to abandon the aggressive policy and actions it took against Azerbaijan for decades” and “hinder[ed] peace efforts.”

Nevertheless, the Armenian government still has a variety of reasons to stand up for the former Karabakh leaders, said Mikayel Zolian, a Yerevan-based political analyst.

For one, the former officials are Armenian citizens who are widely seen as “hostages or prisoners of war who deserve the protection of the Armenian state,” he told RFE/RL. The current leadership in Yerevan is also seeking to not appear to be “selling out the Karabakhis, which would bolster the arguments to the opposition and to Russian propaganda.” Yerevan also sees the prosecutions as a means of highlighting “the nondemocratic nature of the Azerbaijani regime and to mobilize additional international support,” Zolian said.

Some Armenians argued that, had it wanted to, Russia could have protected the Karabakh leaders. Russia is Armenia’s longtime security guarantor and has had 2,000 peacekeepers stationed in Karabakh since the 2020 war. The leadership in Karabakh maintained its orientation toward Moscow even as the Armenian government grew increasingly estranged from its Russian partners.

Nevertheless, “the ‘ally’ turned in the leaders of Artsakh/Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijan, although it is obvious that the Russian peacekeepers could have evacuated them by helicopter,” wrote Leonid Nersisian, an Armenian military analyst, on Twitter. “These people were allies of Russia for many years. A very eye-opening tragedy.”

Billionaire Vardanian has been the particular source of speculation; he is a former ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin and gave up his Russian citizenship only last year when he moved to Karabakh. But when Putin was asked about Vardanian’s fate in an October 5 forum, he said Russia expects Azerbaijan to treat the former Karabakh leaders humanely.

As for Vardanian: “He renounced our citizenship,” Putin said.

Source : RFERL

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