Axe-Murderer Pardon Hardens Azeri, Armenian Attitudes
Hungary’s decision to repatriate an Azerbaijani officer convicted of murdering an Armenian studying on the same course abroad has caused outrage in Armenia, worried foreign diplomats and baffled analysts.
In 2004, Ramil Safarov killed Armenian officer Gurgen Margaryan with an axe at a NATO school in Hungary where they were both studying English.
Convicted by a Hungarian court, Safarov was sentenced to life in 2006. On August 31, however, he was sent back to Azerbaijan on the understanding, Hungarian officials said, that he would serve out his sentence there.
Instead, Safarov received a pardon from Azerbaijan’s president Ilham Aliyev when he arrived in Baku. On arrival, he was welcomed by Defence Minister Safar Abiyev, promoted to the rank of major, awarded a new flat and given 45,000 manats – about 57,000 US dollars – in army back pay for the eight years he spent in prison.
In Armenia, an enraged President Serzh Sargsyan immediately suspended diplomatic ties with Hungary, accusing the country of betraying justice in exchange for a loan from Azerbaijan.
Russia, France and the United States, the three countries that act as the OSCE’s Minsk Group intermediaries in the long-running Armenian-Azerbaijan stand-off over Nagorny Karabakh, expressed disquiet at the decision, saying it could endanger the already fragile peace in the region.
“We are expressing our deep concern to Azerbaijan regarding this action and seeking an explanation. We are also seeking further details from Hungary regarding the decision to transfer Mr. Safarov to Azerbaijan,” US State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said. “We condemn any action that fuels regional tensions.”
His comments were echoed closely in Russia, which expressed “deep concern”. Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said, “We believe that these actions by Azerbaijan, as well as those of the Hungarian authorities, run counter to efforts agreed to at international level… to reduce tension in the region.”
President Aliyev offered only a brief explanation of the pardon, saying merely that it was in line with national legislation.
Azerbaijani defence ministry spokesman Eldar Sabiroglu went further in a statement referring to Safarov’s release as a “victory for justice and Azerbaijani diplomacy”. Sabirov accused the “enemy” – Armenia – of responding with “hysterics”.
Most Azerbajanis appeared delighted by their government’s decision. When Safarov’s return was announced, crowds of young people gathered to celebrate in parks and streets in the centre of Baku.
In the Akhundov garden, near the city mayor’s office, a dozen young men waving flags and holding pictures of Safarov chanted anti-Armenian slogans while police looked on.
“I think it’s absolutely right that Ramil was freed,” said Iskander Atazade, one of the students out celebrating. “I don’t consider him a hero, but he repaid a small part of a very big debt.”
In Armenia, the reaction was one of fury.
A small group of protesters gathered outside the Hungarian embassy, hurling tomatoes and shouting abuse.
Protesters suggested that Safarov had been prompted to carry out the killing by the “massive anti-Armenian propaganda spread by the authorities” as the Karabakh dispute unfolded.
“By issuing a pardon this, the Azerbaijani state is officially admitting that it does not regard the murder of Armenians as a crime,” Gagik Baghdasaryan, a history teacher in Yerevan, said.
Widespread criticism of Armenia’s foreign ministry for failing to block Safarov’s repatriation was cut short when President Sargsyan announced that ties with Budapest were being cut.
“With this decision, they [Hungary and Azerbaijan] have sent a message to murderers that murder committed for religious or ethnic reasons can go unpunished,” he said. “I cannot tolerate this. The Republic of Armenia cannot tolerate it. The Armenian people will not forgive it.”
Richard Giragosian, head of the Centre of Regional Studies in Yerevan, said the real danger coming out of the Safarov case was that it risked reigniting conflict.
“The likelihood of a resumption of war has increased. You have to understand that Azerbaijan has become unpredictable – you have to expect anything from a country that can forgive murder,” he said.
In Azerbaijan, Hikmet Hajizade, a former ambassador to Russia who now heads the Far Monitoring think-tank, said any change in the dynamics had to be an improvement.
“The talks process is at a dead-end and all these meetings of presidents, the Minsk Group and so on are no more than a pretence,” he said. “The Safarov case might at least give an electric shock to the process and bring this half-dead body out of a coma. In any case, nothing could be worse than what we have now.”
Azerbaijanis who follow the foreign media were concerned that granting Safarov a pardon had badly damaged their country’s reputation.
“This is what happens when the public isn’t allowed to do anything. They are angry,” said Khadija Ismailova, a journalist with Radio Liberty. “I think Safarov did something terrible. He created lots of problems for Azerbaijan. But people who are victims of occupation think he is a hero because he did something. He acted wrongly, but he did act. “
Tom de Waal, a veteran observer of the South Caucasus now at the Carnegie Endowment in Washington, was baffled as to what might have prompted Aliyev to take what he called a “deeply provocative” step.
“It is a worrying indication of the quality of advice that President Ilham Aliyev is receiving from his inner circle,” he wrote in a comment piece for the BBC. “Over the past few years, the government in Baku has spent tens of millions of dollars of its new oil revenues promoting the image of Azerbaijan as a new, modernising, dynamic country. The effect has been quite successful, with results ranging from Azerbaijan joining the UN Security Council to Baku hosting feel-good events such as the Eurovision Song Contest.
“All that PR work now has to contend with a contrary image of the government welcoming home an axe-murderer.”
As for Hungary, officials insisted they had received firm promises from Azerbaijan that Safarov would see out his term. Armenians, however, pointed to news reports a week before his release that Budapest – hard hit by financial crisis in Europe – was looking to borrow money from Azerbaijan.
Responding to rumours that it had investments in Hungary, the State Oil Fund of Azerbaijan issued a statement denying that it held securities or other financial instruments in that country.
Shahin Rzayev is IWPR’s Azerbaijan country director. Naira Melkumyan is a freelance journalist in Armenia.