Armenian-Azeri Dispute Shifts to European Court

Cases reflect not only individual plight of people displaced by conflict, but also political will to score points off the other side.

Armenian-Azeri Dispute Shifts to European Court

Cases reflect not only individual plight of people displaced by conflict, but also political will to score points off the other side.

The European Court of Human Rights, ECHR, has become a new front in the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia, with each side filing hundreds of individual cases claiming abuse and discrimination by the other.

Relations between the two countries remain poisoned by the status of Nagorny Karabakh, where the ethnic Armenian population has declared its own state. The entity has not been recognised as independent by any other country, and Azerbaijan continues to insist on sovereignty.

Experts say that in the absence of a settlement, both sides are keen to score political points by winning legal battles against the other.

Most appeals to the European court relate to injuries or property losses sustained in the war, which ended with a ceasefire in 1994, but a steady trickle of new complaints is keeping lawyers busy.

Two ongoing cases – “Chiragov and others versus Armenia” and “Sargsyan versus Azerbaijan” – had their initial hearings in Strasbourg on the same day last September and are almost exact mirror images of one another. In both, the plaintiffs are claiming damages under articles of the European Convention on Human Rights that enshrine rights to property, family life and justice, and outlaw discrimination.

“Sargsyan v. Azerbaijan” also includes complaints of inhuman and degrading treatment and breaches of freedom of confession, the latter with regard to the destruction of Armenian cemeteries in Azerbaijan.

The plaintiff, Minas Sargsyan, has since died, but his case is being pursued by his widow.

There are plenty more cases in the making in which Azerbaijanis and Armenians claim they have been harmed by the opposing state.

On the Azerbaijani side, many cases relate to the hundreds of thousands of people who were forced to leave their homes during the Karabakh war and are still unable to return.

Ahmed Shirinov, now 71, has submitted a claim to the ECHR concerning the loss of his property when he fled his home in Jebrail district as Armenian forces attacked in 1993.

“The Armenians destroyed my home, my farm, and all my livestock. I had built all these buildings myself, and I lost everything in a single day. That cannot go unpunished, so I’ve decided to go to the international court,” he said.

Proving ownership in court will be especially difficult because many people like Shirinov left in such a hurry that they took no personal documents with them.

Teyyub Babayev was left in the same position after leaving the Kapan region of Armenia as he felt his situation as an ethnic Azerbaijani deteriorating in 1988.

Because he was resident in Armenia itself, rather than in Karabakh or one of the adjoining districts it still controls, compensation is the most Babayev can hope for if his case is taken up by the ECHR.

“The forced migrants have the hope that sooner or later they will return to their homes – if not themselves, then their children or grandchildren. But we don’t have that hope. As refugees from Armenia, we will never be able to return to our homes,” he said.

In Armenia, there is considerable interest in the case of Arthur Badalyan, whose lawyers are to pursue a compensation claim at the ECHR, alleging the Azerbaijani authorities held him illegally for two years and subjected him to torture before releasing him this March.

Badalyan says he crossed the border from Armenia into Azerbaijan by accident, and was then detained.

“They wanted to force me to talk about the strength of the Armenian army. I refused to do so. They beat me up. They beat me on the feet so that I couldn’t stand or walk, and then they tried to force information out of me using electric shocks,” he said.

The International Committee of the Red Cross finally located him and arranged for his repatriation. His family say he returned seriously disturbed and still finds it hard to sleep.

His lawyer Edmon Marukyan insists, “Azerbaijan must pay compensation to this citizen of Armenia for the fact that it illegally held him on its territory, used torture and caused serious harm to his health.”

Officials in Azerbaijan deny that Badalyan was mistreated in detention.

“You can’t even talk about torture as a possibility. Badalyan’s statements are completely absurd,” Teymur Abdullayev, deputy head of the defence ministry’s press service, said.

If these cases are accepted for consideration by the ECHR, they will not be tried for some years since the court has a large backlog. “Chiragov and others versus Armenia”, for example, was submitted to the court in 2005 but the first hearing took place only last autumn.

In both Azerbaijan and Armenia, critics accuse the other side of putting cases to the ECHR for political ends.

Arman Melikyan, an adviser at the Refugees and International Law network in Yerevan, told IWPR that he regarded the cases brought by Azerbaijanis as a “political trend” designed to give the unresolved Karabakh dispute an airing in a new forum.

Melikyan said that if the court allowed such cases, it could open a wave of complaints from Armenians, for example those who fled Baku and other towns in Azerbaijan because of ethnic violence in the late 1980s,

“If a case brought by Baku Armenians was accepted for consideration, a question would arise about when the individual became a refugee, since it wasn’t during the period of military operations in 1989-94, but earlier on, as a result of ethnic cleansing conducted in Azerbaijan…. it would be clear that the problem wasn’t a consequence of war or aggression by the Armenians,” he said.

In Azerbaijan, similar accusations are made about Armenian cases at the ECHR.

“These appeals to the European court by individual citizens of Armenia are purely political. Many international organisations now recognise Armenia as the aggressor, and the whole world recognises that Nagorny Karabakh is part of Azerbaijan’s territory,” Malahat Hasanova, a member of parliament from the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan party, said. “Armenians are trying to justify themselves in the eyes of the world community, so they present themselves as victims of the conflict. I don’t think these cases have any substance at all.”

The authorities in the two countries are keeping a close eye on current cases – both their own and the other side’s.

Chingiz Askerov, Azerbaijan’s representative at the ECHR, said more than 600 refugees in his country had filed complaints against Armenia, and the number was growing every day.

Not all cases will end up in the courtroom, since plaintiffs must overcome legal hurdles and come up with relevant evidence.

“There are very few lawyers working in this area,” said Asabeli Mustafayev, head of the Resource Centre for Democracy and Human Rights in Azerbaijan. “In addition, a group of con-men has been selling aggrieved citizens application forms for the European Court. Documentation compiled in that manner is of dubious quality.”

Plaintiffs alleging loss will have to demonstrate not only that they owned property but also that it was deliberately taken away from them. This will be particularly hard to prove in Nagorny Karabakh itself, which Armenia says lies outside its territorial jurisdiction.

“The Republic of Armenia has no authority in the Republic of Nagorny Karabakh and cannot therefore take responsibility for any alleged violation of an individual’s rights there,” Gevorg Kostanyan, who represents the Armenian government at the ECHR, said.

Some commentators believe Armenia and Azerbaijan would do better to seek a negotiated settlement that makes provision for all refugees on both sides, instead of encouraging individual claims.

"I don't believe the ECHR is the right institution to sort out the issue of compensation and restitution for refugees in the Karabakh conflict,” Thomas de Waal, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, said.

“As we have seen in Cyprus, the court is able to rule on individual claims, but that can actually complicate things. For example, what do you about a refugee who is now living in a place that used to belong to another displaced person, for example an Armenian from Shaumyan region living in a house in Shusha that used to belong to an Azerbaijani?”

The presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan are due to meet in Russia later this month. Russia, American and French mediators would like them to finally sign up to a set of basic principles for a peace process that would gradually return Armenian-controlled regions around Karabakh to Azerbaijani control, and assigning Nagorny Karabakh itself an interim status pending an referendum on its future.

“One of the six key basic principles in the document the presidents are discussing in Kazan is the right of return for all displaced people,” de Waal said. “I think that a comprehensive approach which covers everyone who lost their home in the conflict as part of a wider settlement has to be the right one.”

Seymur Kazimov is project officer at the Azerbaijan Media Centre. Naira Bulghadaryan is a correspondent for Radio Liberty in Armenia. Sara Khojoyan, IWPR Armenia country director, also contributed material to this report.

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