Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Bitter Azeri-Armenian Divisions Over "Spy" Trial
A trial taking place in Armenian-held Nagorny Karabakh in which two Azerbaijanis are accused of a double murder during a reconnaissance raid has exposed once again the deep gulf between the two sides.
Dilham Askerov and Shahbaz Guliyev were detained in July and their trial got under way in Stepanakert, capital of the unrecognised Nagorny Karabakh Republic, on October 27. The case came at a time when the leaders of Azerbaijan and Armenia appeared ready to put a bout of summer skirmishing behind them and move ahead with the peace process. (See Reset in Azerbaijan-Armenia Talks Process?)
The prospects for dialogue received a further setback on November 12, when Azerbaijani troops shot down a helicopter belonging to the Karabakh Armenian military.
The two men are charged with “espionage, illegally crossing the state border of the Nagorny Karabakh Republic, illegally bearing arms and ammunition, abduction and murder”, according to local prosecutors.
Officials in Karabakh say their special forces captured Guliyev and Askarov and killed a third man, Hasan Hasanov, who crossed onto Armenian-held territory on July 11. Prosecutors allege that the three were on a reconnaissance operation, in the course of which they murdered 17-year-old shepherd Smbat Tsakanyan, Karabakh army major Sargis Abrahamyan and caused grievous bodily harm to Karine Davtyan, a 37-woman whose eye they gouged out.
The two captives were not awarded prisoner-of-war status since they had not been in uniform and had attacked civilians.
In court, one of the accused reportedly blamed his co-defendant for killing Tsakanyan, and then claimed the youth had been killed by Hasanov. The Karabakh authorities say Hasanov was killed while resisting capture.
Davit Babayan, a spokesman for Karabakh’s president, insisted that the men would get a fair trial, that they had been assigned lawyers but could choose others, and that the proceedings would be conducted in sessions open to the public.
“The Republic of Artsakh [Karabakh] is a democratic state. We are not Azerbaijan, where they detain people for their posts in social networks. We respect human rights here,” Babayan told journalists.
In Azerbaijan, there is little confidence that the trial is fair. The Baku government does not recognise the administration in Karabakh and continues to demand the return of Armenian-held territories that are still internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan.
Azerbaijan denied the three were engaged in subversive activity, insisting they were just civilians who had crossed the lines to visit the homes they lost when Armenian troops seized control of the Kelbajar district in 1993. Armenian commentators dismissed this, saying it was unlikely civilians would risk crossing the still dangerous boundary lines.
Elman Fattah, a lawyer and deputy head of the opposition Musavat party, holds that the trial is illegitimate and that the accused have been denied basic rights.
“The hostages [defendants] have not been afforded a proper defence. Confessions were obtained from them using physical and psychological coercion during the initial investigations. Photos and videos circulated by the Armenians show clearly that Dilham Askerov and Shahbaz Guliev were tortured,” he said. “The trial in Khankendi [Stepanakert] more closely resembles a lynching.”
Ali Huseynov, chair of the Azerbaijani parliamentary committee for legal affairs, told the APA news agency that the accused men were moving about within Azerbaijan’s internationally recognised borders and thus exercising a basic freedom.
Commentators on both side have sought to direct international attention to their respective sides of the argument.
In Baku, Aydin Mirzazade, a parliamentarian from the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan party, said the United States, Russia and France – the co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk group that mediates in the Armenian-Azerbaijani peace talks – should “immediately demand an end to this performance”.
“A hypocritical performance has been staged against people who were visiting the land of their fathers,” he said. “The Armenian media are also spreading false information that they’ve admitted guilt.”
Arastun Orujlu, head of the East-West Research Centre in Baku, said that since Karabakh was not recognised, its territory was not subject to international law, so a trial taking place there could not be regarded as legitimate.
“Supposing the trial ends and sentence is passed. Everyone can appeal against a verdict – but where will appeals against a Khankendi court go? Even if an appeal is filed at the European Court of Human Rights, it won’t be accepted there,” Orujlu said.
Armenian media highlighted visits by representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross, who have seen the detained men on six occasions.
Larisa Alaverdyan, head of the NGO Against Legal Arbitrariness in the Armenian capital Yerevan, said she travelled to Stepanakert, met the accused, and found that “the local authorities have done everything to protect the rights of the defendants. The Stepanakert court will establish whether they are guilty or not. There is no alternative to a trial in this case. The trial is open, so any international human rights organisation can send representatives there to monitor the judicial process.”
Orujlu argues that the case needs to be viewed within the wider context of negotiations on Karabakh’s future. He points out that when Azerbaijani leader Ilham Aliyev and Armenian president Serzh Sargsyan met in Paris on Octover 27, “one of the main talking-points was the issue of prisoners and hostages”.
“By starting the trial the same day as the talks took place, the Armenian side was sending the Azerbaijanis a kind of message. I believe Armenian politicians are trying to use the hostage issues as a form of pressure in the negotiations,” he said.
Armen Karapetyan is a freelance journalist in Armenia. Afgan Mukhtarli is an Azerbaijani journalist who works for Civil-forum.az.
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