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Detention of Armenian Pensioner Highlights Tensions with Azerbaijan

Yerevan claims 77-year-old villager tortured while imprisoned for over a month.
  • Countryside near Verin Karmiraghbyur, a village in northeast Armenia from which two residents have crossed into Azerbaijan in recent weeks. (Photo: Nazik Armenakyan)
    Countryside near Verin Karmiraghbyur, a village in northeast Armenia from which two residents have crossed into Azerbaijan in recent weeks. (Photo: Nazik Armenakyan)

Allegations that an Armenian civilian detained in Azerbaijan was mistreated has highlighted concerns about residents of border villages who stray across the front line.

The authorities in Armenia have accused Azerbaijan of torturing 77-year-old Mamikon Khojoyan, who crossed the border on January 28 after telling neighbours he was going to gather grapes about two kilometres from his home in the Tavush region of northeast Armenia.

Khojoyan was returned home on March 4 after mediation from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

Doctors in Armenia describe him as in a serious but stable condition, and say that injuries he sustained suggest he was beaten while in captivity. He can recognise only some of his immediate relatives and has not been able to recount what happened to him.

“My father is in a terrible state. He has never had as many injuries. There isn’t a single healthy spot on his whole body,” his daughter Heghine Khojoyan told IWPR.

Azerbaijani media reported that Khojoyan, who comes from the village of Verin Karmiraghbyur, as an “armed Armenian saboteur” acting as a guide for a group of combatants.

Lieutenant-Colonel Vagif Dargahli, a spokesman for the Azerbaijani defence ministry, told reporters that Khojoyan was injured when he was captured but was “treated in accordance with international standards” while in detention.

“He didn’t complain when he met representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross. The ICRC didn’t record any case of torture against him,” Dargahli said, adding that claims of mistreatment were “absurd and groundless”.

The Armenian police have opened a criminal case into his mistreatment but, owing to the lack of diplomatic ties between Baku and Yerevan, they said they were relying on international organisations to conduct a full investigation.

On March 7, Azeri media reported that another Armenian had crossed the border and been detained. This turned out to be 22-year-old Arsen Khojoyan, a distant relative of Mamikon Khojoyan from the same village.

Kamo Chobanyan, the head of the local administration, denied rumours that Arsen Khojoyan went into Azerbaijan to avenge his relative.

“He’s a very bright lad. There are seven children in his family. He’s the oldest son and looks after the livestock with his father. That day he was herding his animals near the border, but the weather was very cloudy and it looks like he got lost,” Chobanyan told IWPR.

Some commentators said that Yerevan should make more effort to secure front line areas.

“It is inconceivable that after one Armenian citizen had crossed the border, officials took no steps to stop an identical incident happening two months later on the same section of the frontier,” Tigran Abrahamyan, a political columnist for the website www.panorama.am, wrote on his Facebook page.

Abrahamyan wrpte that the two incidents suggested the Armenian government needed to take steps to guard the border area and better delineate the boundary with Azerbaijan.

There have been repeated incidents of this kind in recent years, although there are no figures for how many Armenians have been taken into custody in Azerbaijan.

Zara Amatuni, an ICRC representative in Yerevan, told IWPR that staff from its Baku office visited seven Armenians held in Azerbaijan, including Arsen Khojoyan, on March 12.

“During the meeting, as is traditional, there was an exchange of letters to and from their relatives. We work directly with governments, and we express all our worries and concerns directly to them. We do not inform the public about them,” said Amatuni.

Larisa Alaverdyan, an activist who was previously the official state ombudsman and now heads a group called Against Arbitrary Misuse of the Law, said her organisation intended to take Mamikon Khojoyan’s case to the European Court of Human Rights.

She added that she was very concerned about the “torture and degrading treatment” to which Armenians taken into Azerbaijani custody were subjected.

Artur Badalyan, also from a village in the Tavush region, crossed the border in May 2009, reportedly to go mushroom picking, and only returned home in March 2011.

In September 2010, Manvel Saribekyan, from the Gegharkunik region further south, was detained in Azerbaijan. When he died in custody in early October that year, Azerbaijani officials said he committed suicide while Armenia said it was murder. (See Tensions Rise After Armenian Dies in Azeri Custody  on that case.)

There is no communication between the official prisoner-of-war commissions in Armenia and Azerbaijan, so it is left to the ICRC to try to secure the return of detained nationals of either state. 

Armen Kaprielyan, head of Armenia’s Working Group for Prisoners, Hostages and Missing People, said there used to be cooperation, but this ended in 2008.

“Since 2008, Azerbaijan has avoided cooperation with Armenia on questions related to prisoners who remain on Azerbaijan’s territory. And I doubt that there will be any positive movement any time soon,” he told IWPR.

Armenian officials were unable to say how many prisoners of war were currently being held in Azerbaijan. They were only able to name Hakob Injighulyan, who according to the Armenians, got lost and crossed into Azerbaijan in August 8, 2013.

Officials in Azerbaijan say the Armenian conscript soldier crossed the border voluntarily to escape harsh conditions in the Armenian army. (See Armenia, Azerbaijan Argue Over POW.)

Azerbaijan is also holding an Armenian family of five who crossed the border in 2010.

Armenian officials say they are not holding any prisoners from Azerbaijan.

For more on the politics of border incidents, see Civilian Deaths Underline Armenia-Azerbaijan Tensions.

Gohar Abrahamyan is a reporter for ArmeniaNow.com.

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