By Mark Dovich
Relatives of Armenian prisoners of war (POWs) held in Azerbaijan began holding sit-in protests in Yerevan last week demanding their relatives’ safe return.
“Our grievances are directed towards both the Armenian government and the international humanitarian organizations,” Tigran Ambardyan, a demonstrator whose brother is a captive in Azerbaijan, told CivilNet. “At the moment, our primary concern is the fact that our POWs are being illegally convicted in Azerbaijan.”
The fate of roughly 200 Armenian prisoners of war captured by Azerbaijan during and after last year’s September-November war in and around Karabakh continues to dominate Armenian politics and conversations on social networking sites.
At a hearing at the Baku Grave Crimes Court on June 25, judge Afgan Hajiyev announced that 14 Armenian POWS captured near Hadrut in late November face 14-20 years in prison or life imprisonment for charges of “terrorism, acquisition and keeping of weapons and explosive substances, creation of illegal armed groups, and trespassing the state border.” At least one of those 14 has said he is a dual Armenian-Russian citizen.
A separate trial at Baku’s Yasamal District Court involving two additional Armenian POWs accused of “torture and cruel treatment of Azerbaijani prisoners of war during the first Karabakh war” of the 1990s continues.
And about two weeks ago, Vicken Euljekjian, an Armenian with Lebanese citizenship captured in Shushi alongside his fiancee Maral Najarian last November, was sentenced to 20 years in prison on charges of “mercenary activity, terrorism, and illegal border crossing.” Najarian, who is also Lebanese-Armenian, was released in March.
Azerbaijan’s continued holding of Armenian POWs directly contradicts pledges both sides made to “exchange prisoners of war, hostages and other detained persons, and dead bodies” in a November 10 ceasefire agreement brokered by Russia. At least 19 Armenians have been killed in Azerbaijani custody since the end of the war, lawyers representing a group of Armenian POWs have said.
An explosive video, circulated online last week, showed Turkish First Lady Emine Erdogan suggesting to Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev that Azerbaijan continue releasing small groups of Armenian POWs “step by step” in return for minefield maps of Karabakh and the surrounding territories from Armenia. This confirmed repeated statements by human rights advocates and Armenian officials that Azerbaijan is essentially using the Armenian prisoners of war as pawns.
Earlier this month, the two sides did just that. As part of a Georgia-brokered deal, Azerbaijan swapped 15 Armenian POWs for maps of minefields in the region of Agdam, one of seven regions ringing the former Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast that Azerbaijani forces captured in last year’s bloody, 44-day war.
Armenia’s Human Rights Defender, Arman Tatoyan, has repeatedly slammed Azerbaijan’s continued holding of Armenian POWs, calling their trials “a gross violation of international law.” The issue of Armenian POWs has also been raised at various international bodies in recent months, including the European Parliament and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.
Human Rights Watch, a prominent nonprofit headquartered in the United States, has also spoken out against the treatment of Armenian POWs held in Azerbaijan. California Congressman Adam Schiff, a leading voice on Capitol Hill for Armenian and Armenian-American issues, has drawn attention to the issue as well.