Human Rights Watch (HRW) has documented evidence of torture and willful killing of Armenian civilians unlawfully detained in Azerbaijan.
The November 9 trilateral ceasefire agreement stipulates that prisoners of war and other detained persons would be exchanged following the cessation of hostilities. During a joint press conference hosted during the visit of the OSCE Chairperson-in-Office Ann Linde to Azerbaijan, Foreign Minister Jeyhun Bayramov asserted that Azerbaijan has returned all captives to Armenia in accordance with its obligations. However Armenian human rights attorneys have confirmed that upwards of 100 Armenians remain in Azerbaijani captivity over four months after the end of the 2020 Artsakh War.
In an interview with HRW, two leading human rights attorneys who represent Armenian captives in the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) shared that Armenian lawyers have filed 250 cases before the ECHR to apply interim measures for captive persons or urgent measures to protect individuals at imminent risk of irreparable harm. While 69 captives have repatriated to Armenia, at least 70 cases of continued captivity have been verified, with evidence supporting a total of 200-300 cases. More than 10 percent of the detainees remaining in Azerbaijan are civilians.
HRW recorded the story of Arega Shahkeldyan and her deceased husband Eduard. The elderly couple was detained by Azerbaijani soldiers in their home in the village of Avetaranots in the Askeran district of Artsakh on October 28, approximately one month after the start of the war. Most residents of the village had fled by then, but Eduard had refused to leave his home and possessions. In early November, their children were notified by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) that Arega and Eduard were being held in a detention facility in Baku.
The night of December 4, Eduard died in his cell. His death certificate lists blunt brain injury, brain swelling and acute disorder of vital brain function as the causes of his death. On December 9, Azerbaijani officials returned Arega to Armenia along with two other civilian detainees. Eduard’s body was later shipped to Yerevan, where his family buried him. “At least they finally returned his body,” Arega told HRW. “And I now have a grave to visit.”
HRW also documented the story of Sasha Gharakhanyan and his deceased son Arsen. Sasha and Arsen were detained by Azerbaijani soldiers at their home in the city of Hadrut in Artsakh on October 10. While the rest of their family fled Hadrut, Sasha refused to leave his home; Arsen chose to stay with his father. On November 9, the family received their first sign of hope that Sasha was still alive when a video circulated online of Azerbaijani soldiers forcing Sasha to kiss the Azerbaijani flag and declare “Karabakh—Azerbaijan.” (During and after the war, social media was flooded with videos published by Azerbaijani soldiers depicting physical and psychological torture of Armenian POWs and civilian detainees). Ten days later, the ICRC notified his family that it had located Sasha in a prison in Baku. On December 14, he returned to Armenia with a group of 43 other captives.
On January 6, the family received its first news of Arsen’s whereabouts when a video was disseminated online of Azerbaijani soldiers forcing Arsen to say “Karabakh is Azerbaijan” and degrade Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan. On January 13, the ECHR urged Azerbaijan to provide information about Arsen’s fate. Five days later, his body was found near the village of Aygestan with visible gunshot wounds. It was ascertained that he had been shot dead on January 15.
“Why did they kill our son? He wasn’t fighting in the war. He was unarmed. He just stayed to watch over his father,” Arsen’s mother Aida told HRW. “So, it’s a war. So they rounded him up—but the war ended, and they still didn’t let him go. They abused him, they filmed him, they posted those videos…and then killed him. Why?”
Civilians are protected persons under international law. According to the Fourth Geneva Convention, civilians can only be imprisoned if they are suspected of engaging in activities hostile to the security of the state. However, in these two cases, Azerbaijani forces detained civilians in their home, without any evidence that they posed a security threat. Azerbaijan is also a party to the European Convention on Human Rights, which prohibits torture and inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. The detention, torture and willful killing of Armenian civilians in the midst of an armed conflict by Azerbaijan constitute grave war crimes.
In the domestic political arena, the International Republican Institute (IRI) recently published the results of a public opinion survey revealing national sentiment in regards to early parliamentary elections. The survey was conducted between February 8 and 16, 2021. It was based on phone interviews with 1,510 Armenian residents. According to the results, 33 percent of the Armenian population would vote for the My Step alliance if elections were held now, with the Prosperous Armenia Party receiving three percent of the vote and the Homeland Salvation Movement receiving less than one percent of the vote. The largest segment of participants, 42 percent, said that they would not vote for any of the political parties currently in the running, indicating the possibility for the formation of a new political party that could capture the enthusiasm of disgruntled voters.
Among the survey participants, 25 percent said that they would never vote for the former ruling Republican Party, while 17 percent said they would never vote for the Prosperous Armenia Party. Fourteen percent said they would never vote for the My Step alliance, and six percent for the Homeland Salvation Movement.
The survey uncovered that support for early elections is split between advocates and opponents of the Pashinyan administration. The Prime Minister’s approval ratings have dropped 22 points since 2019, with 29 percent of the population holding a “very favorable” view of his office and 28 percent holding a “very unfavorable” view. Among those with a favorable view of the PM’s office, 23 percent are calling for early elections, while 42 percent are strongly opposed. Among those with an unfavorable view of his office, 54 percent believe in the necessity of early elections, and 16 percent do not. Overall, 37 percent of the population thinks that early elections should be held, while 30 percent does not.
The survey also highlights the demographic makeup of the PM’s supporters. Forty-one percent of rural participants expressed a very favorable view of the PM’s office. Meanwhile, 40 percent of participants from Yerevan hold a very unfavorable view of his office. These results suggest that the PM has a strong base of support in the rural regions of Armenia, with significantly less support in urban centers.
Finally, there has been much debate about the mode of organization of early elections. According to Article 149 of the Armenian Constitution, the National Assembly can nominate candidates following the resignation of the prime minister. If the National Assembly twice fails to elect a new head of government, then parliament is dissolved, and nationwide elections take place.
The My Step alliance previously expressed its willingness to participate in snap elections on the condition that the two opposition parliamentary factions, which include the Bright Armenia and Prosperous Armenia parties, do not field prime ministerial candidates. Edmon Marukyan of the Bright Armenia Party, seemingly accepting this measure, declared his support this week for the organization of snap elections prior to June 1, 2021. If early elections took place before June, then parliament must be dissolved within the next week.
The Homeland Salvation Movement, which includes the Prosperous Armenia Party, has rejected this measure, demanding the PM’s immediate resignation. Instead it has proposed the formation of an interim government that would oversee the organization of early elections while guiding the country through its postwar crises.
According to the IRI survey results, 62 percent of respondents trust the current government to oversee the organization of snap elections. Meanwhile, 21 percent supports the formation of a transitional government to conduct elections.
Finally, Armenia and Azerbaijan are holding contemporaneous military exercises this week. On March 10 the Ministry of Defense of Azerbaijan announced that the Azerbaijani Armed Forces would hold military drills from March 15 to 18 involving 10,000 servicemen, 200 missile and artillery units, 100 tanks and other armored vehicles, 30 aircraft units and various drones. Two days later the Armenian Defense Ministry announced that the Armenian Armed Forces would participate in military exercises from March 16 to 20 involving 7,500 servicemen, 200 missile and artillery units, 150 anti-tank weapons, 100 armored vehicles and more than 90 anti-aircraft units.
Spokesperson of the Russian Foreign Ministry Maria Zakharova told the press that the military exercises were planned well in advance and do not impose any risks for stability and security in the South Caucasus.