For many Armenians, the cessation of hostilities in Artsakh in November of 2020 did not signify the end of the conflict, as a host of human rights violations ensued in security issues unaddressed by the ceasefire agreement. This week the Azerbaijani government poured salt into a still gaping wound with the inauguration of its Military Trophies Park.
The Military Trophies Park in Baku glorifies Azerbaijan’s victory in the 2020 Artsakh War, presenting tanks and weapons captured from the Artsakh Defense Army. Among the weaponry are fragments of the Iskander-M missile that Azerbaijan accuses the Armenian Armed Forces of firing at Shushi. Visitors lined up to attend the grand opening this week, greeted by an enormous sign constructed from the Armenian license plates of 2,000 cars that reads, “Karabakh is Azerbaijan!”
Yet the park surpasses a celebration of military victory to immortalize the brutality of the war, such as through an exhibit of hundreds of helmets supposedly taken from among the thousands of Armenian soldiers killed during the war. The helmets are hung across a corridor that visitors pass through.
The park also features wax mannequins of Armenian soldiers represented through exaggerated caricatures drawn from anti-Armenian tropes. Figurines depict Armenian soldiers at the military front, staring at the sky in horror in their dying moments, and at their barracks, poised so that visitors can pose alongside them. The park even includes models of Armenian prisoners of war chained in a jail cell and in visible anguish, a reminder of the country’s refusal to release hundreds of Armenian soldiers and civilians in Azerbaijan captivity.
The construction of the park began in January under the orders of President Ilham Aliyev. The President attended the inauguration of the park on April 12, sharing photos posing proudly next to helmets of deceased servicemen and figurines of dying soldiers. “Everyone who visits the park of military trophies will see the strength of our army, will see our willpower, and how hard it was to achieve victory,” proclaimed Aliyev during the inauguration.
The park has received widespread condemnation from international figures including German journalist Duzen Tekkal, Freedom House researcher Nate Shenkkan, US journalist Lindsey Snell and Buzzfeed reporter Christopher Miller.
This is deeply ghoulish, and brings to mind the collection of helmets at the base of the “Victory Arch” in Baghdad, which Saddam claim belonged to Iranian soldiers killed in the 1980-88 war.. https://t.co/QqXkohDdv7
— Bobby Ghosh (@ghoshworld) April 12, 2021
Armenian officials were also outraged. Human Rights Defender of Armenia Arman Tatoyan called the opening of the park “another manifestation of the morbid Armenophobia of the Azerbaijani authorities.” “In front of the whole world, Ilham Aliyev with fascist cynicism publicly insults, humiliates the dignity of an entire nation, and deliberately inflicts suffering on the relatives of the dead soldiers, missing people and prisoners of war,” said Tatoyan.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA) of Armenia also released a statement censuring the park. “At a time when the consequences of the war unleashed by Azerbaijan against Artsakh haven’t been fully addressed, when numerous Armenian prisoners of war are being held in Azerbaijani captivity, with the organization of such an ‘exhibition’ wrapped in the elements of marauding, Azerbaijan is finally consolidating its position as a global center of intolerance and xenophobia,” the statement reads.
The MoFA of Azerbaijan dismissed the “hysteria” of its Armenian counterpart as a “blackmail attempt.” Notably, it reiterated its stance that the hundreds of prisoners held hostage in Azerbaijan months after the end of the war are not POWs, but terrorists. “We once again advise the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Armenia to refrain from rhetoric full of lies and slander on the issue of ‘prisoners of war’ expressed at every opportunity,” the press release reads. “As we have repeatedly stated, members of the sabotage group sent to Azerbaijan for terrorist purposes a month after the trilateral statement signed by the Armenian government cannot be considered ‘prisoners of war.’”
The practice of transforming the suffering of Armenian soldiers and captives into spectacles for widespread consumption is not new for the government of Azerbaijan. During the war, members of its Armed Forces documented the physical and psychological torture of detainees and circulated them widely on social media. While publicizing evidence of its war crimes, the Azerbaijani government refuses to cooperate with international bodies and evades accountability for illegally detaining POWs and civilians long after the cessation of hostilities.
The eighth point of the November 9 trilateral ceasefire agreement stipulates an “exchange of prisoners of war and other detained persons and bodies of the dead.” Despite its obligations under the end-of-war agreement, Azerbaijan has artificially delayed the process of the release and return of detained persons while refusing to report the number of Armenian POWs and civilian captives. Human rights organizations such as Human Rights Watch have documented evidence of torture of Armenian soldiers and civilians in Azerbaijani captivity, in grave violation of protections enshrined in the Geneva Conventions.
The Ombudsman’s office estimates that over 300 Armenians remain in Azerbaijani custody. This number includes the 62 soldiers captured in southern Artsakh in mid-December acknowledged by the Azerbaijani government and 249 cases verified through analysis of videos and eyewitness testimony. Armenia, for its part, has released all Azerbaijani POWs—14 captives, including convicted murderers Dilgam Askerov and Shahbaz Guliyev detained in Artsakh in 2014—to their home country since the end of the war.
Armenia does hold two Syrian citizens, Muhrab Muhammad Al-Shkeir and Yousef Alabed Alhajj, who reportedly fought alongside the Azerbaijani Armed Forces as mercenaries in the war. Armenia’s Investigative Committee has stated that Al-Shkeir and Alhajj, who are currently facing trial for a slew of criminal charges including terrorism, are not subject to repatriation or exchange. In the fall, numerous investigations by publications including Reuters and the BBC uncovered that the Turkish government recruited hundreds of fighters from Syria who were deployed as combatants in Artsakh alongside Azerbaijani troops.
According to Tatoyan, Azerbaijani authorities have been demanding control over villages and roads in Artsakh in exchange for releasing and returning Armenian captives, thus turning detained Armenian prisoners and civilians into political bargaining chips to achieve territorial concessions.
While requests for interim measures have been filed in the cases of 188 detained Armenians by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), the government of Azerbaijan refuses to provide the court with specific information on the conditions of detention, medical examinations and courses of action for the repatriation of POWs and civilian captives. Interim measures are levelled against states in exceptional cases in which applicants face imminent risk of irreparable harm. On March 9, 2021, the ECHR notified the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe regarding the “Azerbaijani Government’s failure to respect the time-limits set by the Court for the submission of information on the individuals concerned and the rather general and limited information provided by them.” In response, Tatoyan has appealed to the Committee of Ministers for their support in securing the return and release of POWs and civilian detainees.
This week a group of French politicians, artists and intellectuals penned an open letter calling on their government to join the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Belgium and the Czech Republic, as well as the European External Action Service, in demanding the immediate repatriation of all Armenian captives in Azerbaijan. The signatories, which include Simon Abkarian, Ariane Ascaride and Anne Hidalgo, condemn the “systematic practice of war crimes” committed by Azerbaijan and urge the French government to “use all of its tools” as an OSCE Minsk Group co-chair country to “achieve the release of Armenian prisoners of war.”
Indeed, on April 9 relatives of prisoners of war and captive civilians gathered at the Erebuni airport after several Armenian officials published reports that a flight carrying freed detainees would be arriving that night from Baku. However, when the plane landed shortly after midnight, it was empty but for one passenger, Russian Lieutenant-General Rustam Muradov.
“Unfortunately, the return of captives is once again delayed,” Deputy Prime Minister Tigran Avinyan told reporters. “Negotiations mediated by Russia are continuing and we hope that the Azerbaijani side will at last respect the statement signed by it and implement the humanitarian agreement.”
Senior lawmaker in the National Assembly representing the ruling My Step alliance Andranik Kocharyan claimed that reports of the impending return of captives followed a pledge by Azerbaijan to free more POWs following the April 7 meeting between PM Pashinyan and President Vladimir Putin. The PM called his second meeting with the Russian leader since the ceasefire declaration a success, sharing that he had “agreed with the Russian president to carry out even more intensive work on the prisoners.” According to Kocharyan, Muradov went to Baku to accompany POWs to Yerevan, yet Azerbaijan retracted its commitment at the last moment.
However Muradov, the commander of the Russian peacekeeping force in Artsakh, called the statements from Armenian authorities “false provocations,” asserting that the flight had been scheduled for a regular working visit and that the government leaders were “misleading the population.”