Attorneys representing Armenian prisoners of war and captives have published a list of 19 Armenians captured by the Azerbaijani military during and after the 2020 Artsakh War and subsequently murdered.
Human rights lawyers Siranush Sahakyan and Artak Zeynalyan have filed appeals to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) seeking compensation for the illegal torture and willful killing of the 19 captives. Sahakyan and Zeynalyan have previously filed 249 cases for interim measures, or urgent measures to protect individuals at imminent risk of irreparable harm, with the ECHR. While the ECHR has requested that the government of Azerbaijan provide specific information regarding their conditions of detention, medical examinations and details of measures that have been taken or are planned to be taken for their repatriation, in March the court notified the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe regarding the government’s “failure to respect the time-limits set by the Court for submission of information on the individuals concerned and the rather general and limited information provided by them.”
Monday’s list included the names of 12 civilians and seven soldiers. A previous report compiled by the Human Rights Ombudsman of Artsakh confirms 31 other cases of executions of civilians while in Azerbaijani captivity. Dozens of cases of missing civilian hostages remain unconfirmed.
Evidence that several of the captives named in this week’s statement had been killed in custody had previously emerged. In March, Human Rights Watch (HRW) published a report about 79-year-old Eduard Shahgeldyan, who was detained alongside his wife Arega in their home in Artsakh in October. Eduard’s remains were returned to Yerevan in December. HRW also documented the detainment of Arsen Gharakhanyan, 44, and his father Sasha, 71, who was repatriated to Armenia in December. Arsen was shot dead in January.
On Tuesday, three more Armenian captives were repatriated from Baku, the first prisoner exchange in three months. The group included 20-year-old soldier Robert Vardanyan, videos of whom had previously circulated online depicting his psychological torture while imprisoned. A total of 67 Armenian captives have been released since the end of the war, while an estimated 300 remain in Azerbaijani custody.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken welcomed the release of three Armenian detainees. “We call on both parties to fully and expeditiously complete the exchange process for all prisoners, detainees and remains, and to respect their obligations to ensure the humane treatment of detainees,” he tweeted. The co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group, including Igor Popov of the Russian Federation, Stephane Visconti of France and Andrew Schofer of the United States, called for the “return of all POWs and other detainees in accordance with the provisions of international humanitarian law” in an April 13 joint statement.
Meanwhile, photos were published on Monday revealing that the government of Azerbaijan has removed the conical dome of the Holy Saviour Cathedral in Shushi. Other parts of the 19th-century cathedral, commonly known as Ghazanchetsots, have been covered in scaffolding. During the Artsakh War, the iconic cathedral was deliberately targeted by two long-range Azerbaijani missiles, leaving a gaping hole in the church ceiling.
Armenian authorities condemned this act of vandalism, noting that Azerbaijan has not allowed an UNESCO expert assessment mission to visit the region since the Azerbaijani military occupied the historic city of Shushi in the final days of the war.
“It’s noteworthy that Azerbaijan carries out actions at the Shushi Cathedral without consulting with the Armenian Apostolic Church, which clearly violates the right of the Armenian believers to freedom of religion,” the Armenian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA) wrote. “It is obvious that Azerbaijan is deliberately blocking the entry of UNESCO experts to the endangered Armenian cultural heritage sites, on the one hand to cover the war crimes it has committed, and on the other hand to change the historical-architectural integrity of the monument.”
Artsakh Human Rights Ombudsman Gegham Stepanyan cited a history of the Albanianization of Armenian cultural heritage in Artsakh by the government of Azerbaijan as part of a well-documented, systematic effort to erase the indigenous Armenian presence in the region. “It is already clear what is really being done under the name of ‘renovation work,’” Stepanyan wrote. “The goal is to destroy the Armenian presence and trace.”
The MoFA of Azerbaijan referred to the alterations as a restoration effort in the “frame of large-scale reconstruction work in Shusha (Shushi)” in accordance with the city’s “original architectural style.”
In domestic politics, the Armenian National Assembly has adopted a second portion of Bill C-894 in an effort to expedite electoral reforms ahead of the expected extraordinary parliamentary elections.
The amendments to the Criminal Code, Code on Administrative Offenses and the Law on Citizenship impose heavier fines and lengthier prison sentences for electoral violations including vote-buying and election-related violence. They also introduce criminal liability for attempts to impede pre-election activities of political parties or their individual candidates with possible sentences of up to three years in prison for forcing people not to attend campaign rallies and up to five years for paying voters to attend or boycott a pre-election rally.
“It is the task of political forces that support free, fair elections to prevent criminals from succeeding in Armenia,” said MP Vahagn Hovakimyan from the My Step Alliance in defense of the legislative package.
These amendments represent a part of a more comprehensive electoral reform package tackling the voting system, corruption and campaign transparency that has been debated in the National Assembly since 2018. On May 3 the National Assembly decided to postpone the draft law for up to two months to allow sufficient time for debate. However, in the past two months, the parliament has pushed through this specific set of amendments from Bill-C894 along with an amendment transitioning to an electoral system of proportional representation in time for the June 20 snap elections.
MP Ani Samsonyan from the Bright Armenia Party expressed concern that the most recent amendments will be applied unequally between the opposition and present leadership. “The opposition does not possess any levers to coerce people to donate to a party or foundation,” she contested, whereas the government has “executive, administrative levers and can coerce businesspeople to donate to a pre-election campaign.”
The amendments criminalizing the obstruction of an election campaign were adopted just a week after acting PM Nikol Pashinyan ordered law enforcement officials to investigate protesters who disrupted his latest visit to the Syunik province of Armenia. During an April 21 meeting at the provincial administrative building in Kapan, Pashinyan called the demonstrations against his tour a “violation of the law” and directed the chiefs of the Armenian police and the National Security Service to respond in an “explicit and tough manner” in prosecuting the agitators.
“An atmosphere of impunity must not be allowed to exist in Armenia,” he said.
Subsequently 19 people were detained and charged with allegations of hooliganism and violence by the Investigative Committee. The detainees included Mkhitar Zakaryan, mayor of the towns of Agarak and Meghri, and Menua Hovsepyan, deputy head of the Goris community, each charged with assembling local residents to publicly swear at the acting PM, halt highway traffic to obstruct his visit, and throw eggs at his motorcade.
On April 23, in solidarity with the detainees, hundreds of demonstrators gathered outside of the prosecutor’s headquarters in Yerevan, where they were met with police guards in riot gear. Since then all charges against the 19 protesters have been dropped while pending investigation.
Human Rights Ombudsman Arman Tatoyan censured the protesters for targeting the prime minister with insulting vocabulary, condemning hate speech in all of its forms. However, Tatoyan also noted that Pashinyan’s directive ordering government and law enforcement officials to open criminal investigations against specific people was illegal.
A working group from the Office of the Human Rights Defender also recorded several instances of violations of the rights of the 19 people while detained. For example, Hovsepyan claims that the police officers beat and verbally abused him while videotaping his mistreatment. Moreover, resident of the Shournoukh community Ararat Aghabekyan, who did not participate in the protests, was arrested without an explanation. He was taken from his bed at nighttime, where he lay in recovery from a COVID-19 infection, and treated aggressively by law enforcement, who ignored his pleas to be taken to a hospital. The Ombudsman is submitting letters to the Prosecutor’s Office in response to these cases.
In the months leading up to the June 2020 election, Pashinyan has conducted visits like his recent Syunik trip throughout Armenia’s provinces, where he has delivered speeches highlighting the successes of his administration to cheering crowds while evading altercations with opposition protesters. Commentators have criticized the prime minister for campaigning for his reelection prior to the start of the constitutionally sanctioned election period, which begins following the resignation of the PM and the dissolution of parliament.
Editor-in-Chief at CivilNet Karen Harutyunyan published a scathing op-ed titled “Pashinyan, who decried electoral fraud, embarks on a campaign ignoring his commitments” lambasting the hypocrisy of an administration that launches electoral reforms while violating the Electoral Code. “The problem is that the current government has made political commitments to eradicate election fraud and ensure just competition, which it turns out, Pashinyan is now ignoring himself,” he wrote.
The process of triggering early elections commenced on May 3 as parliament did not elect Pashinyan for the post of PM during a special sitting. The National Assembly will once again debate the election of the prime minister on May 10. If Pashinyan is not reelected, parliament will be dissolved, and the country will officially enter the election phase.
This week in a dramatic move Levon Ter-Petrosian publicly called upon his fellow former presidents to join him in an electoral alliance to unseat Pashinyan. According to Ter-Petrosyan, the three men drafted a statement during a March 25 meeting agreeing to set aside their “past fundamental disagreements and sharp contradictions” and “participate in the upcoming elections as the ‘National Accord Alliance’,” while not individually seeking positions within the new system of government. Robert Kocharyan, who has been allied with the Homeland Salvation Movement, rejected the offer, while Serge Sarkisian, whose Republican Party announced last week that it intends to run as part of an electoral alliance with the Hayrenik (“Fatherland”) Party, did not immediately respond.
“It is incumbent on all Armenians to realize that the reproduction of Pashinyan’s regime is much more dangerous for Armenia than even possible or hypothetical threats emanating from Azerbaijan and Turkey,” Ter-Petrosian wrote in this week’s article.
The Armenian Revolutionary Federation recently ended its electoral boycott and will also take part in the upcoming snap elections alongside the two opposition parliamentary factions, the Bright and Prosperous Armenia parties.