Dozens of the estimated 200 Armenian prisoners of war held captive in Azerbaijan seven months after the end of the 2020 Artsakh War are facing trial on charges of terrorism.
Fourteen Armenian POWs participated in their second court hearing on Tuesday. They have been charged in the Baku Grave Crimes Court with terrorism, illegal acquisition and possession of weapons and explosives, formation of illegal armed units and illegal crossing of the state border. Judge Afghan Hajiyev, who announced their indictment, declared that if they are found guilty they face up to 20 more years in prison or life imprisonment.
According to a joint press release from the State Security Service and Prosecutor’s Office of Azerbaijan, a criminal case has been submitted to the court regarding 13 more POWs.
These 27 prisoners were captured in an Azerbaijani incursion near the Khtsabert and Hin Tagher communities in the southern region of Hadrut in Artsakh on December 11. The Russian peacekeeping contingent in Artsakh confirmed that the attack represented the first resumption of military hostilities since the signing of the end-of-war agreement on November 9. The Azerbaijani government has repeatedly justified its capture and detention of 62 Armenian soldiers in Hadrut as an anti-terror operation, claiming that the soldiers had illegally crossed the state border into Azerbaijani territory. While Hin Tagher and Khtsabert remained under Armenian jurisdiction as of November 9, the two villages came under Azerbaijani control subsequent to the December 11 incursion.
Earlier this month, Lebanese-Armenian Viken Euljekjian was sentenced to 20 years in prison on terrorism charges. Euljekjian, a volunteer in the war, was captured alongside his fiancée Maral Najarian en route to Shushi on November 10. According to Najarian, the couple was traveling to their temporary lodging in Shushi to collect their belongings and return to Yerevan, unaware that in the past two days Shushi had been captured by the Azerbaijani military.
The Ombudsman of Armenia Arman Tatoyan has criticized these trials as a fraudulent attempt to legitimize the continued detention of POWs, illegal under international law. “The ‘confessional testimony’ of the POWs forms the basis of the trial under conditions in which the prisoners’ lives are under threat daily,” he wrote on June 26. “Under such circumstances it is impossible to discuss a fair trial or any other rights.”
Two days earlier Tatoyan’s office submitted a video recording of a conversation between the President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev and the First Lady of Turkey Emine Erdogan to several senior officials at the European Union as “irrefutable evidence that the Azerbaijani authorities illegally keep all Armenian captives as hostages for use in political bargaining.” In the video, which circulated online in June, Erdogan urges Aliyev to return the POWs to Armenia “portion by portion” in exchange for minefield maps of the captured regions of Artsakh. “If we get all the minefield maps we will have a great advantage, because it may take 10 years to clear these areas,” Aliyev admits.
Since the end of the war, the government of Azerbaijan has continually publicly demanded that Armenia provide maps that detail the locations of the landmines it laid during the war so that it may remove unexploded ordnances. According to Azerbaijani media, 20 Azerbaijani civilians have been killed and 29 injured in landmine accidents in the regions that passed under Azerbaijani control at the end of the war. Most recently two Azerbaijani journalists and one local official were killed in an anti-tank mine explosion at the start of June in the Kelbajar district.
The maps in question refer to the landmines laid during the 44-day war in the fall. Since 2000, international demining organization HALO Trust has cleared 500 minefields laid in Artsakh during the first Artsakh War in the early 1990s. In a postwar report published last year, HALO Trust related that while “reports suggest there has been new use of anti-vehicle mines during the conflict…the extent of landmine contamination from the current conflict is unknown.”
Despite calls from the governments of Azerbaijan and Russia and the European Parliament for the return of these maps, Armenian officials have repeatedly denied their existence. In interviews with the International Crisis Group, officials from Yerevan and Stepanakert stated that they have “no such maps.” On April 6 spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Anna Naghdalyan called the issue a “fake agenda” fabricated by Azerbaijan to justify its non-compliance with international calls for the repatriation of POWs.
“You need to understand that precise maps don’t exist. Everything was ‘sown’ chaotically,” Armenian journalist Yuri Manvelyan said in a June 6 interview. “Even if the authorities in Yerevan, or someone in Stepanakert, or Russian peacekeepers, say that they have precise maps of minefields, it’s not true. That is, they physically don’t exist.”
However, PM Nikol Pashinyan confirmed the government’s possession of landmine maps after it provided Azerbaijan with maps of 97,000 unexploded ordnances in the Aghdam region in exchange for 15 Armenian POWs in a deal negotiated on June 12 by the governments of Georgia and the US, the European Union and the OSCE. “We have not exchanged the maps for POWs, but rather we took a step for a step, and we are prepared to take another step for another step,” Pashinyan told supporters during a June 13 campaign rally. “Seeing that Azerbaijan halted the return of POWs, we also halted the return of maps. If the return of POWs was not halted, there would not be so many casualties on landmines in Azerbaijan.”
Meanwhile protests organized by the relatives of POWs awaiting news of their brothers, husbands and sons continue in Yerevan. This week, a group staged a series of sit-in protests in front of the government building to demand increased legal action against Azerbaijan and international intervention to repatriate their relatives.
“He cannot say anything concrete,” a father told reporters after a meeting with PM Pashinyan. “‘Wait, be patient.’ But I have run out of patience.”