A new report has revealed shocking details regarding the systematic torture and degrading treatment of Armenian prisoners of war and civilian captives held in Azerbaijan.
The report, published last week by the Office of the Human Rights Defender of Armenia and the Yerevan-based International and Comparative Law Center (ICLaw) with the support of the Armenian Legal Center for Justice and Human Rights (ALC) in Washington, D.C., compiles evidence gathered through interviews with 40 repatriated POWs and 10 civilian captives and analysis of video recordings.
All 50 survivors testified to physical torture and abuse and deprivation of adequate food, water, sleep and medical attention, with no distinction between the treatment of detained combatants and civilians by Azerbaijani officials and military personnel.
“With the publication of this report, ALC, in collaboration with the Human Rights Defender and ICLaw, seeks to methodically present the inhumane treatment of Armenian POWs to highlight Azerbaijan’s continued violation of international human rights law and the state-administered policy of dehumanizing Armenian lives,” said Kenneth V. Hachikian, chair of the ALC.
According to the report, Armenian captives were transported between military police confinements, the State Security Service and a pre-trial detention facility in the settlement of Kurdakhany in Baku, in violation of Geneva Convention III mandating that the captor country transfer POWs to a permanent prisoner camp as soon as possible. Armenian captives were regularly subjected to physical torture at each of these locations. Azerbaijani prison guards deployed belts, screwdrivers, gun butts, metal chains and batons to beat the captives, sometimes multiple times a day. One repatriated POW testified that three guards entered his cell every five minutes to beat him to the point of incapacitation.
“Azerbaijani guards entered our cells and demanded us to shout ‘Karabakh is Azerbaijan!’ Whether we were compliant or not, we were subjected to brutal beatings, both in Military Police and in the State Security. There were other captives with me in the cell; three of them were tortured during interrogations using electroshock.”
Under the Geneva Convention III, the captor country must refrain from subjecting POWs to violence, physical harm, reprisal, intimidation or discrimination.
Armenian POWs were not supplied with sufficient food and water, the provision of which was often accompanied by torture and habilitation. Several POWs testified that prison guards would throw away whatever food they could not eat within 10 seconds. Another testified that guards forced him to eat food off the ground. One POW received a severe rash due to the poor quality of drinking water.
“I was kept alone for the last four months. It was torturous. They would give us food and drinks in a way that when they poured it, most of it would spill, and I had to get the leftovers. They broke the cigarettes, then gave them to us. As soon as they opened the cell door, I had to stand up and say ‘Karabakh is Azerbaijan.’ Besides that, they would repeat [Azerbaijani President Ilham] Aliyev’s statement about Artsakh is Azerbaijani and would try to make us repeat whatever they were saying.”
POWs were also intentionally deprived of sleep. Some were handcuffed to radiators or heating rods while others were forced to remain standing or sitting for days at a time. In the winter, prison guards poured buckets of freezing water on captives and opened the windows at nighttime, forcing captives to sleep on the cold prison floor.
“In their military police area, we were connected to the heating radiators. We slept on the floor for the first few days. We did not get food or water for a few days. I asked them for water, and they splashed cold water on me from a bucket. All my clothes got wet, and they opened the window and made me lie down on the floor so that I would freeze in the cold. They beat us again. I lost consciousness two times. We became psychologically affected there, because they were beating [redacted] in the cell right next to me and we could hear his torture.”
Prison guards consistently refused to provide POWs with medical treatment for injuries inflicted in combat or captivity. As a consequence, many POWs developed infections or more severe injuries. One POW who was sent to a hospital was deprived of food for 10 days. Azerbaijani soldiers lay next to him in his hospital bed while spitting on him and filming their actions.
Under Geneva Convention III, the captor country must provide POWs with sufficient food, water, clothing and medical attention when necessary.
The report exposes that Azerbaijani prison guards extract forced confessions from POWs through coercion and threats of torture. Several prisoners were forced to sign statements written in the Azerbaijani language, without the presence of a translator or lawyer. One repatriated POW, who was sentenced to four months imprisonment, testified that he was forced to sign several unknown documents under threats of violence. While he was provided with counsel at a legal hearing, the proceedings were conducted in the Azerbaijani language.
More than five dozen Armenian POWs are standing trial or have been convicted in the Baku Grave Crimes Court on charges of terrorism, illegal acquisition and possession of weapons and explosives, formation of illegal armed units and illegal crossing of the state border. The Human Rights Defender, ICLaw and the ALC have denounced these trials as a sham, as the rights of POWs are wholly deprived.
Several POWs testified that soldiers who had additionally served during the Four-Day War in April 2016 or the First Artsakh War were treated with exceptional brutality. One POW, who was beaten so severely that he could not walk for 21 days, was told by the perpetrators that he was being punished for his role in the Armenian Armed Forces.
Geneva Convention III prohibits measures of reprisal against POWs.
While captured civilians are protected persons under international law, prison guards did not differentiate between their treatment of civilians and soldiers, comparably subjecting each group to physical abuse and denial of food, water, sleep and medical attention. One civilian was held in solitary confinement with no access to food or water for 12 hours and beaten if he refused to sing the Azerbaijani national anthem.
Under the Geneva Convention, it is impermissible to submit protected persons to violence or threats or to willfully cause serious injury to their body or health. An individual ceases their status of a protected person if the captor country verifies that the individual engaged in activities hostile to the security of the state. However, Armenian civilian captives were never presented with any formal charges that would prove their involvement in military action.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) periodically visited the POWs and civilian captives. According to eyewitness testimony, captives were moved to different holding cells during these visits in order to conceal their living conditions.
“Before [ICRC] visits, the guards told us we were not allowed to disclose the degrading treatment and we would have to lie and tell the Red Cross we were being treated well. The Red Cross visited me for the first time on February 1. They handcuffed us. The [ICRC] gave us cigarettes and sweets, and the Azeris confiscated the cigarettes and took out the filters and started giving us one or two a day.”
The report also exposes the brutal treatment and murder of Armenian soldiers captured in Kovsakan on October 21, 2020 during the 44-day war. The day after the city was seized by Azeri forces, 61 Armenian service members were deployed to Kovsakan and subsequently ambushed. While 15 soldiers were killed during the ambush by the Azerbaijani military, 20 soldiers escaped, and at least 20 others were captured and subsequently murdered, as verified by analysis of video evidence. The video evidence depicts the corpses of Armenian soldiers, sometimes mutilated, that have been dragged by vehicles along dusty roads. Five of the captured soldiers have been repatriated, whereas the remainder are yet to be accounted for.
ICLaw, in collaboration with the ALC, has submitted requests for interim measures, or urgent measures to protect individuals at imminent risk of irreparable harm, to the European Court of Human Rights on behalf of 123 Armenian captives, 111 of which have been granted. To date a total of 104 POWs and civilian captives have been repatriated to Armenia. While Azerbaijan only acknowledges the continued detention of 45 individuals, an estimated 200 POWs and other captives remain in Azerbaijan.
“Azerbaijan’s continued systematic and intentional torture of Armenians in captivity can no longer be ignored or treated with kid-gloves,” said Hachikian. “The international community and human rights organizations must pressure dictator Aliyev to release all Armenian POWs immediately.”