Three young men from Artsakh arrested by Azerbaijani authorities while traveling along the Berdzor (Lachin) Corridor have been sentenced to 10 days of detention on charges of violating Azerbaijan’s national flag.
Alen Sargsyan, Vahe Hovsepyan and Levon Grigoryan were arrested at Azerbaijan’s border checkpoint along the Berdzor Corridor. They were part of a group of 170 civilians escorted by Russian peacekeepers from Artsakh en route to Armenia. Sargsyan, Hovsepyan and Grigoryan are students of universities in Armenia who were preparing to start their fall classes. Armenia’s Foreign Ministry said that the transportation was agreed on in advance between the Azerbaijani government and the Russian peacekeeping mission.
Azerbaijani border guards assaulted Sargsyan (born 2001), striking him on the head with a gun while they detained him by force, according to an anonymous eyewitness account, causing him to lose consciousness. Five other members of the group were taken by border guards to a private room near the checkpoint for interrogation. They were asked about “sports activities, the purpose of the trip to Armenia and the economic situation in Armenia and Artsakh.” Only three of the members emerged from the room, while Hovsepyan and Grigoryan were detained along with Sargsyan.
“We have noted numerous times that the illegal checkpoint located near the Hakari bridge poses a direct and irrefutable threat to the physical existence and protection of the fundamental rights of the civilian population of Artsakh. The abduction of Vagif Khachatryan and Alen Sargsyan irrefutably proves that the so-called checkpoint has turned into a tool for serving the Azerbaijani criminal arbitrariness, through which Azerbaijanis arbitrarily kidnap and deprive civilians of their freedom,” the office of Artsakh’s Human Rights Defender said in a statement.
Artsakh Human Rights Defender Gegham Stepanyan said that the transportation of civilians from Artsakh to Armenia should cease. He called on the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and Russian peacekeeping mission to offer security guarantees for civilians traveling along the corridor and the “immediate return of the abducted persons.”
The office of Azerbaijan’s Prosecutor General opened a criminal case against the three young men on charges of “violation of the national flag of the Republic of Azerbaijan” and “incitement of national or racial enmity.” The case refers to a video circulated online that was supposedly shared in 2021. The video depicts members of a soccer team in Artsakh walking on the Azerbaijani flag.
In what the Prosecutor General’s office called the application of the “principle of humanism,” the criminal case was terminated after they “sincerely expressed remorse for their actions and pledged not to engage in such activities in the future.” They were nonetheless sentenced to 10 days of administrative detention, after which they will be “expelled from the territory of the Republic of Azerbaijan.”
This is not the first time Azerbaijani border guards have arrested Artsakh civilians at the checkpoint. On July 29, 68-year-old Vagif Khachatryan was arrested by Azerbaijani border guards. Khachatryan suffers from heart disease and was being transferred to a hospital in Yerevan for an emergency operation. He was part of a group of patients transported by the ICRC, which had provided the Azerbaijani side with a list of patients and received its approval in advance.
Azerbaijan set up a military checkpoint along the Berdzor Corridor on April 23, 2023, placing all movement between Artsakh and Armenia completely under the control of Azerbaijani border guards. The checkpoint tightened the ongoing blockade of Artsakh, launched by Azerbaijan in December 2022.
Several dozen Armenians from Artsakh were permitted to cross the corridor for the first time in months on August 21. Russian peacekeepers escorted students enrolled in Armenian universities and Russian citizens to the Azerbaijani checkpoint.
Artsakh President Arayik Harutyunyan convened an emergency meeting with the Artsakh Security Council on the night of August 28 to discuss the incident. He informed his top aides about the “steps being taken to find out the fate of the citizens of the Artsakh Republic kidnapped by Azerbaijan today and to return them to their homeland.”
Following the late-night meeting, which lasted six hours, President Harutyunyan addressed an impromptu rally in central Stepanakert outside of the parliament building. Several hundred people gathered at nighttime on August 28 to demand that the authorities take measures to secure the release of the three young men. Harutyunyan was met with jeers during his speech, with isolated applause when he raised the issue of humanitarian aid deliveries to Artsakh amid the ongoing blockade, stating, “Only one road will be functioning: the Lachin road. We’re not going to bring in food from any other places.”
Azerbaijan has proposed delivering humanitarian aid to Artsakh via Aghdam. Artsakh authorities have rejected these offers, stating that they would legitimize the ongoing blockade of the Berdzor Corridor. On August 29, Azerbaijan’s Red Crescent Society sent two trucks with 40 tons of flour to Aghdam for the residents of Artsakh.
The ongoing blockade has precipitated a humanitarian crisis in Artsakh, where supplies of food, medicine and other basic necessities have been dwindling. Azerbaijan has also closed the Berdzor Corridor to humanitarian aid since mid-June, barring the ICRC and Russian peacekeepers from delivering food and other basic goods to Artsakh from Armenia. HALO Trust, a humanitarian organization that clears landmines in conflict zones, said this week that the “humanitarian situation has escalated into an emergency.”
“Food is in short supply and people have lost their livelihoods, leading to widespread food insecurity. And without a political resolution, this crisis will only worsen, and thousands of families will be without food or fuel for the winter,” its statement reads.
Lusine Avanesyan, spokesperson for the Artsakh president, told reporters that Artsakh would not accept aid from Azerbaijan.
“If the Azerbaijani authorities are really interested in ending the worst humanitarian disaster and stopping genocide against the people of Artsakh, then instead of playing false philanthropy, they should stop blocking the restoration of supplies to Artsakh through the Lachin Corridor,” Avanesyan said.
An Armenian convoy carrying 400 tons of humanitarian aid intended for Artsakh’s Armenians has been stuck in Goris, a town in southern Armenia, since July 26. The aid delivery has been blocked by Azerbaijani border guards.
A group of French politicians, including the mayor of Paris Anne Hidalgo, were blocked from delivering 10 trucks of humanitarian supplies, including baby food and electricity generators, to Artsakh on August 30. “Here at the Lachin Corridor we testify that no humanitarian aid can enter Artsakh, in total violation of human rights,” Hidalgo said.
Several European leaders, including His Serene Highness Prince Michael of Liechtenstein, have also expressed their readiness to lead a humanitarian airlift to Artsakh. This was announced by former Artsakh State Minister Ruben Vardanyan. The airlift would be “delivering food and other essentials to the local population and evacuating those whose life is endangered to safety,” including patients requiring urgent medical care. Vardanyan’s agency has called on the ICRC and World Food Program to organize the airlift.
French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna implored Azerbaijan to reopen the Berdzor Corridor during an annual conference of French ambassadors on August 29.
“The strategy of suffocation, which aims to provoke a mass exodus of Armenians from Nagorno-Karabakh, is illegal, as the ICJ has established, and it is also immoral,” Colonna said.