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Armenian Christians Are Still Being Held Captive by Azerbaijan

Nearly three months after the end of the war in Artsakh, many POWs are still imprisoned in violation of the peace agreement.
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Since the end of the Azerbaijani war against the Armenian Republic of Artsakh (Nagorno Karabakh) on November 9, Azerbaijan still reportedly holds many Armenian prisoners of war and civilians, mistreating and even torturing them. The war was launched by Azerbaijan and Turkey against the Armenians of Artsakh in the South Caucasus in September of last year. To help the Azerbaijani state in its attacks against Armenians, Turkey engaged in large-scale recruitment and transfer of Syrian jihadist mercenaries to Azerbaijan. During the war, Azerbaijan indiscriminately shelled and bombed entire towns and villages across Artsakh, including homes, churches, and maternity hospitals. The Azerbaijani forces also used cluster munitions and white phosphorus against civilian areas and forests multiple times. 

The war ended through an agreement brokered by Russia and signed on November 9 by the two parties. As part of the agreement, Armenians were forced to relinquish much of their indigenous land in Artsakh. According to the eighth article, there would be “an exchange of prisoners of war and other detained persons and bodies of the dead,” which Azerbaijan has failed to fulfill to this day. Hovhannes Nazaretyan reported back in December: 

Several videos have been posted online showing Armenian POWs or civilians beheaded and mutilated. One such video shows a severed head of an Armenian man on a slaughtered pig. Another video shows an Armenian soldier saying “Karabakh is Azerbaijan,” then switches to the severed head of the same soldier impaled on a wooden stick, carried by Azerbaijani soldiers. In another video, Azerbaijani soldiers cut off both ears of an old man, held down on the floor of his home. Two men who were beheaded by Azerbaijani servicemen have been identified as Genadi Petrosyan, 69, of Madatashen (in Askeran district) and Yuri Asryan, 82, of Azokh (in Hadrut district). Both men reportedly refused to leave their homes as Azerbaijani forces approached and captured their villages.

On December 8, yet another video emerged of Azerbaijani soldiers beheading an elderly Armenian man, who pleaded for his life in Azerbaijani.

Meanwhile, the fate of many kidnapped Armenians is still unknown. Among them is the Lebanese-Armenian woman Maral Najarian, who moved with her sister from Lebanon to Artsakh following the Beirut explosion in August of last year. They hoped for a better life but instead found themselves as war refugees. When the Armenians were ordered to leave parts of Artsakh following the agreement, she attempted to take her belongings from home. She was accompanied by her friend, Viken Euljekdjian. Both were kidnapped by Azerbaijani forces and remain missing.

Zartonk Media reported:

When the war started, the sisters moved to Goris, but their belongings remained in Berdzor (Lachin). After the announcement of the trilateral ceasefire statement, on November 10, Maral Najarian, thinking that she could safely take her belongings out of Berdzor, together with her acquaintance, also an immigrant from the diaspora, Viken Euljekdjian, went to Berdzor, and then to Shushi. After that they disappeared.

This brutality appears to be largely caused by the institutionalized propaganda Azerbaijan deploys against Armenians. In January, for instance, Azermarka, a state company under the Azeri Ministry of Transport, Communications and High Technologies, issued postage stamps entitled “Azerbaijan 2020.” In the stamps, Azerbaijan is seen “disinfecting” the Armenian region of Artsakh, using the imagery of vermin and disease to dehumanize Armenians. Azerbaijan Television (AZTV) reported that the postage stamps “are dedicated to Azerbaijani heroes.” 

This was not the first incident in which Azerbaijan systematically engaged in such speech targeting Armenians. According to the 2018 report “Armenophobia in Azerbaijan: Organized Hate Speech and Animosity towards Armenians,” epithets such as “cancerous tumor,” “disease,” and “parasite” are often leveled against Armenians in Azerbaijan.

Many rights advocates protested the propaganda stamps on social media. The Armenian National Committee of Australia, for instance, said that “this level of vile form of perverse dehumanization was perhaps only last witnessed during the reign of Nazis in Germany.”

Karnig Kerkonian, an international lawyer with expertise in the law of treaties and state obligations, said:

Azerbaijan’s refusal to return Armenian POWs is not only a patent violation of paragraph 8 of the Trilateral Statement, but is also a blatant violation of the Geneva Convention (III) Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War, which not only demands the return of POWs at the cessation of hostilities but also establishes a strict timetable for doing so under international law—which is immediately and without delay.

This is a unilateral obligation of the detaining party, Azerbaijan, pursuant to Article 118 of the Convention, and it is buttressed further by Commentaries 4434 and 4448 promulgated by the International Committee of the Red Cross. Azerbaijan’s conduct in this regard is a material breach of the Trilateral Statement, a manifest violation of international humanitarian law, and clear evidence of Azerbaijan’s rogue behavior in contravention of its international legal obligations. 

Meanwhile, the Human Rights Ombudsman of the Republic of Artsakh updated its “Interim Report on the Cases of the Killing of Civilians in Artsakh by the Armed Forces of Azerbaijan.” The report includes information about Armenian civilian casualties, including those “who were killed in Azerbaijani captivity, or at least under their control, through physical violence, stabbing, beheading, close-range shot, and other direct means.”

One of the victims was Alvard Tovmasyan, who suffered from mental illness. According to International Christian Concern, on January 13, relatives identified the body of 58-year-old Tovmasyan, found dead in the yard of her home in Karin Tak, a village of Artsakh:

Relatives left the village on October 29, while Tovmasyan stayed behind. Azeri forces later captured the village and following the ceasefire agreement she was reported missing.

When Tovmasyan’s body was discovered, it had been mutilated nearly beyond recognition. Her brother Samvel only recognized her by her clothing. Relatives also reported that Tomasyan’s feet, hands and ears had been cut off as part of her torture. These types of atrocities are reminiscent of those committed during previous pogroms and genocides against the Armenian Christian community.

Rights advocates are concerned that other Armenian captives will also be murdered by Azerbaijan. Garo Ghazarian, former Chairman of the Armenian Bar Association and the Co-Chair of the Armenian Bar Association’s Armenian Rights Watch Committee (ARWC), said:

Azerbaijan’s holding of Armenians captive, (as well as) their mistreatment and torture, is a testament to its racism and extreme prejudice, xenophobia and Armenophobia. In the final analysis, these acts speak volumes of its disregard and outright defiance of international law and standards. 

These violations and mistreatment in the context of international law mean that Azerbaijan has neither respect nor any regard for human rights. Its behavior is exhibit ‘A’ of what constitutes war crimes.

Azerbaijan’s utter disregard of international obligations is due to the international community’s silence, and a collective failure to impose sanctions, and to implement punitive measures to compel Azerbaijan’s compliance with humanitarian standards. 

The failure of the international community to insist on the immediate release of all Armenian prisoners in Azerbaijani custody has thus far been dismal and therefore is beyond deplorable. 

Without any further delay, the international community, the UN, the EU (and even Russia) should insist that Azerbaijan permit an immediate inspection of its prisons and accommodate visits by international observers with the Armenian prisoners, to determine their health and welfare while they are still in Azerbaijani custody.

Uzay Bulut is a Turkish journalist and political analyst formerly based in Ankara. Her writings have appeared in The Washington TimesThe American SpectatorThe Christian Post, and The Jerusalem Post. Her work focuses mainly on human rights, Turkish politics and history, religious minorities in the Middle East, and antisemitism. Follow her on Twitter: @bulutuzay_.

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