Ghazaryan seen during a show trial in Ganja, Azerbaijan. video grab.
Ghazaryan seen during a show trial in Ganja, Azerbaijan. video grab.

“How can we agree to return two “Ramil Safarovs” to Azerbaijan?” acting prime minister Nikol Pashinyan said in reference to two men imprisoned in Artsakh for double murder and attempted murder in 2014. Dilgam Askerov and Shahbaz Guliyev have been sentenced to life and 22 years in prison, respectively, for their role in killing a 17-year-old they took hostage, and separately a military officer and wounding a woman accompanying him. (For details read a Civilnet feature story “Uncovering the mystery of Kelbajar murders.”)

Safarov was an Azerbaijani officer sentenced to life in prison for killing an Armenian counterpart during NATO-organized English language course, but was released and promoted after Azerbaijani government won his extradition through financial inducements to Hungary. Azerbaijani leadership has similarly made the release of Askerov and Guliyev a key priority, even sparking an escalation in fighting in Karabakh in August 2014 as Azerbaijani forces sought to capture Armenian prisoners to precipitate an exchange.

Over the past two years, two Armenian civilians – Zaven Karapetyan and most recently Karen Ghazaryan – were captured on Armenia’s northeastern Tavush border. Previously, in late 2014 Azerbaijan also captured Arsen Baghdasaryan who apparently crossed into Azerbaijan from Artsakh voluntarily. All three are believed to suffer from psychiatric conditions. In addition to Askerov and Guliyev, Elnur Huseynzade, who is believed to have voluntarily surrendered to Armenian forces, is also held in Artsakh.

On November 1, Azerbaijani state-controlled media cited an anonymous “informed source” as saying that “we made an official offer to the Armenian side to exchange individuals held by two countries on the basis “all for all,” but we have not received an official reaction from Yerevan.”

David Babayan, an official spokesman for the government of Artsakh, dismissed the offer on the same day. “If they mean Guliyev and Askerov, they are criminals, murderers, whereas people held on the Azerbaijan side are innocent civilians, who should be freed by Azerbaijan in accordance with international norms,” Babayan was quoted as saying.

Pashinyan spoke of the matter during his November 20 press conference after relatives and co-villagers of Karen Ghazaryan organized protests, blocking the main Armenia-Georgia highway and outside government buildings in Yerevan, and demanding that the government do more to win Ghazaryan’s release. Pashinyan noted that his spouse met with Ghazaryan’s parents twice, and that he would meet with them as well.

In recent years, most ethnic Armenian men apprehended in Azerbaijan have been accused of sabotage or espionage, several have died in custody or shortly after release.