Azerbaijan has an appalling record when it comes to atrocities and crimes against Armenians and Armenian culture. Although the 2020 Artsakh War was unprecedented in its scale, severity of war crimes and disregard for international humanitarian law, it was at the same time a continuation of official Baku’s anti-Armenian policy stretching back over a century. It was a reminder of the inaction of the international community, which throughout the years turned a blind eye to Azerbaijan’s rhetoric. This silence gave Azerbaijani leaders a sense of impunity and permission to continue their wrongdoings. Here are some of the major human rights violations leading up to the hostilities of this year.
Denied Right to Self-Determination
The roots of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict can be traced back to July 1923, when by the direct interference of Joseph Stalin (then the Secretary-General of the Communist Party of Soviet Union), Karabakh was annexed to Soviet Azerbaijan and an Autonomous Oblast (NKAO) was created under Azerbaijani jurisdiction. In 1923, Armenians comprised over 94% of the population of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Under Soviet Azerbaijani rule, Armenians made a number of attempts to raise the Nagorno-Karabakh issue before the central authorities of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). Representatives of the people of Nagorno-Karabakh appealed to Moscow with numerous letters and petitions in 1945, 1965, 1967 and 1977 with no success.
When Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Secretary-General of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union declared his program of glasnost and perestroika, it laid the groundwork for the liberalization and reformation of the political regime in the USSR. It was perceived as a chance to correct the mistakes of the past and eventually led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union in December 1991. It was at this time that the people of Nagorno-Karabakh had new hopes for a democratic solution to their problem.
The national liberation struggle of the people of Karabakh was launched at the beginning of 1988, when tens of thousands took to the streets of Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh, and signed a petition demanding the reunification of the NKAO with the Armenian SSR. Representatives from the autonomous oblast were sent to Moscow to meet with government bodies to plead their case.
On February 20, 1988, the People’s Deputies made a decision at a special session of the (Soviet) Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Republic Council to appeal to the Supreme Soviet of the Azerbaijani SSR for secession, to the Supreme Soviet of the Armenian SSR for unification, and to the Supreme Soviet of the USSR to approve this act based upon the existing legal norms. The resolution was passed with 110 votes in favor and 17 opposed.
Though the decision was in full accordance with the USSR Constitution, Moscow decided to reject Karabakh's demands for reunification with Armenia. It was this blatant disregard toward peoples’ right to self-determination that brought out tens of thousands of demonstrators, both in Stepanakert and in Yerevan.
Pogroms Against Ethnic Armenians
Mass murders of Armenians in Sumgait, Baku and Maragha were the continuation of Azerbaijan’s state policy to impede the possibility of a fair solution to the Karabakh problem. “The mere fact that these pogroms were repeated and the fact that they followed the same pattern lead us to think that these tragic events are not accidents or spontaneous outbursts,” read an open letter published in the New York Times.
Beginning on February 27, 1988, during the early stages of the Karabakh Movement, a three-day pogrom against the Armenian population took place in the city of Sumgait, Soviet Azerbaijan. At the time, approximately 18,000 Armenians were living in Sumgait.
Mobs of ethnic Azerbaijanis targeted, attacked and killed Armenians in their homes and on the streets of the city. One day later, on February 28, a small contingent of troops from the Ministry of Internal Affairs attempted to put an end to the widespread rioting without success. It was only after the government imposed a state of martial law that the massacre was put to an end. According to official figures released by the Prosecutor General of the USSR, 32 people were killed. Unofficial reports place the number of deaths much higher.
“In the town of Sumgait in February, after the first demands for Nagorno-Karabakh’s secession were made, 26 Armenians were murdered by rampaging Azerbaijani crowds in a tribal orgy which shocked the country. Azerbaijani police did nothing to prevent it,” read an article published by The Guardian in 1988.
“The breasts of two women have been cut off, another’s head, and a young girl has been skinned. Military trainees were passing out when they saw how the Armenian bodies had been tortured,” said Dmitry Yazov, the USSR Defense Minister.
Several months after the pogrom, in July 1988, the European Parliament adopted a resolution condemning the violence against Armenians in Azerbaijan. The resolution also called on Soviet authorities to ensure the safety of 500,000 Armenians living in Soviet Azerbaijan and ensure that those who incited or participated in the pogrom were punished in accordance with Soviet laws.
On March 2, 1993, the Office of Azerbaijan’s Prosecutor General announced that it had recommended then-President Abulfaz Elchibey to grant an amnesty to those convicted of violent offenses against Armenians during the Sumgait pogrom. Amnesty was granted on May 28, 1993, which marked the 74th anniversary of the founding of the first Republic of Azerbaijan.
Starting on January 12, 1990, a week-long pogrom against Armenians broke out in Baku, Soviet Azerbaijan. Armenian civilians were beaten, burned alive, tortured, murdered and expelled from the city. There were verified reports that the attacks were not spontaneous and were very well organized as those responsible had maps showing the neighborhoods that were densely populated by Armenians. At the time, approximately 30,000-40,000 Armenians were living in Baku. According to different sources, the number of killed ranged from 68-90. Hundreds of Armenians were beaten and sustained various degrees of body injuries, and thousands were forcibly exiled from their native city.
“The massacres were not entirely (or perhaps not at all) spontaneous, as the attackers had lists of Armenians and their addresses,” said Robert Kushen, reporter at Human Rights Watch.
“This week’s massacre in Baku, of predominantly Christian Armenians by Muslim Azerbaijanis, shows nationalism at its nastiest,” read an article in The New York Times.
“I myself witnessed the murder of two Armenians near the railway station. A crowd gathered, threw petrol on them and set light to them even though the Nasiminsky District Police Station was only 200 meters away — with some 400–500 soldiers of the internal forces. The soldiers drove by the burning bodies at a distance of some 20 meters, and nobody attempted to close off the area and disperse the crowd,” said Etibar Mamedov, the leader of Azerbaijani Popular Front.
On April 10, 1992, in the village of Maragha in Artsakh’s Martakert region, about 50 Armenians were brutally killed by Azerbaijani troops. It is estimated that more than 60 were taken hostage, including 18 women, nine children and three elderly persons. The village was completely destroyed and set on fire. According to the 1989 USSR census, 4,660 people were living in Maragha. At the time of attack, only 118 were left in the village.
“What we saw defies description [...] The photographs taken on those days in Maragha showed the horror of the massacre perpetrated there: decapitated and charred bodies, remains of children, blood-stained earth and pieces of human flesh scattered in places where Azerbaijanis had sawed up people while they were still alive. We saw sickles they had used for dismembering the bodies with dried up blood on them… Having killed the residents of Maragha, the Azeris went on to loot and burn the village,” said Baroness Caroline Cox during an interview.
“They broke into the basement and found us. They started to beat us with the butts of their rifles. They brought us out and into the yard and Vardanush, bleeding heavily, fell to the ground, unconscious. Just then, an armored car came around the corner and drove straight over her body; all that was left was a mangled mix of flesh, blood and mud. The other villagers and I were stripped naked and taken to Mir-Bashir. They treated us like merchandise—sold us to anyone they wanted,” said Lena Barseghyan, one of the captives who was returned.
Armenian Heritage of Nakhichevan
During Soviet rule, Azerbaijani authorities were also exercising discriminatory policies against ethnic Armenians in Nakhichevan. By the 1921 Treaty of Moscow, the Nakhichevan Autonomous Republic was created within the territory of the Azerbaijani SSR. Since then, Nakhichevan has undergone a drastic demographic shift. The number of Armenians declined from about 15,600 or 15% of the total in 1926 to about 3,000 or 1.4% of the total in 1979. Eventually, the last remaining 2,000 Armenians were deported from Nakhichevan in 1989. Within the same period, immigration and a higher birth rate had increased the Azerbaijani population from about 85,400 or 85% to 230,000, nearly 96% of the total. Under these circumstances, it was evident that the indigenous Armenian cultural heritage of Nakhichevan, which was the only reminder of the Armenian presence in the region, would also become a target of Azerbaijan’s discriminatory policies.
At its peak, the historic Armenian cemetery of Julfa (formerly known as Jugha), housed over 10,000 ram-shaped tombstones and khachkars, Armenian cross-stones, with unique designs and meticulously engraved patterns. By 1904, their number was reduced to only 5,000. The attitude of neglect towards the Armenian cemetery did not change much under the Soviet regime. In fact, following decades-long systemic destruction of the cemetery, it is estimated that only 2,000 cross-stones were left in the late 1990s. In the following several years, the Azerbaijani authorities continued the destruction of the Armenian cemetery until its memory was completely erased and wiped out from the region. In 1998, after three weeks of attacks, over 800 more khachkars were demolished and the process stopped only following calls by the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). The destruction, however, resumed in November 2002 and was finalized in 2005. Azerbaijani soldiers demolished all the remaining cemetery stones and dumped them into the Araks River.
“Absolutely false and slanderous information… [fabricated by] the Armenian lobby,” said Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, when describing reports about the destruction of Julfa. The Azerbaijani authorities have consistently refused to allow international inspectors to visit the cemetery. In 2011, when U.S. Ambassador to Baku Matthew Bryza travelled to Nakhichevan and wanted to visit Julfa to investigate the alleged destruction of Armenia khachkars, he was denied access.
Between 1964 to 1987, Armenia-based researcher Argam Ayvazyan has extensively documented Armenian cultural heritage in Nakhichevan. By 1989, Ayvazyan had documented 89 Armenian churches, 5,840 ornate khachkars and 22,000 horizontal tombstones. Ayvazyan’s accounts have later been confirmed by a Scottish researcher Steven Sim, who during his 2005 visit to Nakhichevan witnessed how medieval Armenian churches photographed by Ayvazyan no longer existed. Sim later revealed that, while he was in Nakhichevan, he was questioned by police and asked why he expected to find Armenian Christian churches in a region where only Muslims lived. He was also told by a local resident that Armenians had never lived in Nakhichevan. Sim was the last known outsider to visit the area.
In 2010, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), using remote sensing technologies, concluded that “satellite evidence is consistent with accounts by observers on the ground who have reported the destruction of Armenian artifacts in the Julfa cemetery.” Their assessment was based on two satellite images of the cemetery from 2003 and 2009 suggesting that heavy machinery was likely used in the demolition of the area.
It was only in 2010 that Armenian cross-stones were included in the UNESCO list of intangible cultural heritage that require protection.
Glorification of Murderers
Anti-Armenian sentiments are deeply rooted in Azerbaijani society and are an integral part of the country’s mainstream discourse. Oftentimes, the Azerbaijani ruling elite is the one fueling those sentiments by glorifying murderers of ethnic Armenians and encouraging hatred and animosity toward Armenians. Over the course of the 26-year-long ceasefire, there have been numerous documented cases of the Azerbaijani military committing crimes against Armenian servicemen and civilians, all of which are vivid illustrations of Azerbaijan’s state policy. The example of Gurgen Margaryan is a case in point.
In January 2004, Lieutenant Gurgen Margaryan, along with Lieutenant Hayk Makuchyan, had traveled to Budapest, Hungary to take part in a three-month English language course as part of NATO’s Partnership for Peace program. Azerbaijani Lieutenant Ramil Safarov was also participating in the program. A few weeks into the program, Margaryan was murdered in his sleep by Safarov. He was 26 years old.
Safarov, with the intent to kill the Armenian participants, entered Margaryan’s room at 5 a.m. on February 19, 2004, with an axe and, according to police reports, struck the sleeping Margaryan 16 times, nearly severing his head and stabbed him several times in the chest. Margaryan’s Hungarian roommate, Balázs Kuti, who was also asleep at the time, recounted what he saw when he woke up from the sounds: “By that time I understood that something terrible had happened because there was blood all around. I started to shout at the Azerbaijani urging him to stop it. He said that he had no problems with me and would not touch me, stabbed Gurgen a couple of more times and left. The expression of his face was as if he was glad he had finished something important. Greatly shocked, I ran out of the room to find help, and Ramil went in another direction.” Safarov also attempted to kill Makuchyan but the door of his room was locked.
Eventually, Safarov was arrested by Hungarian police. Following his arrest, the Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry issued a statement claiming that Lieutenant Margaryan “repeatedly insulted the honor and dignity of the Azerbaijani officer and citizen,” which inevitably had provoked Safarov and influenced his emotional state. After a lengthy trial, Ramil Safarov was convicted of first degree murder in 2006 and sentenced to life imprisonment with no chance of parole for 30 years.
After serving eight years in prison in Budapest, the Hungarian Minister of Justice approved Safarov’s extradition to Azerbaijan in August 2012 (based on the 1983 Council of Europe Convention on the Transfer of Sentenced Prisoners), on condition that he will serve the rest of his sentence in prison in Azerbaijan. “We would have done the same if an Armenian had killed an Azerbaijani. Hungary should follow its own interests rather than those of Armenia or Azerbaijan,” Orban was quoted as saying in the Hungarian Parliament, while defending his government’s decision. The Hungarian Ministry of Justice and Public Administration also defended the decision and said that they have received written guarantees from the Azerbaijani government that Safarov will continue serving his sentence under the terms set by the Hungarian court.
Upon his return to Azerbaijan, however, Safarov was not only pardoned by President Ilham Aliyev, but was also given a hero’s welcome. He was given a new apartment, promoted to the rank of Major and received backpay for the preceding eight years he had served in prison. Safarov’s pardon contradicted Azerbaijan’s own criminal code, according to which prisoners serving a life sentence can only be freed after having served a minimum of 25 years. Elmira Suleymanova, who was the Government Ombudsman of Azerbaijan at the time, expressed her gratitude to the President for extraditing and pardoning Safarov. “Safarov must become an example of patriotism for the Azerbaijani youth,” she said.
In September 2012, the European Parliament passed a resolution condemning the decision of President Aliyev to pardon Safarov and said the move could further escalate the tensions between the two countries. The Parliament also said that it is concerned about the example that the promotion and recognition Safarov received from the Azerbaijani state sets for future generations. The move was also condemned by the OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chairs. Following a meeting with the Foreign Ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan, they issued a statement that “expressed their deep concern and regret for the damage the pardon and any attempts to glorify the crime have done to the peace process and trust between the sides.”
War Crimes During the 2016 April War
The 2016 upsurge of violence on the Karabakh-Azerbaijan Line of Contact was the worst since the 1994 ceasefire agreement. It later came to be known as the 2016 Four Day April War. Between April 1 and April 4, 2016, Azerbaijani servicemen committed a series of war crimes, including decapitations, mutilation, torture of soldiers and non-combatants.
In the early hours of April 2, the border village of Talish, located in the northeastern Martakert district was under heavy Azerbaijani attack and, for a brief period of time, Azerbaijani forces managed to take control of the village. After Armenian forces regained control, three elderly members of the Khalapyan family, Valera Khalapyan, Razmela Khalapyan and 92-year-old Marusya Khalapyan, were found brutally tortured, mutilated and killed by Azerbaijani forces. Photojournalist Hakob Poghosyan was the first to document the killing of an elderly family in their house. “I… saw an elderly man sitting on a chair with a walking stick still near his hand… I took photos immediately. I took photos and then took just a step further and saw on the floor, the woman… I came closer and reached an angle to take the photo… I usually don’t like to take photos like this because, you know, so I make another turn in the room and see a couch. On the couch an old woman, in her nineties, laying down. They had killed all three of them. Also, they had cut the ears off of the woman and the man… so, that’s it. I took the photos…” told Poghosyan.
Three servicemen, Kyaram Sloyan, Hrant Gharibyan and Hayk Toroyan were beheaded by Azerbaijani military in the vicinity of Talish. Photos of Azerbaijani soldiers posing with the head of Private Sloyan were shared on social networks. Before Sloyan’s head was returned to Karabakh authorities on April 8, 2016, it toured several Azerbaijani villages as a “war trophy.”
Gharibyan and Taroyan were together when their truck came under heavy Azerbaijani fire. They were delivering supplies to a command post in the north of the village of Talish. Gharibyan was shot dead and later beheaded. Toroyan sustained a serious gunshot wound and his wrists were cut off while he was still alive. He was also beheaded. Their decapitated bodies were found several meters away from the truck. To date, neither Gharibyan’s nor Toroyan’s head has been returned to Artsakh authorities. The cases of all three Armenian servicemen have been submitted to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR).
After the hostilities ceased, 18 Armenian servicemen of the Artsakh Defense Army were listed as missing in action. Their bodies were later transferred to the Armenian side with the mediation of the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Personal Representative of the OSCE Chairperson-in-Office. All 18 bodies had signs of torture and mutilation, incliding cut off ears, wrists, phalanges and fingers.