The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has confirmed the death of an Armenian captive in Azerbaijani prison earlier this month, but its Yerevan office spokesman says the confirmation is on the basis of a death certificate issued by authorities in Baku.
Ashot Astabatian, of the ICRC Yerevan office, told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun) on Thursday that ICRC officials have not seen the body of 20-year-old Manvel Saribekian, since “they were not given permission by Azerbaijani authorities.”
“We confirm the death because we have received a death certificate from the [Azerbaijani] authorities,” he added.
Saribekian was reportedly found hanged in a detention center in Azerbaijan on October 5 nearly one month after being captured on the Armenian-Azerbaijani border. The Azerbaijani authorities said he committed suicide.
The Armenian government dismissed this explanation, saying that Saribekian was tortured to death or “driven to suicide”, condemning the “horrendous” death.
The Armenian authorities also insist that Saribekian, presented in Baku as an Armenian “saboteur”, was a resident of Tutujur, a village in northeastern Armenia close to the Azerbaijani border, who strayed into Azerbaijani territory while grazing cattle on September 11.
Astabatian confirmed to Azatutyun that the ICRC forwarded the Azerbaijani authorities’ death certificate to Saribekian’s family on October 27.
Armen Kaprielian, the head of a working group at the Armenian government-affiliated committee dealing with issues of prisoners, hostages and missing persons, said in an Azatutyun interview that his group also received a document through the ICRC mentioning “asphyxiation” as the cause of death.
“Since it was said that he had hanged himself to death in a prison cell, naturally they mentioned this as the cause of death. We have an original document in Azeri and a non-official translation into Armenian by the ICRC. But our position is that immediately after the repatriation of the body our forensic experts will conduct an examination,” he said.
Saribekian’s aunt Emma Balian also voiced doubts about the veracity of Azerbaijani claims.
“I demanded that the ICRC give a signature pledging that they saw the kid. They said they didn’t. They said they had received the death certificate via internet,” she told Azatutyun.
At Russia-hosted talks on Wednesday the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan issued a statement saying that, as a confidence-building measure, they had agreed to swap prisoners of war and exchange the bodies of soldiers killed in recent clashes with the assistance of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Minsk Group and the ICRC.
Armenian Defense Ministry spokesman David Karapetian said the Armenian side hopes that after this statement the return of Saribekian’s body will take place quickly.
Kaprielian also expressed such a hope.
“We have great hopes in connection with this agreement that there will be some positive shifts because especially in the past couple of years we have encountered great problems and obstacles in our day-to-day work with the Azerbaijani side,” Kaprielian said.
The ICRC Yerevan office spokesman said the agency continued negotiations over the repatriation of Saribekian’s body.
“The ICRC continues confidential dialogues with authorities in Azerbaijan and Armenia regarding the repatriation of all persons who are captives as a result of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. The repatriation of bodies is part of these dialogues,” Astabatian said.