By Armen ZakarianForeign Minister Vartan Oskanian held out hope on Wednesday for the release of six Armenian pilots jailed in Equatorial Guinea on dubious coup charges which he discussed during a recent visit to the west African nation. But he effectively admitted that he secured no explicit pledges of their liberation from its government, viewed by the West as one of the most repressive in the world.
Oskanian was in Equato-Guinean capital Malabo from February 21-22, holding talks with the country’s prime minister, foreign minister and chief prosecutor. He was apparently snubbed by Equatorial Guinea’s longtime autocratic president, Teodoro Obiang Nguema.
The Armenian minister was also allowed to meet with the jailed aircrew of an Armenian transport plane that was hired by a German airfreight company a year ago to ship cargo to the oil-rich former Spanish colony. They were arrested in March 2004 and sentenced to between 14 and 24 years’ imprisonment on November 26 on charges of complicity in a reported plot to topple Obiang.
All six Armenians, backed by official Yerevan, pleaded not guilty to the accusations throughout their trial denounced as “grossly unfair” by Amnesty International. Their German and Armenian employers also insisted on their innocence.
In his first public appearance since the Malabo trip, Oskanian said Obiang’s regime gave him no “definitive answers” regarding the fate of Captain Ashot Karapetian and his crewmen. But he said it pledged to “seriously consider” their liberation.
“We established contact at a fairly high level which we believe will help us pursue the release of our pilots or their transfer to Armenia in a more effective manner,” Oskanian told reporters.
A February 22 statement by the Armenian Foreign Ministry said Oskanian and Equato-Guinean officials “exchanged thoughts” on the possibility of signing a bilateral agreement that would allow for a mutual extradition of convicts. Armenian official regard this as the most realistic way of repatriating the pilots. The two sides also agreed to establish diplomatic relations and hold regular “consultations” between their foreign ministries.
Oskanian said the six Armenians looked “a bit tired and subdued” as they spoke with him in Malabo’s notorious Black Beach prison. “Prison conditions are quite severe,” he said. “The guys are also in a quite severe condition, at least in the moral-psychological sense.”
President Robert Kocharian twice wrote to Obiang last year, pleading for their release. Other Armenian officials said Yerevan will to try to exert pressure on Equatorial Guinea through international organizations and did not rule out the possibility of taking the case to an international court of justice.