Visiting Armenia on Thursday, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen added his voice to Western criticism of Azerbaijan’s decision to pardon the Azerbaijani army officer who had axed to death an Armenian colleague during a NATO training course in Budapest.
Rasmussen at the same time pointedly declined to criticize NATO member Hungary for making that possible by extraditing Ramil Safarov to Azerbaijan more than eight years after the brutal killing. He said the extradition followed “international norms and standards.”
Rasmussen was in Yerevan on the first leg of his tour of the three South Caucasus states that was overshadowed by the fallout from Safarov’s controversial release from a Hungarian prison. He faced hundreds of Armenians demonstrating in the capital to demand its strong condemnation by NATO.
“I am deeply concerned by the Azerbaijani decision to pardon army officer Safarov,” Rasmussen told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am) in an exclusive interview. “This very tragic and terrible incident happened eight years ago and it was a crime. Such a crime should not be glorified, and the decision taken by Azerbaijan damages trust and does not contribute to peace and reconciliation.”
“Having said that, it is also important that we do not return to conflict,” he said. “On the contrary, it is crucial to work for a reduction of tensions and promote peace and reconciliation.”
“I will raise [the issue] during my visit to Baku and I will convey this very clear message to the Azerbaijani authorities,” added the former Danish prime minister.
Rasmussen made a similar statement after his ensuing talks with President Serzh Sarkisian that touched upon the Safarov affair and its implications. Sarkisian reiterated Yerevan’s furious reaction to Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev’s decisions to pardon the convicted axe-murderer and reward him with a higher military rank and hefty material benefits immediately after his repatriation.
“Azerbaijan has turned itself into a sponsor of the crime with its own hands,” Sarkisian told a joint news conference with the NATO chief. “This is an unacceptable, inadmissible and condemnable phenomenon that deals a big blow to the aims of the [NATO] Partnership for Peace program and seriously jeopardizes regional security in the South Caucasus. In this situation, nobody has the moral right to stay silent and ignore what happened.”
Sarkisian also again hit out at Hungary, with which his government has suspended diplomatic relations. He said the Hungarian government must have known in advance that Safarov, who was sentenced to life imprisonment by a Hungarian court in 2006, will be set free on his return home.
Official Budapest insists that the extradition was based on a European convention to which both Azerbaijan and Hungary are signatories. It says it had received formal assurances from Baku that Safarov will serve the rest of his jail term in an Azerbaijani prison.
Rasmussen clearly backed the official Hungarian position when he addressed students and professors at Yerevan State University (YSU) earlier in the day. “I understand that the transfer of Mr. Safarov from Hungary to Azerbaijan has taken place based on an agreement that follows international norms and standards,” he said, answering a question from one of the students.
Rasmussen also stressed that neither NATO nor Hungary should be held responsible for the killing of Armenian Lieutenant Gurgen Markarian during an English-language course that was organized by NATO in Budapest in 2004 for military officers from partner states.
“It was a crime committed by an individual, an Azerbaijani army officer,” he said. He was brought to court in Hungary, he was sentenced to many years in prison, and he was treated in Hungary according to the basic principles of the rule of law.”
As Rasmussen spoke hundreds of mostly young people demonstrated outside the sprawling YSU building in central Yerevan to express their anger about Safarov’s release and demand its unequivocal condemnation by NATO. “We have gathered here to demand that the NATO leader strongly condemn Azerbaijan’s racist policies,” said Karen Avagian, a young lawmaker from the ruling Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) who also joined the protest.
President Sarkisian, meanwhile, made clear that the bitter row with Hungary “must not cast a shadow on our relations with NATO.” “Armenia is ready and determined to maintain and develop the current level of cooperation,” he said after the talks.