Two Azerbaijani men standing trial in Stepanakert have blamed one another for the murder of an Armenian teenager near Nagorno-Karabakh that led to their high-profile arrests in July.
Shahbaz Quliyev and Dilgam Askerov were separately captured by Karabakh Armenian security forces after crossing into the Kelbajar district west of Karabakh together with another Azerbaijani, Hasan Hasanov. Hasanov was gunned down several days later, moments after reportedly opening fire at a military vehicle that carried an Armenian army officer and a civilian. The officer, Sargis Abrahamian, was killed while the 37-year-old woman, Karine Davtian, gravely wounded.
The shootings were reported four days before Smbat Tsakanian, a 17-year-old Armenian man, was found dead. Karabakh prosecutors believe that Tsakanian was taken hostage and killed by the Azerbaijani “saboteurs.”
Quliyev 46, and Askerov, 54, pleaded not guilty to the murder charge when they went on trial in Stepanakert late last month. Each of them claimed to have had no part in the boy’s killing which the prosecution says was committed with an assault rifle confiscated from Askerov.
During his cross-examination in the Karabakh court this week, Askerov said he did not fire the fatal gunshots and even tried unsuccessfully to convince his companions to spare Tsakanian’s life. Quliyev dismissed those claims as a lie.
The two defendants similarly traded accusations at earlier court hearings. In particular, Askerov referred to Quliyev as a “very bad person” who was recruited by Azerbaijani special services to infiltrate Kelbajar.
On Wednesday the court examined what the prosecutors consider a key piece of evidence: amateur video that was shot by Askerov in the days leading up his arrest. It shows the two other Azerbaijanis and Tsakanian walking through a forest in the mountainous district sandwiched between Karabakh and Armenia.
Askerov can be heard saying from behind the camera, “We have captured a piglet. He is about 20 years old and doesn’t speak Azerbaijani. We can’t let him go because he would denounce us. Let’s go and see what happens.”
Commenting on the footage, the defendant claimed that he and the other Azerbaijanis did not kidnap Tsakanian from his home in a remote Kelbajar farm. He said they only asked the boy to show them the way to the town of Kelbajar.
The defendants are facing lengthy prison sentences on charges of not only murder but also espionage and sabotage. The authorities in Stepanakert say that they were sent to the self-proclaimed Nagorno-Karabakh Republic by Azerbaijani intelligence.
The Azerbaijani government has repeatedly denounced the trial as illegal and demanded the release of both men. It says that that they had a legitimate right to visit what is an internationally recognized part of Azerbaijan that has been under Karabakh Armenian control since 1993. The Armenian side has rejected those demands.
Officials in Baku have hinted in recent days that the Azerbaijani military may allow the Armenians to recover the bodies of three pilots of an Armenian military helicopter shot down last week in return for Quliyev’s and Askerov’s liberation. Davit Babayan, the spokesman for Karabakh President Bako Sahakian, ruled out the possibility of such a swap on Thursday.