The United States has reiterated its call for ethnic Armenian authorities in Nagorno-Karabakh to release two Azerbaijani nationals who were convicted and jailed last year on charges of committing a number of crimes, including a teenager’s murder.
Last week senior members of the de facto government in Stepanakert effectively ruled out the release of Dilham Askerov and Shahbaz Quliyev despite an appeal for the kind of “humanitarian gesture” made by U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian affairs Victoria Nuland during her visit to Armenia on February 18.
Askerov, 54, and Quliyev, 46, were convicted on charges of murder, espionage, illegal border crossing, and illegal weapons possession and were sentenced to life and 22 years in prison, respectively, by a Karabakh court in December. Azerbaijan said it did not recognize the legality of the trial.
At a daily press briefing in Washington DC on Monday U.S. Department of State spokesperson Jen Psaki was asked to elaborate on the assistant secretary’s appeal.
“The sides have generally found a way in the past to return prisoners as a humanitarian gesture, and such humanitarian gestures have been shown to reduce tensions and build trust between the sides,” Psaki said.
Last week, in an interview with the Karabakh-based Artsakhpress news agency Ambassador James Warlick, the U.S. co-chair of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE) Minsk Group engaged in the mediation of a Karabakh settlement, also expressed a view that the release of the two Azerbaijani nationals could be a positive step for the peace process.
“With tensions as high as they are, such humanitarian gestures can lead to a more positive environment for negotiations to take place,” the mediator said.
Talking to reporters in Stepanakert on February 19, Nagorno-Karabakh’s Defense Minister Movses Hakobian, however, said that the matter was not subject to discussion.
Earlier, during a meeting with the American, French and Russian co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group in Yerevan, Armenian Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandian insisted that the guilt of the Azerbaijani nationals was proved during a trial in Karabakh.
Armenia and Azerbaijan fought a bloody war in the early 1990s over the control of Nagorno-Karabakh, a mainly ethnic Armenian-populated region that was part of Soviet Azerbaijan.
Despite the ceasefire agreement signed in 1994, dozens of soldiers on both sides have been killed in border skirmishes every year since then.
Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh have reported more than a dozen casualties since the beginning of 2015. Azerbaijan also says a number of its soldiers were killed in skirmishes during the same period. The conflicting sides have routinely accused each other of ceasefire violations.