Ethnic Armenian authorities in Nagorno-Karabakh have dismissed a possible offer from Azerbaijan to exchange prisoners of war and detainees held by both sides according to an “all-for-all” scheme.
David Babayan, deputy chief of presidential staff in Stepanakert, told RFE/RL’s Armenian Service that they cannot regard Azerbaijanis, who committed serious crimes on the Armenian side on the same plane with “ordinary Armenian citizens who inadvertently crossed the border.”
“Of course, we do not agree to such an exchange, because terrorists and murderers must serve their punishments and we will not exchange them. As for other categories of detainees, first, there should be such an application, and we need to see who can be exchanged with whom, if there are equal categories [of prisoners]. I do not speak about criminals, saboteurs and terrorists,” the Nagorno-Karabakh official said.
According to the data of the Armenian Ministry of Defense, three Armenians are currently kept in prison in Azerbaijan. Official Baku considers Arsen Baghdasarian, Karen Ghazarian and Zaven Karapetian as saboteurs, accusing them of war crimes. The three Armenians have been sentenced to long prison terms in Azerbaijan. The Armenian side denies the Azerbaijani claims.
The Armenian side also has three Azerbaijanis kept in prison. Shahbaz Quliyev and Dilham Askerov were detained in the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh in 2014. The court in Stepanakert convicted the two men of a number of heavy crimes (murder, kidnapping, espionage, illegal border crossing, possessing ammunition) and sentenced Askerov to life imprisonment and Quliyev to 22 years in prison.
The third Azerbaijani citizen held by the Armenian side is Elnur Huseynzade, who was detained last year in the vicinity of the Talish village of Nagorno-Karabakh. Official Stepanakert insists that Huseynzade, 23, is a soldier of the Azerbaijani army and was detained at the time of committing an act of sabotage.
Baku denies the three men were involved in any crime in the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, which it regards as Azerbaijani territory.
Babayan emphasized that Stepanakert is not against the exchange of prisoners in principle, but is against the variant offered by Baku.
According to the official, over the past years Azerbaijan has grossly violated the rights of Armenian captives. “They put on them Armenian military uniforms, and even these uniforms belong to the Azerbaijani army. They shows them on television, which is strictly prohibited by conventions. It is more so unacceptable to use them for the purpose of political speculations. And these people were also forced to speak bad things about Artsakh (ed: Nagorno-Karabakh) and Armenia. Now, in fact, it turns out that they return these people with the expectation that they should be put on trial here. This is an inhumane approach,” he said.
The issue of a possible prisoner-of-war exchange has been actively addressed by Azerbaijani media in recent days. The head of the State Security Service of Azerbaijan, Madat Quliyev, also commented on the issue on Sunday, claiming that the number of Azerbaijani captives kept by the Armenian side reaches 871. Moreover, as the Azerbaijani official said, “they [Armenians] are trying to convince these people that the state of Azerbaijan does not exist anymore and that Azerbaijan is entirely under Armenia’s control.”
Armenian Defense Ministry spokesman Artsrun Hovannisian described the statistics cited by the Azerbaijani official as nonsense. “In my opinion, Azerbaijan does not wish to hand over to us our prisoners of war without preconditions. It sets an ultimatum, speaks about some absurd figures, gives some unknown names and sets preconditions, which is unacceptable in this case,” Hovannisian said.
Armenian Ombudsman Arman Tatoyan recently appealed to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights to provide support in ensuring the rights and repatriation of Karen Ghazarian, who is a prisoner in Azerbaijan.
The talk about a possible exchange of prisoners of war between the Armenian and Azerbaijani sides comes shortly after a visit to the region by the American, Russian and French co-chairs of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Minsk Group, who commended the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan for “implementing constructive measures in good faith” following their meeting in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, on the margins of an CIS summit, and expressed support for the two countries’ leaders’ readiness to continue their dialogue.