Azerbaijan violated a key European convention by pardoning, rewarding and glorifying an Azerbaijani army officer who hacked to death a sleeping Armenian colleague in Hungary in 2004, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled on Tuesday.
The Strasbourg-based court said Baku’s actions amounted to the “approval” and “endorsement” of the “very serious ethnically-biased crime” committed by the officer, Ramil Safarov, during a NATO training course held in the Hungarian capital Budapest.
A court in Budapest sentenced Safarov to life imprisonment in 2006, convicting him of axe-murdering Lieutenant Gurgen Markarian and trying unsuccessfully to kill another Armenian participant of the course, Hayk Makuchian, in the same fashion. Markarian was attacked while he slept in his dormitory room.
Safarov received a hero’s welcome in Baku immediately after the Hungarian authorities controversially extradited him to Azerbaijan in 2012. He was not only pardoned by Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev but also promoted to the rank of major, granted a free apartment and paid eight years’ worth of back pay.
Safarov’s release provoked a furious reaction from Armenia and strong international criticism. Armenia suspended diplomatic relations with Hungary in protest.
In 2013, Makuchian and Markarian’s now deceased uncle, Samvel Minasian, appealed to the ECHR to rule that the Azerbaijani and Hungarian governments’ actions ran counter to several articles of the European Convention on Human Rights. One of those articles upholds a person’s right to life while another forbids any ethnic or religious discrimination.
The plaintiffs also asked the court to consider ordering the revocation of Safarov’s pardon. They did not seek any damages apart from a reimbursement of their legal expenses.
In a lengthy verdict, the ECHR concluded that “the acts of Azerbaijan in effect granted [Ramil Safarov] impunity for the crimes committed against his Armenian victims.” Those acts were “racially motivated,” it said.
“Quite apart from his pardon, the Court is particularly struck by the fact that, in addition to immediate release, upon his return to Azerbaijan [Safarov] was granted a number of other benefits, such as salary arrears for the period spent in prison, a flat in Baku and a promotion in military rank awarded at a public ceremony,” reads the ruling.
“In addition, the Court finds particularly disturbing the statements made by a number of Azerbaijani officials glorifying [Safarov,] his deeds and his pardon. It also deplores the fact that a large majority of those statements expressed particular support for the fact that [Safarov’s] crimes had been directed against Armenian soldiers, congratulated him on his actions and called him a patriot, a role model and a hero,” it says.
At the same time the Strasbourg rejected the plaintiffs’ claim that the Azerbaijani authorities are directly responsible for Markarian’s murder. It said that while the authorities clearly endorsed the killing there is no evidence to suggest that Safarov’s actions “could have been foreseen by his commanding officers or should be held imputable to the Azerbaijani State as a whole.”
Azerbaijani officials have for years sought to justify the brutal murder, portraying Safarov as a victim of “Armenian aggression” against Azerbaijan. Accordingly, Aliyev has defended his decision to free the convicted axe-murderer.
“Azerbaijan freed its officer, returned him to the homeland and restored justice,” the Azerbaijani president declared in 2013.
Philip Leach, the director of the London-based European Human Rights Advocacy Center, which also represents the plaintiffs, welcomed the “strong verdict” handed down by the ECHR.
“Of course, the court did not go further and clarify what exactly the Azerbaijani authorities should do now,” Leach told RFE/RL’s Armenian service. “But the case can now be sent to the ECHR’s Grand Chamber or the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe to decide what steps should be taken by the Azerbaijani authorities.”
Leach said the committee, which represents all Council of Europe member states, is in a position to decide whether to tell the Azerbaijani authorities to send Safarov back to jail and thus “restore justice” for the families of the two Armenian officers. He expressed hope that “such pressure will be exerted” on Baku.
The Armenian government’s representative to the ECHR, Yeghishe Kirakosian, also hailed the ECHR ruling. “It is probably the first time that the European Court noted the Azerbaijani state’s policy of Armenophobia and ethnic discrimination against Armenians,” said Kirakosian.
The ECHR also cleared Hungary of any wrongdoing in the scandalous affair. It said the Armenian plaintiffs failed to substantiate their claim that the Hungarian government should have known beforehand that Safarov will be set free if repatriated.
Official Budapest has insisted all along that the extradition was in line with the European convention. It has also said that it had received formal assurances from Baku that Safarov will serve the rest of the life sentence in an Azerbaijani prison.
Armenia’s former government dismissed this explanation when it froze diplomatic ties with Hungary in 2012. Then Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandian alleged at the time that corruption was at the root of the “Azerbaijani-Hungarian deal.”
In a 2017 report, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) revealed that from 2012 to 2013 more than $9 million was transferred to Hungarian bank accounts of an offshore company owned by a son of a senior Azerbaijani government official. It said that the first $450,000 cash transfer was carried out in July 2012, one month before Safarov’s extradition.
Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto strongly denied any connection between the cash flows and the scandalous extradition. Hungary’s controversial Prime Minister Viktor Orban visited Baku in June 2012.
The OCCRP report titled “The Azerbaijan Laundromat” claimed that Azerbaijan’s ruling elite used a $2.9 billion slush fund to pay off European politicians, buy luxury goods, and launder money in 2012-2014.