“They [Azerbaijani forces] subjected these prisoners of war (POWs) to physical abuse and humiliation, in actions that were captured on videos and widely circulated on social media since October,” the U.S.-based group said in a report released late on Wednesday.
“The videos depict Azerbaijani captors variously slapping, kicking, and prodding Armenian POWs, and compelling them, under obvious duress and with the apparent intent to humiliate, to kiss the Azerbaijani flag, praise Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, swear at Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian, and declare that Nagorno-Karabakh is Azerbaijan. In most of the videos, the captors’ faces are visible, suggesting that they did not fear being held accountable.”
Dozens of such videos were posted on Azerbaijani social media accounts during and after the war that broke out on September 27. HRW said it has closely examined 14 of them and interviewed relatives of five Armenian soldiers shown in them.
“It is telling that some of the [Azerbaijani] servicemen who carried out these abuses had no qualms about being filmed,” Hugh Williamson, HRW’s Europe and Central Asia director, is quoted by the report as saying. “Whether or not the soldiers thought they would get away with it, it is essential for Azerbaijan to prosecute those responsible for these crimes on the basis of both direct criminal liability and command responsibility.”
Azerbaijani military authorities dismissed such footage as a fraud late last month, denying any systematic mistreatment of captured Armenian soldiers. In October, they allowed several of those soldiers to speak with their families by phone or send them letters.
HRW said although those POWs told the families that they are not being ill-treated “there are serious grounds for concern about their safety and well-being.”
Armenian officials have portrayed the videos as proof of Azerbaijan’s gross violations of international humanitarian law and the 1949 Geneva Convention on POWs in particular.
Armenia’s and Karabakh’s closely integrated armed forces have not yet given the official number of their soldiers taken prisoner during the war stopped by a Russian-brokered ceasefire on November 10. Karabakh’s human rights ombudsman, Artak Beglarian, said on Wednesday that his office has identified about 60 POWs shown in the Azerbaijani videos.
The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has reportedly ordered Baku to provide information about the health and detention conditions of more than 40 POWs. The Strasbourg-based court’s “interim measures” were requested by Yerevan-based lawyers representing their families.
“Armenia is known to hold a number of Azerbaijani POWs and at least three foreign mercenaries,” says the HRW report. “Human Rights Watch is investigating videos alleging abuse of Azerbaijani POWs that have circulated on social media and will report on any findings.”
The Armenian-Azerbaijani ceasefire agreement calls for the exchange of all POWs and civilian captives. The process has still not begun and it remains unclear clear when the warring sides will start implementing this provision.