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What should be done to return the Armenian prisoners held in Baku? International legal specialist answers 

News.am is starting a series of interviews with international legal specialists, human rights defenders, and human rights experts to understand what needs to be done and what mechanisms are in place for the 23 Armenian prisoners illegally held in Baku in order to protect the rights of the military-political leadership of Artsakh and ensure their return.

As a state, the Republic of Armenia is obliged to ensure the protection of the rights of its citizens who are illegally captured or held hostage by another state. We saw how the Azerbaijani “fitness blogger” arrested at the Moscow airport was released within hours months ago and transferred to Baku. He beheaded an elderly and unarmed Armenian in Hadrut and posted the video on his blog. Meanwhile, the Armenian prisoners held in Baku prison on trumped-up charges have been there for years, and Azerbaijan does not seem to show any intention to return them. Moreover, Azerbaijan continues to ignore the calls and demands of international organizations to immediately release these prisoners.

Our first interviewee in this series is international legal specialist Taron Simonyan.

Recently, the legal team of Ruben Vardanyan, who is illegally detained in Baku prison, reported about torture and submitted an application to the United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on Torture. What are the procedures to be followed by the person reporting this? What other international courts are authorized to deal with this case? Is it not obvious that other Armenian prisoners are also being tortured?

Yes, I am aware of this. A rather serious and substantiated document was presented. Azerbaijan’s reaction is expected following the act requiring immediate action. When the Special Rapporteur receives or does not receive Azerbaijan’s response, he has the right to conduct a fact-finding visit to Azerbaijan. After all of this, or perhaps even without it, the Special Rapporteur will present his report to the UN Human Rights Council and the General Assembly.

There are various international forums — from UN human rights protection bodies to regional forums, from the International Criminal Court to European Union (EU) legal mechanisms — dealing with the prohibition of supplies from states that commit violations of human rights, and generally, from international law to national legislations.

In our case, for example, the opportunities with the EU and the Council of Europe should be used to their full potential. A case is being made with the Council of Europe, specifically with its European Court of Human Rights, and there is an interstate complaint, including with regard to illegally detained persons. In the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, more work should be done by our National Assembly deputies. It is true that we are not a member of the EU, but we can still cooperate with EU bodies on these issues. Moreover, we are a member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Eastern Partnership of the EU (Euronest), where we were quite active at one time. It is also a very important platform that should be used, but again, by the members of the National Assembly.

There are many platforms. Political will is needed, state policy is needed, diplomatic work is needed. International structures do not work by themselves; they need to be worked on.

Of course, we can conduct some actions through private efforts, and we do, but this is not enough. The state should also make an effort and conduct a purposeful policy, or at least not interfere, including at the level of its announcements.

In recent weeks, the topic of Armenian prisoners illegally detained in Baku was raised quite actively in the international arena. At the COP29 preparatory conference held in Bonn, activists raised the issue, drawing attention to the fact that Azerbaijan, which is hosting this important UN event, has not only carried out ethnic cleansing, but also continues to illegally keep Artsakh’s military and political leadership in prison. Senator Ed Markey raised the issue in the United States Congress last week.

Parallel to this, we see that the topic is not raised at any institutional level in Armenia. Neither the government, nor human rights defenders, nor the NGO sector are active. How can this situation be explained? If the government can justify its silence with confidential work, don’t Armenian human rights defenders and NGOs in the field have to do something? Are there really no mechanisms that could be harnessed? 

There are mechanisms, there are opportunities, but perhaps there is no political will.

To be honest, since 2018, most of the non-governmental organizations of our civil society joined the state apparatus, and a rather serious gap has appeared in this field.

The remaining NGOs, which still continue to work in the field of human rights, are largely engaged in internal human rights affairs, and for this they are able to attract funds mainly from outside sources. It is natural that foreign donors are not so interested in the human rights situation in Azerbaijan, the ethnic cleansing of Artsakh, and the crimes against humanity. There are no — or nearly no — donors internally to finance these works. And the few organizations that deal with these issues are doing this important work largely due to their willingness to volunteer and not to deviate from their mission of protecting human rights regardless of current interests, for which they should be thanked.

From time to time, government representatives announce that the issue of prisoners is on their agenda, and that it is an issue that should not be discussed publicly but should be worked on silently. Meanwhile, Azerbaijani embassies in various countries are conducting very active counter-propaganda campaigns. In your opinion, is silent work justified in this situation? Shouldn’t the issue be raised to some extent, so that international partners and international human rights organizations, based on the official position of Yerevan, join and give a stronger voice to the issue? In general, which levers can the state use more effectively in this situation?

Believe me, I am familiar with their work, and I am skeptical that purposeful diplomatic work is being conducted in that direction. To the extent that it is written or mentioned in a news outlet somewhere that something is being done, they will do it; however, I regret to say that the team that today holds political power does not consider these issues to be a priority in their work. And the Azerbaijani side has been carrying out purposeful anti-Armenian campaigns in all directions for three decades.

I can only single out the significant work of the Republic of Armenia (RA) Office of the Representative on International Legal Matters, which is exclusively legal work that is conducted at the UN International Court of Justice and the European Court of Human Rights. However, their work is seriously disrupted by the contradictory statements of the head of the RA government and the representatives of his team, which are sometimes in direct opposition to the positions of the RA presented in the courts and our national interests.

It is my deep conviction that both silent and invisible, as well as open and public diplomatic work is necessary, through which all possible international legal and diplomatic platforms can be harnessed to draw attention to the international crimes of Azerbaijan. For four years now, we have been talking about missed opportunities, including initiating new court cases against Azerbaijan, both from experts, news, and political platforms. However, not only are these cases not initiated, but also statements are made that the existing ones can be withdrawn.

Basically, we now have a situation where the state does not ensure the protection of the rights of its citizens illegally detained in another country or, in general, the realization of its positive rights. The situation in our country remains unstable. And if tomorrow, God forbid, people are suddenly captured in our border areas, there is unfortunately an already accepted belief that the state will do nothing to secure their release and they will spend at least a few years in Baku prisons. Isn’t this a very dangerous trend, and could it produce any kind of legal consequences?

The issue is both political and legal in nature.

Considering the actions of the individuals acting on behalf of the state in previous years — both in terms of their inaction/action as well as their statements — yes, such fear and feelings of insecurity exist.

Politically, the public itself should assess the incapacity and/or lack of political will of the people elected by the same public to protect their rights and not grant them the right to rule the next time.

From a legal point of view, I do not rule out that the actions of individuals occupying public positions, who in such cases can and should resort to specific measures within the framework of their constitutional authority but do not for various reasons, may constitute a crime under the RA Criminal Code.

In this situation, occurring while the “peace treaty” is being discussed, should not one of the priority issues be the release of all prisoners and illegally held Armenians? Is there a precedent in international practice where, for example, a peace agreement is signed, but one country continues to keep the citizens of the other country as prisoners or hostages?

First of all, I think that a precondition for starting negotiations on such a treaty should be the release of prisoners and illegally detained persons, because it is impossible to negotiate with the very people who have committed and are committing international crimes on the question of what to do so that they stop that same ongoing international crime. It is analogous to negotiating with the Young Turks or Hitler to cede new land or something else — for example, dignity — in exchange for stopping the genocide. We have a very pertinent example from one of Tumanyan’s fairy tales, The End of The Evil: let’s give away one kitten so that the other is not eaten by the enemy.

Moreover, in international practice, peace treaties have not been negotiated or signed for more than half a century, because merely starting a war is already an international crime. Therefore, one of the parties to that treaty has committed a crime, from which the corresponding consequences must follow. All disputes should be resolved exclusively by peaceful, negotiated means. The use of force or the threat of force is a crime called “aggression.”

It is clear that the winning party will not recognize itself as a criminal and will impose all possible severe consequences on the losing party. Therefore, the vocabulary we use is also very important here, especially when it is used by a person whose actions are attributed to the state.

I think that we should not look for some precedents here to “justify” the actions of Azerbaijan. First, they don’t exist; and second, we should focus our policy in the direction of protecting our interests and rights, the logic of which should be to free RA citizens from illegal imprisonment in a neighboring state and to bring charges against the military-political leadership of that state for their international crimes.

Whatever happens, we must not give up our RIGHTS. Never.

Renunciation will lead to a point of no return.

This is neither a military nor a geopolitical problem. At the moment, it only requires legal and diplomatic work, which must be carried out regardless of the amount of military equipment and geopolitical arrangement, so that at some point, when the situation is arranged in our favor, we can seize the fruits of the legal instruments we have mobilized and achieve political results.


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