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4 October 2023

Azerbaijani Authorities Detain Former Karabakh De Facto Leaders Amid Ongoing Tensions

On 3 October media reported various arrests of several high-level de facto officials for crimes during their time working in the separatist region in Karabakh.

Azerbaijani Authorities Detain Former Karabakh De Facto Leaders Amid Ongoing Tensions

Image: @RubenVardanyan/Twitter

On 3 October, media reported that Arkhady Ghukasyan, Bako Sahakyan, and Arayik Harutyunyan had been apprehended and transferred from Karabakh to Baku, where they face multiple charges stemming from crimes allegedly committed under their de facto leadership of the small separatist region situated within Azerbaijan.

Those reports were effectively confirmed today and follow last week’s detention of several other high-level de facto officials in the wake of Azerbaijan’s 19 September military operation in the region. Among them is Russian-Armenian businessman and former de facto State Minister Ruben Vardanyan.

On 28 September, a Baku court placed Vardanyan in pre-trial detention for four months. He faces charges of financing terrorism, illegally crossing the border, and membership of an illegal armed group. 

Despite the significance of Vardanyan, Ghukasyan, and Sahakyan’s arrest, Arayik Harutyunyan was likely especially high-priority given his public admission of authorizing missile attacks on Ganja during the 2020 Karabakh war.

Indeed, on 1 October, Azerbaijani Prosecutor General Kamran Aliyev announced that Harutyunyan had been placed on an international wanted list for the strikes that killed 32 and wounded over 100 in Azerbaijan’s third-largest city. 

Alov Safaraliyev has been assigned as his lawyer. “His health and psychological state are fine,” Safaraliyev was quoted as saying after attending Harutyunyan's interrogation. “What he said will help shed light on many issues. We will carry out his defence in accordance with the legislation of the Republic of Azerbaijan.”

Yerevan, however, remains unconvinced. On 28 September, Armenia had already submitted a petition to the International Court of Justice requesting that Baku “refrain from taking punitive measures against current or former political representatives or military personnel of Nagorno Karabakh.”

Azerbaijan says that it had already offered amnesty to those members of the military that put down their weapons but, on 1 October, also announced an international wanted list of over 300 figures accused of “serious crimes.” including David Babayan, Karabakh’s former de facto foreign minister who reportedly travelled of his own volition to Shusha to hand himself over to the authorities. 

Like Harutyunyan, Babayan was wanted for his role in the missile attacks on Ganja, specifically one conducted on 17 October 2020 that killed 15 civilians.

Earlier today, the Armenian Foreign Ministry issued a statement condemning the arrests. “Despite the dialogue with the representatives of Nagorno-Karabakh, the respect and protection of the rights of Armenians, the willingness not to hinder their return to Nagorno-Karabakh, and the statements of high-ranking officials of Azerbaijan regarding the establishment of peace in the region, the law enforcement bodies of Azerbaijan continue arbitrary arrests,” it said. 

“The statement issued by Armenia, causing panic and brewing racial and ethnic hatred among the Armenian residents who voluntarily left Azerbaijan instead of encouraging their return, is an integral part of Armenia’s destructive actions hindering peace efforts,” Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs immediately countered.

Further, charged Baku, it “constitutes an attempt to justify the acts committed by those who are now under arrest.”