Armenians on Trial in Baku
Armenian detainees undergo preliminary trial at the Baku Court of Grave Crimes, June 25, 2021. Image: Trend News Agency
The shaky peace-building between former belligerents Armenia and Azerbaijan faces its next test this week as 14 Armenians face judgement in a Baku trial on Jun 29. If found guilty, the defendants face prison terms ranging from 14 to 20 years, or possibly life.
According to which side of the political fence you sit, these men are either ‘terrorists’ who illegally entered Azerbaijan in late November 2020 and procured unauthorized weapons. Or they are ‘POWs,’ soldiers whose only crime was being part of the Armenian armed forces sent to fight in the formerly occupied Azerbaijani territories.
Terrorists or POWs?
In Azerbaijani eyes, what differentiates these captives from genuine prisoners of war (as recognized by the Nov 10, 2020 agreement that ended the Second Karabakh War) is that they arrived after the official end of hostilities. In that light, their two-week campaign of attacks around Hadrut (Nov 27 to Dec 13, 2020) cannot be considered a part of the conflict, simply a provocative programme of subversion in which four Azerbaijani servicemen and a civilian contractor were killed. From the wording of the charges, it is not clear whether the 14 on trial are those specifically held responsible for those deaths; a further group of prisoners, also accused of being part of the Hadrut events, are still awaiting a court hearing.
Asbarez, a US-based Armenian news outlet, has called the trials a “sham,” releasing footage of an interview in which Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev appeared to “admit” that his country was keeping prisoners as bargaining tools to exchange for minefield maps. That, however, was nothing more than a mirror image of statements by Armenian prime minister Nikol Pashinyan and Armenian Colonel Koryun Gumashyan, who both “admitted” the corollary: that Armenia was holding back many of their minefield maps for deals on returning Armenian prisoners.
Likely, the sentencing of these 14 prisoners will simply add to their political value in any future swaps. But in the meantime, the situation cries out for common sense: a good-faith deal. How about just swapping all those mine maps for all remaining captives?