Everything known about Armenian PoWs in Azerbaijan
Thousands of people are grieving the loss of loved ones in Armenia following recent fighting in Karabakh, while others remain in a suspended state of uncertainty as they do not know what happened to their relatives: whether they are in captivity, killed or are hiding on territories that are now under Azerbaijani control.
Below: everything that is known as of the time of publication about Armenian prisoners of war in Azerbaijan, the process of trying to get them home and the search for the missing.
- Reports surface of more Armenian servicemen captured in Karabakh despite truce
- No more prisoners? Azerbaijan, Armenia claim ‘all for all’ prisoner exchange completed
- Post-War Syndrome: how is Armenia experiencing the surrender?
“God saved me”
Hovsep Sahakyan was on the front line for only a day, but during this time he managed to go through all the horrors of the war.
“On October 16 I was summoned to the enlistment office and was told that I should go to the front. I said that I am the pastor of the Seventh-day Adventist Church and I cannot take up arms to kill people. However, I did not refuse to go to the front, because there is a lot of work that I can do: dig trenches, help the wounded. The military registration and enlistment office, of course, agreed,” says Hovsep.
He underwent a retraining course and on October 24 arrived in Kubatlu, where he was immediately sent to an outpost A few minutes later, a rocket attack began.
Many of Hovsep’s colleagues died or were injured that day. During a short pause, he and other military personnel evacuated the wounded and took them to hospital. A few minutes later, a new shelling began, as a result of which Hovsep himself received a shrapnel wound in the leg. The wound was deep; he had to be taken to the hospital.
“We drove only 3-4 km when I heard the sound of a drone. In an attempt to avoid being hit, our car rolled into a gorge. When I came to, I realized that everyone in the car had died, and that I had dislocated my already-wounded leg. Immediately I thought that the drone would try to blow up the car, and jumped out of it. I crawled 4-5 meters, and a bomb fell next to the car, but did not explode. Then four more bombs flew into the car. I thought that the end had come for me, but God saved my life,” Hovsep recalls.
With his wounded leg, without food or water, Hovsep spent three days in the gorge. At night he tried to crawl uphill, and during the day he lay motionless so that he would not be noticed.
“On the third day, I crawled to the road along which cars were passing. I hid again, as I thought that they might be Azerbaijanis. On the road I noticed an Armenian ambulance, corpses around. I decided to wait until nightfall.
But I was noticed before dark by Azerbaijanis. My first thought was that they would kill me, but at the same time I thought: it was not for nothing that God saved me from so many troubles,” he says.
He spent the first 14 of 50 days in captivity in Baku, and they were the most difficult:
“You all know how prisoners are treated. They even tried to kill me. In captivity, I thought about my family – my wife and baby daughter. On the one hand, it helped not to break down, but sometimes these very thoughts caused despair.”
Data on Armenian prisoners
Hovsep is one of 44 prisoners of war who returned to Armenia on December 14. Of these, 30 are servicemen, 14 are civilians. Six of those who returned were captured before the second Karabakh war in previous years.
After the end of hostilities, 53 prisoners returned to Armenia, and the body of an elderly man who died in Azerbaijani captivity was also handed over.
“The return of the prisoners took place several times. One elderly woman was returned in October, 44 prisoners – on December 14. After that, there were two more cases of returns. We also know about the death of two people, the body of one of them was transferred to the Armenian side, the other was not. Both are 80-year-olds who were killed in an Azerbaijani prison,” said former Nagorno-Karabakh ombudsman Artak Beglaryan.
The return of prisoners of war and other detained persons is regulated not only by the principles of humanitarian law, but also by the 8th paragraph of the joint statement of the leaders of Armenia, Russia and Azerbaijan, signed on November 9. In addition, the parties have formally stated that they had agreed on the exchange of “all for all”.
Human rights activists in Armenia say there are as many as 150 Armenian prisoners, but Azerbaijan does not confirm the presence of such a number of people on its territory.
At the European Court of Human Rights
The interests of 78 Armenian prisoners in the European Court of Human Rights are represented by lawyers Siranush Sahakyan and former Minister of Justice of Armenia Artak Zeynalyan.
“The principle of ‘all for all’ is violated by Azerbaijan, as they simply hide information about these people. They are not provided either to the parties to the negotiations or to the relevant international organizations, while the Armenian side presented irrefutable evidence to the ECHR regarding 50 people. But even in this case, Azerbaijan will possibly delay the process”, Siranush Sahakyan says.
According to her, it is difficult to work out the exact number of prisoners, since serious work is being done on each of them, the collection of documents: and only if all the evidence is available do the lawyers turn to the ECHR so as not to weaken the position of the Armenian side.
Despite the fact that Azerbaijan has not confirmed the fact of captivity many Siranush Sahakyan hopes that under the pressure of irrefutable evidence, ultimately, Baku will have to admit the truth and to organize their return to their homeland.
Red Cross mission
Almost every day there are queues of visitors in front of the Yerevan office of the International Committee of the Red Cross. Dozens of citizens who are looking for their relatives come here with their photos and videos from Azerbaijani social media and ask for help.
The number of people who have been addressed by ICRC staff these days has not been made public, says communications program manager Zara Amatuni:
“Only after confirmation from the country about the presence and maintenance of these people on their territory can the Red Cross can apply to visit them. After receiving confirmation, the ICRC conducts personal meetings with each prisoner, checks the conditions of their detention, helps to contact their family members. However, the details of these processes cannot be made public, and the decisions on the exchange are made exclusively by the parties.”
She recalls that the ICRC delegation plays the role of a facilitator with an advisory function and facilitates dialogue between the parties.
The organization has never disclosed and is not going to disclose information about the wanted or suspected prisoners, since “communication with the parties is carried out on the principle of confidentiality.”
At the same time, Zara Amatuni assures that the ICRC does not ignore any appeal, and the main task of the organization at this moment is to avoid the disappearance of the alleged prisoners.
About the missing
The search for the missing and the bodies of those killed in the war zone began on November 13, but hundreds of families still have not received any information about their relatives.
For more than a month, families of the missing have been holding protests outside the Ministry of Defense, various military units and the government building to get the attention of the authorities. They have one desire – to get at least some information about their relatives.
According to official information, there are 1,600 missing from the Armenian side.
Parents of some of them are sure that their children are in captivity – there are photographs and videos confirming this.
Human rights activist Artak Beglaryan notes that search work is sometimes complicated by weather conditions and difficult to access areas. However, there are also subjective factors:
“In some cases, searches are deliberately delayed, since the main hostilities took place in those territories that are currently under the control of Azerbaijan.
Often, during searches in these areas, not a single body is found, which suggests that the Azerbaijani side, before giving permission for search work, manages to remove the bodies of our soldiers from the territory and hide them. In addition, the Azerbaijani side does not name the exact number of prisoners of war, which would make it possible to make some assumptions about their fate. “
So far, as a result of search work, 1,073 bodies have been found.
As a result of protracted protests, the relatives of the missing managed to obtain permission to personally participate in the search – as part of the relevant detachments.
Is the Geneva Convention functioning?
The Geneva Convention on the Treatment of Prisoners of War clearly states not only the rules for the humane treatment of captured and arrested civilians, but also that the prisoners must be returned immediately after the end of hostilities.
All this time, the Armenian side has been demanding to pay attention to the artificial delay by Azerbaijan of the process of having prisoners of war returned home and the inhuman attitude towards them.
Over the past two months, the offices of the ombudsmen of Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh have prepared six reports on the torture and ill-treatment of Armenian prisoners.
“We have factual confirmation of 21 deaths of prisoners and civilians in the territories that came under the control of Azerbaijan. In all cases, traces of torture and mutilation were recorded, including after death. Cases of inhuman treatment and torture towards the elderly, including executions, have also been proven. Cases of decapitation of living people – two elderly and two servicemen – are known, there were also cases of cutting off the ears of living people.
The inhumane attitude and cruelty are evidenced not only by the results of the examination of the body of an elderly prisoner handed over to the Armenian side, but also by those who returned from captivity. According to them, the captives and other detained persons, including women, were subjected to inhuman treatment, the overwhelming majority – physical violence, absolutely everything – psychological,” Artak Beglaryan says.
He emphasizes that all of these cases are reported and supported by an impressive evidence base.
The former NK ombudsman is sure that the dissemination of videos and photographs in Azerbaijani social networks testifying to the inhuman attitude towards the prisoners and the bodies of the dead, the delay in the process of returning the prisoners is aimed at exacerbating the tension in Armenia, causing pain and suffering to the Armenian society.
The General Prosecutor’s Office of Armenia has also documented all these cases and is preparing to transfer the collected information to international partners in order to initiate criminal prosecution and protect the rights of the victims.
Captivity – after the end of hostilities
The information about the capture of 62 servicemen in peacetime in two villages of the Hadrut region, which came under the control of Azerbaijan, was officially confirmed.
Baku confirmed that they are in jail. The list of prisoners by name has already been handed over to the command of the Russian peacekeepers, which acts as an intermediary in the exchange of prisoners.
The number of civilians captured in “peaceful conditions”, according to various sources, is more than ten.
About a week ago, lawyer Artak Zeynalyan, who represents the interests of the prisoners at the ECHR, said that soon another group would return to Armenia. But the process of returning the prisoners was postponed. Their relatives do not know who will enter the new group, everyone is waiting for his own.
And Hovsep, who managed, despite everything, to survive and return, says that every day he prays for the prisoners and hopes that they will soon return home.
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