Azerbaijan arrests Nagorno-Karabakh resident during medical evacuation for "war crime"
The arrest sets a chilling precedent, as most of the adult male population of the region has either fought against Azerbaijan or served in the local army, which Baku calls an "illegal armed formation."
Vagif Khachatryan, a 68-year-old Armenian from Nagorno-Karabakh, was arrested by Azerbaijani border guards at the Lachin checkpoint on July 29.
He was one of 15 patients being evacuated to Armenia by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which responded by immediately halting all patient transfers.
Azerbaijan's General Prosecutor's Office said Khachatryan was arrested because he was a suspect in war crimes against Azerbaijanis during the first Karabakh war of the early 1990s. It pointed to his alleged involvement in a specific episode on December 22, 1991, in Meshali village of Khojaly district of Karabakh.
"Together with other people of Armenian nationality, he used various weapons, including firearms and infantry fighting vehicles, to completely destroy the village," it read. "They raided the village and killed 25 people of Azerbaijani nationality, injured 14 people, and contrary to national and international law norms expelled 358 Azerbaijanis from their domiciles."
Khachatryan faces charges of "genocide" and "deportation or forced movement of the population" under Azerbaijan's Criminal Code. Azerbaijan's prosecution body said an international search warrant was issued against him in 2013.
Azerbaijan's Foreign Ministry said on July 30 that he had been placed in a medical facility in Baku. Red Cross representatives have visited him there and put him in contact with his family.
Armenian and Karabakh authorities characterized the detainment as a "gross violation of international law" by Azerbaijan.
Nagorno-Karabakh's human rights ombudsman, Gegham Stepanyan, said that he and his counterpart in Armenia had confirmed that "there is no data on Vagif Khachatryan in any international intelligence system."
(Eurasianet, too, was unable to find evidence that an international body had issued a search warrant for Khachatryan.)
The Armenian Foreign Ministry said that before performing a medical evacuation, the ICRC shares the list of Armenian patients with Azerbaijani authorities, and the transfer is carried out only after the list is approved by both sides.
Hence, according to the Armenian Foreign Ministry, Azerbaijan would have been aware of Khachatryan's impending evacuation and would have been able to plan his arrest.
"The arrest of a person who is under the protection of international humanitarian law and the ICRC cannot be qualified otherwise than as a war crime," it added.
The statement also warned that Azerbaijan makes "an open threat to apply the same approach to other residents of Nagorno-Karabakh as well."
Armenia has asked the European Court of Human Rights to take interim measures against Azerbaijan in regard to the Khachatryan case.
What did Vagif Khachatryan do during the First Karabakh War?
Khachatryan did fight against Azerbaijan. His native village, Patara, is about six kilometers from Meshali, the site of the alleged atrocity.
Artak Beglaryan, an advisor to Karabakh's state minister, rejected the war crimes charge but confirmed that, "Like all males, he protected his homeland in the 1991-94 war," Beglaryan said.
Armenian newspaper Hraparak reported on 30 July that Khachatryan was the personal driver of Samvel Babayan, who was the leader of Karabakh's local armed force, the Artsakh Defense Army during and after the first Karabakh war. Khachatryan's daughter denied this claim.
Images and footage are circulating widely in Azerbaijani media and social networks that supposedly implicate Khachatryan in the Meshali massacre. The evidence presented thus far has been thin, however.
English-language pro-government Azeri Times resurfaced an old TV interview from 2001 where an Azerbaijani prisoner of war from the 1990s recounts tortures against him and names an Armenian commander named Vagif.
"Most likely this prisoner will be a witness against Vagif Khachatryan in the court," the outlet speculated.
A widely circulated photo allegedly showing Khachatryan in Meshali, was soon proven to have been taken in 1994, three years after the Meshali events.
Several former residents of Meshali told Azerbaijani media that they recognized Khachatryan as a participant in the massacre. "I recognized him as soon as I saw him on TV, I was angry that this scoundrel was still alive. I believe that he and other criminals will serve their punishment," one former resident Vali Valiyev told pro-government news agency Report.az. "
Political analyst Tural Hamid tweeted that it is "very likely" that Khachatryan participated in the attack on the village at that time as "his age allows for it". Hamid acknowledged, however, that "it is difficult to say whether he was involved in the killing of specific civilians." He added that the Azerbaijani court system was not objective and therefore could not produce a credible verdict on the case.
Implications for Karabakh's male population
Like Khachatryan, most of the adult male population of Nagorno-Karabakh fought either in the first war in 1991-94, which the Armenian side won, or in the second war in 2020, which Azerbaijan won. Those who have not fought have at least served in the local army, which has mandatory service at age 18.
Azerbaijan refers to the Karabakh army as a collection of "illegal armed formations."
Tigran Grigoryan, a political analyst originally from Nagorno-Karabakh, told CivilNet that Azerbaijan's move "means that now the entire male population of Nagorno-Karabakh is imprisoned there."
"All of this can be qualified as some sort of illegal activity by the Azerbaijani authorities" and used to present trumped-up charges against male civilians. This means that male civilians will be unable to leave Nagorno-Karabakh even in case of medical emergency," he added.
Humanitarian situation in Karabakh
Khachatryan's arrest comes amid a rapidly deteriorating humanitarian situation in Nagorno-Karabakh, which has been under Azerbaijani blockade since last December.
The blockade has been total or near-total since June 15, when Baku closed its checkpoint on the Lachin corridor connecting Karabakh to Armenia.
Only ICRC vehicles carrying patients have been allowed to use the road since then, though at times Azerbaijan has prevented patient transfers as well.
On July 27 the Armenian government dispatched 400 tons of humanitarian aid in a truck convoy headed to Nagorno-Karabakh. Azerbaijan has denied the trucks entry and they remain stuck at the border.
Heydar Isayev is a journalist from Baku.
Lilit Shahverdyan is a journalist based in Stepanakert.