Azerbaijan: Light slowly being shed on notorious torture case
A new government investigation has brought arrests and official recognition of many more victims. But it remains unclear why the Tartar case, which alleged widespread spying in the military, was launched in the first place.
Emil Aliyev did not have to join the Azerbaijani army, his father recalls. Born in Dagestan, he was a Russian citizen and so was not subject to conscription even after moving to Azerbaijan in 1994. But he wanted to serve, applied for citizenship, and joined the armed forces.
At first, “he was a cook in his unit, but he insisted on being promoted for frontline service,” Emil’s father, Abdulnasir Aliyev, told Eurasianet. He did his one-year service and left the army in 2011, got married and had a son.
But in 2017 Emil was arrested and charged with treason, one of hundreds of Azerbaijani soldiers rounded up over a period of two to three months in what became known as the “Tartar case,” for the western Azerbaijani city in which most of them were serving. He was convicted and sentenced to 12 years in prison.
His son’s arrest and conviction prompted Abdulnasir Aliyev to move from his home in Khachmaz to Baku and start to investigate the case. He obtained related court documents and interviewed other accused soldiers and officers.
Many of them had been tortured. “I have seen places of removed nails, tumors hanging from bodies, scars on faces. […] I have seen people’s deteriorated mental health,” Aliyev recalled to Eurasianet. What he had seen, he said, convinced him that the case was part of “a bigger game.”
It remains unclear what that bigger game might be, and why hundreds of Azerbaijani soldiers serving on the frontlines were treated this way, with no evidence having emerged of a genuine plot. At least nine (some say 11) of the suspects have died from interrogations in the investigation, and it has been described as the largest torture case in Azerbaijan’s post-independence history.
For four years, the government maintained strict secrecy about the sensational case, and firmly denied claims of torture.
But due to the stubborn advocacy of Aliyev, other victims’ families, and survivors, there has been some recent progress in opening the case to greater scrutiny. The government has announced the creation of a special working group to investigate the torture, has arrested several officers on abuse charges, and has acknowledged more and more victims. After years of despair, the victims now have some hope that justice may be served.
In May 2017, several Azerbaijani law enforcement bodies released a statement claiming that “a group of military officers and civilians of weak will betrayed the nation, the homeland and the state, lost the spirit of citizenship and devotion to the motherland and engaged in secret cooperation with enemy intelligence by repeatedly giving them information of military secrecy for the sake of their financial interests.”
The statement said that, as a result of preliminary investigations, “the planned provocations and terror activities by the enemy [an apparent reference to Armenia] in public venues in Baku were prevented.” It reported that those involved in the alleged conspiracy had been arrested on treason charges, without specifying the number of arrests.
As information began to trickle out, it emerged that hundreds of suspects had been detained. Reports of widespread torture circulated on social media. Eventually, detainees who were tortured and then released, along with families of the victims, began to speak out. All of them have said the treason accusations are false.
Abdulnasir Aliyev argues that his son was arrested based solely on the testimony of one person. Another soldier testified that Emil had handed him over to a nearby Armenian post, where the soldier said he was raped, according to court documents that Aliyev obtained. (Emil Aliyev was not serving in Tartar but in Tovuz, an area close to the border with Armenia; while most of the suspects in the case were serving in Tartar, an unknown number had been stationed in other parts of Azerbaijan.)
“But it was also proved with official documents that those areas were full of landmines and thus impossible to cross,” Aliyev said. “Plus, other witnesses who were interrogated said that Emil did not leave his post that day.”
But despite those discrepancies, the court rejected all of Emil Aliyev’s appeals over the years. The case has now been referred to the European Court of Human Rights.
As Aliyev examined the circumstances around his son’s arrest and conviction, he made contacts with a large network of other victims’ families and survivors around the country. The accounts of former detainees, who have given extensive interviews and held dozens of protests over the years demanding that the crimes against them be punished, have painted a picture of widespread, appalling torture.
“Small rooms filled with the sound of crying and screaming,” said one torture survivor, interviewed for a 2021 documentary on BBC Azerbaijani, describing the scenes he remembered. “Blood everywhere. Like a butcher shop. You would slip on blood. They pointed to a corpse on the floor – even in a car accident you don’t end up in that bad shape – and asked me to choose: admit to being a spy, give a name, or wait for the fate of the man on the floor.”
In an interview with local media, another former soldier who was accused of espionage reported that he was forced to urinate on his father, an officer at the time. Yet another detained former officer said he had seen soldiers forced to have sex with one another.
Aliyev says that his son was relatively lucky: He was arrested late in the roundup and thus was spared the worst torture. But in his investigations and meeting other survivors, he has seen how traumatic it is. “It was a terrible experience, and only now does it seem like they are recovering,” he said.
For years, Azerbaijani law enforcement bodies remained silent on accusations of torture and humiliation. In 2019, a group of 12 army officers – a fraction of the number believed to be involved – were arrested on torture charges; all were convicted and sentenced to terms of between three-and-a-half and 10 years in prison. But that didn’t satisfy victims and their advocates, who continued to write letters, hold protests, and give interviews.
Eventually, the government started taking more action.
In November 2021, Azerbaijan’s chief military prosecutor Khanlar Valiyev admitted to journalists for the first time that suspects – more than 100, he said – had been subjected to various forms of physical violence in the initial investigation of the Tartar case, and that one person had died as a result.
In December – days after survivors’ supporters had held a protest in Baku – the General Prosecutor’s Office announced that it would be creating a special working group to “investigate objectively and comprehensively every single unlawful act” in the Tartar case, which it put under “special watch.”
On February 9, three more former army officers were arrested on charges of unlawful imprisonment, torture and inhumane treatment, and abuse of power, and another on charges of intentional damage to health.
The prosecutor’s lengthy statement about those arrests also reported that it had found that 163 additional people were “identified and recognized as victims of torture and other illegal acts, fully and thoroughly interrogated, and went through forensic medical examination.” That brought the total number of victims to 281 in the case, including those officially identified as victims during the 2019 investigation.
The statement also reported that the conviction of one precious espionage suspect, who died during the investigation, had now been annulled. Elchin Guliyev had been a truck driver supplying food for the armed forces during his service in 2017; he was detained in the case and was killed after being tortured in May 2017. In December 2017, a criminal case against Guliyev on charge of treason was terminated without acquittal because of his death. That decision was now annulled by the General Prosecutor on grounds that it was “unlawful and baseless” and “[a] final decision will be made after all cases involving him [Guliyev] will be investigated fully, comprehensively and objectively,” the statement reads.
Valida Ahmadova, Guliyev’s mother, is optimistic that the decision is a beginning of the restoration of justice for her son. “I have let them [the investigation] know that I heard enough false promises over the last four years and I can’t afford to hear another one,” she told Eurasianet.
Meanwhile, the list of recognized victims has continued to grow. On February 15, the chief of the Investigation Department of the General Prosecutor’s Office, Nemat Avazov, told a press briefing that 296 victims had been identified.
Abdulnasir Aliyev said he has been invited to testify to prosecutors, both as a relative of a victim but also in his role as an amateur investigator. He predicts that the number of recognized victims will expand even further, as more and more people he has met from his own work are testifying as well.
“They have been content with the investigation so far, but it is too early to say what will come of it,” he said.
There are causes both for concern and hope, he said.
It’s still not known who was responsible for ordering the initial prosecutions and tortures of suspects, and they are likely still in positions of power. It’s also not known if they themselves are targets in the investigation and it is possible that they will “try to sabotage the process with the powers they have,” Aliyev said.
Another issue is the careers of those who were falsely accused: Some of the former officers who had been tortured and then removed from service as a result of the espionage allegations have been rehired, but it is not yet known whether they will get compensation for the years they lost, Aliyev said.
And one lawyer who had been working for victims and bringing public attention to the case, Ilham Aslanoglu, was arrested for five months on libel charges in January after the father of an officer he accused of torture sued him.
“We didn’t expect anything else,” Arastun Orujlu, a U.S.-based analyst who has been an outspoken voice on the Tartar case, wrote on Facebook. “Because the government that committed the Tartar massacre cannot do anything else.”
Meanwhile, basic questions remain unanswered about why the entire affair happened at all.
In 2019, during the first trials of those suspected of torture, the wife of one officer who had died while being tortured asked the man accused of killing him why he had done what he had done.
The officer, Fuad Aghayev, replied “because I was ordered to do so – either I had to kill him, or I would be killed,” the widow, Ravana Ojagverdiyeva, recalled to BBC Azerbaijani then. “Then I asked him, who were they? He said he couldn’t say. I asked, did my husband admit to being a spy? Aghayev said ‘no, if he had done so, he would still be alive.’”
In the years since the case first began, many in Azerbaijan have speculated as to who was behind the accusations and torture, and what their motivation was. In the absence of solid information, conspiracies have flourished.
One prominent theory that has emerged is that some nefarious government plotted the tortures somehow to weaken the Azerbaijani armed forces.
“The forces that didn’t want the victory of our army managed to strike a crushing blow to its reputation by playing a cunning game at the hands of the fifth column infiltrated into the army,” one member of parliament Vahid Ahmadov, told local news outlet Moderator.az, without specifying who these “forces” were. “The main task of the investigation now is to find out whether there are still members of the fifth column inside the army who have managed to stay hidden.”
Ahmadova, the killed officer’s mother, thinks that the tortures were an attempt to eliminate the best soldiers from the army and to damage morale. “We don’t know now who was behind it, but it was a well-orchestrated act,” Ahmadova told Eurasianet.
Some have suggested that the masterminds of the case are in the senior military leadership. Most often accused: Najmaddin Sadikov, the former chief of staff of the armed forces. Sadikov has a poor reputation among Azerbaijanis, many of whom call him a traitor, for his alleged ties to Russia and rumor that his brother is a senior officer in the Armenian army. He was relieved of duty in January 2021, just after the country’s victory in the war over Armenia.
There are two possible explanations for the affair, suggested Rasul Jafarov, the director of the Baku Human Rights Club, who has been closely monitoring the case. “One is that during the four-day war of April 2016 between Azerbaijan and Armenia, more territories were taken by Azerbaijan than had been known, but they were later given up. And the authorities decided that treason is the answer, and they started the large-scale tortures to find out," Jafarov told BBC Azerbaijani.
"Another theory is that some people in the military leadership – most people point to the former chief of staff of the armed forces, Najmaddin Sadikov – wanted to diminish the success of the four-day war and depress morale in the army. And they carried out these tortures in Tartar because much of this success was achieved in Tartar."
Whatever the investigation turns up, even if it does ultimately uncover who was behind the affair, one thing will remain the same for at least nine families: the findings won’t bring back their loved ones.
“Who will answer for our suffering?” Ahmadova asked. “It’s a massive tragedy.”
Heydar Isayev is a journalist from Baku.