Azerbaijan’s top military prosecutor has admitted that suspects were tortured in the notorious “Tartar case,” in which dozens of Azerbaijanis were accused of spying for Armenia.
Military Prosecutor Khanlar Valiyev made the revelations at a November 1 press conference. He said that more than 100 people were subjected to various forms of physical violence in the course of the investigation of the four-and-a-half-year-old case, and that one person had died as a result.
“Prior to the Military Prosecutor's Office's investigation, physical violence, as well as very serious measures, were carried out against individuals suspected of high treason. As a result, one person died before we started the criminal case,” Valiyev said. “Illlegal torture of military personnel was carried out on a large scale.”
The admission comes after years of official denial of widespread reports of torture in the case.
The case dates to May 2017, when the authorities announced that they had uncovered a large conspiracy of Azerbaijani soldiers and civilians who were allegedly cooperating with Armenia’s secret services to pass on secret information that would allow the latter to carry out terrorist acts in Azerbaijan.
Unknown dozens were arrested, concentrated in the Tartar region of western Azerbaijan, giving rise to the term “Tartar case.”
The investigation and prosecutions in the case have taken place under great secrecy, and the numbers of those arrested, as well as their fates, have never officially been reported.
Human rights groups have documented widespread torture of the suspects in the case. The international anti-torture organization OMCT reported that as of April at least 78 people had been detained and sentenced to terms between 12 and 20 years, with 11 dying as a result of torture in custody.
A group of members of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe also conducted an investigation and found that more than 200 soldiers had been tortured.
The Institute for Peace and Democracy, an Azerbaijani human rights organization run by exiles Arif and Leyla Yunus -- themselves accused on trumped-up charges of spying for Armenia -- has called the case “one of the most top-secret and bloody crimes of the Aliyev regime.”
Outside this case, torture also is reportedly widespread among Azerbaijani law enforcement; the Council of Europe found that the practice is “systemic and endemic” in the country.
In May, Valiyev was asked about the torture allegations in the Tartar case and called them “unfounded noise.”
Now, he has changed his tune, and said that military prosecutors had carried out investigations into the torture allegations and found many victims who were then treated in the hospital. “The lives of many of these people were saved,” he said. He said 16 officers were prosecuted and convicted for the torture and sentenced to “long terms.”
It is unclear what prompted the change of message, but Valiyev connected the case to last year’s war, which ended in a victory over Armenia. He suggested that the investigations had rooted out traitors in the armed forces, and that no one was prosecuted for treason in the war.
“Otherwise, if our army had not been cleansed, perhaps we would have been in a very bad situation and could not have won this victory,” he said.
The case has long raised suspicion among independent activists and the political opposition, and many were not impressed with Valiyev’s belated admission.
Economist and opposition politician Gubad Ibadoglu said that Valiyev had understated the occurrences of torture “by a factor of 10,” but was nevertheless forced to acknowledge it because “it was impossible to deny the crimes on such a scale.”
“What worries everyone at the moment is that not all criminals are being punished [for torture], and the punishments given are inadequate,” Ibadoglu wrote on Facebook. “Therefore, the main way for the government to get out of the Tartar crisis is through fair trials through the establishment of open courts and the legal punishment of everyone involved in crimes.”
Human rights activist Rasul Jafarov, who has monitored the case closely, noted an apparent discrepancy in Valiyev’s admission: while the prosecutor said that one person died before the investigation was launched on May 3, 2017, by Jafarov’s accounting all those who died as a result of the case did so after the investigation began.
He said those discrepancies in the case, as well as the fact that many torture victims still have not been recognized as such, raise questions about the government’s real interest in getting to the bottom of the case.
His research has found that 46 victims of torture in the Tartar case still have not found justice, and that many of those prosecuted for torture received only light sentences, he told the independent Azerbaijani news outlet Meydan TV. “When Khanlar Valiyev answers these questions, the truth will come out,” he said.
Ulkar Natiqqizi is an Azerbaijani journalist.