On November 7, the Baku Military Court convicted a Karabakh Armenian man of committing "genocide" and illegal deportation and sentenced him to 15 years in prison.
Vagif Khachatryan, 68, is thus the first of a handful of Karabakh Armenians in Azerbaijani detention to be convicted. He is the only one that is not a former high-ranking official of the self-proclaimed Nagorno-Karabakh Republic.
He was also the first to be arrested. Khachaturyan was detained by Azerbaijani border guards in July at the newly constructed Lachin checkpoint. At that time, Nagorno-Karabakh was still inhabited by Armenians and was under Azerbaijani blockade. Khachatryan was due to have a heart operation in Yerevan and was one of a limited number of people being allowed passage through the checkpoint with the help of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).
Khachatryan was accused of committing war crimes against Azerbaijanis during the First Karabakh War, specifically during Armenian forces' seizure of the village of Meshali in Nagorno-Karabakh's Khojaly District on December 22, 1991. In that incident, 25 Azerbaijanis were reportedly killed and more than 350 were expelled.
Several survivors from Meshali were brought in as witnesses to Khachatryan's trial, and most claimed to recognize him. “They attacked civilians. Vagif, his brother, and others were also there. They hated Azerbaijanis. They said that the land and the village belonged to them and told us to leave. They poisoned and slaughtered our cattle in the meadow,” one former Meshali resident told the court.
Khachatryan denied his involvement in the Meshali events and claimed that he only worked in provisions in the rear during the war. “I didn’t participate in events in the Meshali village, but I’m sorry for whatever happened to the Azerbaijani people from our side,” he said.
Khachatryan is a native of the village of Patara, which is about six kilometers from the site of the alleged atrocity.
The 15-year sentence was the maximum possible. Azerbaijani law envisages a maximum sentence of life in prison for war crimes but prohibits life sentencing for those over 65.
Armenia's Foreign Ministry said the trial was a mockery of justice that went against the norms of international humanitarian law.
Khachatryan was the only Karabakh Armenian to be arrested and charged prior to Azerbaijan's lightning offensive to retake all of Nagorno-Karabakh on September 19-20. That operation, followed by the surrender of the Karabakh army and the dissolution of its government structures, triggered the flight of the region's Armenian population.
During that exodus, Azerbaijan arrested eight former high-ranking officials of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, including its last three presidents.
They face various charges including terrorism and separatism. Their trials have yet to start.