On August 28, Azerbaijani border guards detained three young Karabakh Armenian men during their passage through the Lachin corridor en route to Armenia.
They had been among the roughly 170 Karabakh residents being transported from Karabakh to Armenia that day under Russian peacekeeper escort.
The Azerbaijani General Prosecutor's Office released a statement saying the men were arrested for insulting state symbols and "inciting national, racial, social or religious hatred and enmity."
Azerbaijani media reported that they were members of a football team in the Nagorno-Karabakh town of Martuni that are seen stepping on an Azerbaijan flag in a video released in 2021.
It was later reported that the criminal charges against the three men were dropped "considering the age of the accused individuals, their sincere remorse, and compliance with the requirements of procedural legislation." The three will serve 10 days in administrative detention and then be expelled from Azerbaijan, according to APA news agency.
The Office of Human Rights Ombudsman of Nagorno-Karabakh named the three men as Alen Sargsyan, Vahe Hovsepyan, and Levon Grigoryan and said that all of them were students of educational institutions in Armenia.
The arrests recalled the July 29 detention of Vagif Khachatryan, a 68-year-old veteran of the First Karabakh War in the early 1990s who Azerbaijan accused of committing "war crimes." Khachatryan remains in custody in Baku.
"The abduction of Vagif Khachatryan and Alen Sargsyan irrefutably proves that the so-called checkpoint has turned into a tool for serving the Azerbaijani criminal arbitrariness, through which Azerbaijanis arbitrarily kidnap and deprive civilians of their freedom," the Karabakh Ombudsman's statement read.
The arrests of the three young men will boost apprehensions among Karabakh Armenians that their entire male population could be vulnerable to prosecution by Azerbaijan, which is intent on establishing sovereignty over the entire region.
The majority of the adult male population of Nagorno-Karabakh have links to the local army - they either fought in the first or second war (in 2020) or fulfilled mandatory military service at the age of 18.
Protests in Stepanakert
Following the news of the three young men's arrest, spontaneous demonstrations erupted in the de facto capital city of Stepanakert and in Martuni demanding explanations.
Karabakh's de facto president Arayik Harutyunyan held a 6-hour Security Council session at the National Assembly in the evening of August 28 while thousands protested outside the building.
The issues discussed included the fate of the arrested men, as well as possible solutions to the humanitarian issues the population has been experiencing particularly acutely since mid-June.
Responding to demands by some of the protesters for his resignation, Harutyunyan reportedly said: "Today, the question was also discussed: Should I be President? Tomorrow, the day after tomorrow we will decide everything in a narrow group, and if necessary, I will resign."
Discontent with the current de facto government in Nagorno-Karabakh has been growing steadily over the past 8.5 months of Azerbaijani blockade, which was made near-total in mid-June though loosened somewhat in mid-August.
Karabakh refuses aid from Azerbaijan
There is no end in sight for the blockade, which has resulted in shortages of foodstuffs and other necessities that in turn have caused an increase in the miscarriage rate, as well as deaths from malnutrition.
In late July Baku refused to allow an Armenian government convoy carrying 360 tons of humanitarian goods over the border and into Nagorno-Karabakh.
Azerbaijan has offered to supply the population through its own territory, a proposal backed by the EU and Russia but strongly opposed by the local population, which views it as an effort to legitimize the blockade and subjugate them.
On August 29, Baku unilaterally sent a convoy of Red Crescent vehicles to Nagorno-Karabakh reportedly carrying 40 tons of humanitarian goods.
The Karabakh authorities are refusing to accept it.
"If the Azerbaijani authorities are really interested in eliminating the worst humanitarian catastrophe of the people of Artsakh and stopping the genocide, then they should not play false philanthropy, but simply not prohibit the restoration of supplies to Artsakh through the Lachin corridor, as planned in the statement of November 9, 2020 and the decisions of the International Court," said Lusine Avanesyan, press officer of Karabakh's president.
Lilit Shahverdyan is a journalist based in Stepanakert.