Date: March 23, 2021
Azerbaijani forces have been accused of inflicting horrifying torture and mistreatment on Armenian prisoners of war (PoWs) during the recent conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh.
According to Human Rights Watch captured soldiers were beaten, tortured with heated metal rods and electric shocks, denied medical attention, prevented from sleeping, and deprived of food and water.
Ghazanchetsots Cathedral (Cathedral of Christ the Holy Saviour) is an Armenian church in Shushi, Nagorno-Karabakh
Azerbaijani troops began their invasion of Nagorno-Karabakh, an ethnic-Armenian enclave within the Muslim-majority Republic of Azerbaijan, at the end of September 2020. The conflict ended with a tripartite ceasefire agreement in November 2020, with Azerbaijan having taken significant territories which had formerly been held by the Armenian community.
Nagorno-Karabakh (mountainous Karabakh) is part of the historic homeland of the Armenian people, who around 301 AD became the first Christian nation, and the region still contains many ancient churches and monasteries. Karabakh was placed within Azerbaijan by the USSR in 1923.
The conflict and subsequent accounts of Azerbaijani brutality and abuse have raised fears about the possibility of a new Armenian genocide.
PoWs beaten and abused after being captured
Accounts of degrading treatment were given by prisoners who were captured between 15 October and 20 November 2020. They were among the 44 Armenians who were returned as part of a prisoner exchange conducted under Russian supervision on 14 December.
“Davit” (not his real name), 19 years old, was captured on 15 October. At first he was treated humanely by Azerbaijani officers who prevented him from being abused. However, when he was transferred to a military police centre in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, Davit was handcuffed and forced to lie on his front in the back of a car. An Azerbaijani soldier burned his hands with a lighter, then poked him in the back with a heated metal pole until he fainted from the pain.
After this Davit spent four to five days on a hospital ward. Even here he was handcuffed to a bed while guards would punch him in the head.
Another Armenian solider, Tigran, 20 years old, recounted that the abuse began as soon as he was captured along with eight others on 20 October. Officers gave orders not to mistreat captured Armenians, but these orders were disregarded when officers were absent. Tigran was among a group of PoWs who were subjected to three hours of physical beatings, including with a metal rod, and psychological torture.
“They gave a spade to one of ours and told him to go dig his grave,” Tigran recalled. “He was so frightened he started digging.”
Deprived of food and sleep for days
Tigran, Davit and other PoWs were held at a military police station in Baku. Here the prisoners were kept handcuffed to radiators to prevent them from lying down and ensure that they remained in a constant state of discomfort. They would be taken by guards to use the toilet only once a day. This was also their only opportunity to drink some water; they were not given any food.
The prisoners were beaten at all hours of the day and night to keep them from being able to sleep. “At first, I would doze off”, said Davit, “but they would come and beat me up so badly that I would not sleep out of fear again.”
“They came in groups of two to four. One of them broke his wooden rod on me, hitting me so badly that I lost the use of my arm for a while. On my fourth day there, they beat me so badly that they actually broke two ribs.”
Another Armenian prisoner, Hovhanness, 45 years old, had been captured on 19 October. He was held at the military police station for three days, during which he was not given any food and was woken every time he fell asleep. Hovhanness described how the guards would force him to perform exercises during the night, then beat him for not performing them well enough.
Levon, 31, captured 22 October, believed that the torture and abuse was given as a punishment for perceived crimes against Azerbaijan. He described guards, “beat[ing] us nonstop for one-and-a-half to two hours, pushing us to the ground, punching, and kicking us, two or three of them working on each of us.” This would happen several times a day.
Tortured and forced to make statements against Armenia
PoWs were transferred to the National Security Ministry detention facility, also in Baku, where they were interrogated for several weeks. Although food and minimal healthcare were provided the prisoners were still subjected to torture.
Tigran described being tortured with electric shocks on two occasions, the first time for 40 minutes and the second time for ten minutes. Each time he passed out from the pain his captors would revive him and begin torturing him again.
Prisoners were also forced to make filmed statements in which they declared that they did not want to fight, that the conflict was the fault of Armenia, and that Nagorno-Karabakh was the property of Azerbaijan. These statements were scripted; Davit recalled being threatened with electric shocks if he did not repeat properly the lines he had been given.
Azerbaijan’s actions “abhorrent and a war crime”
Hugh Williamson of Human Rights Watch described the abuse and torture of PoWs as “abhorrent and a war crime”.
“We heard accounts and viewed images of prolonged and repeated beatings of Armenian prisoners of war, designed, it seems, solely to humiliate and punish them,” Williamson added. “Torture and ill-treatment of prisoners of war constitute war crimes for which accountability is urgently needed.”
The alleged mistreatment of prisoners by Azerbaijan violates the third Geneva Convention which prohibits the use of “acts of violence” or “intimidation” against PoWs, as well as violating the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).
Armenia’s Representative Office at the European Court of Human Rights has raised the cases of at least 240 alleged prisoners of war (PoWs) and civilian detainees. Other Armenian sources had estimated in January as many as 1450 Armenian people missing, of whom 150 were at that time known to be alive and held prisoner in Azerbaijan.
In December it was reported that eleven Armenian PoWs had been killed by their Azerbaijani captors amidst other Azerbaijani ceasefire violations.
The UK and other Western nations appear to be unwilling to hold Azerbaijan to account for these abuses or to facilitate the release of the Armenian PoWs.
Azerbaijan has also been accused of war crimes, including torture and extrajudicial killing, inflicted upon Armenian civilians during and after the conflict.