A court in Nagorno-Karabakh on Monday sentenced one Azerbaijani man to life imprisonment and another to 22 years in prison on charges stemming from the murder of an Armenian teenager which led to their high-profile arrests in July.
In a verdict condemned by Azerbaijan’s government, Dilgam Askerov and Shahbaz Quliyev were convicted of illegal border crossing and arms possession, espionage and kidnapping. Askerov, who was jailed for life, was also found guilty of killing Smbat Tsakanian, a 17-year-old Armenian resident of the Kelbajar district sandwiched between Armenia and Karabakh.
Quliyev and Askerov were separately captured by Karabakh Armenian security forces in July after crossing into Kelbajar together with another Azerbaijani, Hasan Hasanov. Hasanov was gunned down several days later, moments after reportedly opening fire at a military vehicle that carried an Armenian army officer and a civilian. The officer, Sargis Abrahamian, was killed while the 37-year-old woman, Karine Davtian, gravely wounded.
The shootings were reported four days before Tsakanian was found dead. The Karabakh authorities believe that he was taken hostage and killed by the Azerbaijani “saboteurs.”
Quliyev, 46, and Askerov, 54, pleaded not guilty to the murder charge when they went on trial in Stepanakert in October. Each of them claimed to have had no part in the boy’s killing which the prosecution says was committed with an assault rifle confiscated from Askerov.
During his cross-examination in the Karabakh court last month, Askerov said he did not fire the fatal gunshots and even tried unsuccessfully to convince his companions to spare Tsakanian’s life. He referred to Quliyev as a “very bad person” who was recruited by Azerbaijani special services to infiltrate Kelbajar. Quliyev dismissed those claims as a lie.
During the trial the prosecution publicized what it considers another key piece of evidence: amateur video that was shot by Askerov in the days leading up to his arrest. It shows the two other Azerbaijanis and Tsakanian walking through a forest in the mountainous district.
Askerov can be heard saying from behind the camera, “We have captured a piglet. He is about 20 years old and doesn’t speak Azerbaijani. We can’t let him go because he would denounce us. Let’s go and see what happens.”
Commenting on the footage, Askerov claimed that he and the other Azerbaijanis did not kidnap Tsakanian from his home in a remote Kelbajar farm. He said they only asked the teenager to show them the way to the town of Kelbajar.
The Azerbaijani government has repeatedly denounced the trial as illegal and demanded the release of both men. It says that that they had a legitimate right to visit what is an internationally recognized part of Azerbaijan that has been under Karabakh Armenian control since 1993.
The Foreign Ministry in Baku stood by this position in its official reaction to the court verdict voiced later on Monday. “The ‘trial’ held in the occupied territories of Azerbaijan has no legal force,” Hikmet Hajiyev, a ministry spokesman, said, according to the APA news agency. Hajiyev said Baku will continue to press the international community to secure the release of the two “hostages.”
The authorities in Stepanakert reject such claims. They say that the arrested Azerbaijanis cannot be treated like prisoners of war because their “brutal and inhuman” actions targeted a civilian.
“The trial took place in accordance with all international norms, and it was open and transparent. The defendants had lawyers,” Davit Babayan, a spokesman for Bako Sahakian, the Karabakh president, told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am). “Their crimes were so grave that they got such punishment,” he said.