Azerbaijani border troops detained three residents of Nagorno-Karabakh at the Lachin checkpoint on Monday afternoon, prompting a protest in the region’s capital of Stepanakert. Azerbaijan announced that the young men would be detained for 10 days, allegedly for insulting the Azerbaijani flag two years ago.
The three football players, two of whom were born in 2001, the third in 2003, were charged with inciting national hatred and violating the Azerbaijani flag.
Azerbaijan’s Prosecutor’s Office stated on Monday evening that a criminal case against the men had been dropped in light of ‘the age of the accused individuals, their sincere remorse, and compliance with the requirements of procedural legislation’. However, the men have been sentenced to ten days of administrative detention, and will subsequently be ‘expelled’ from Azerbaijan.
News of the arrest of Alen Sargsyan, 22, came from the authorities in Stepanakert on Monday afternoon, who stated that Sargsyan was travelling out of the region accompanied by Russian peacekeepers to start his classes at a university in Yerevan in September. News of the arrest of Vahe Hovsepyan and Levon Grigoryan, Sargsyan’s teammates, was later broken by Armenian and Azerbaijani outlets.
Artak Beglaryan, an adviser to Nagorno-Karabakh’s president, told RFE/RL that several other people were interrogated in a ‘special room’ at the checkpoint, where they were asked questions about the ‘economic situation in Artsakh [Nagorno-Karabakh] and Armenia’, their involvement in sports, and the purpose of their visit to Armenia.
Beglaryan added that the Russian peacekeeping mission was negotiating for the return of the men from Azerbaijan.
Armenia’s Foreign Ministry issued a statement on Tuesday, accusing Azerbaijan of abducting the men, noting that their travel had been agreed in advance and was accompanied by Russian peacekeeping forces.
The statement accused Azerbaijan of avoiding dialogue with Nagorno-Karabakh and pursuing a policy of ‘ethnic cleansing’, stating that Nagorno-Karabakh’s population had been subjected to starvation, a blockade of medical supplies, essential goods, gas, and electricity, as well as being denied ‘all fundamental human rights [...] regardless of age, gender, [or] health status’.
‘Instead of supporting the steps to establish peace and stability in the region, Azerbaijan has put all its efforts into failing them’, the statement said.
Protests and meetings
A few hundred protesters gathered in the centre of Nagorno-Karabakh’s capital, Stepanakert, late on Monday, shortly after news of the men's detention was made public. They were demanding information about the fate of the men from the authorities. Nagorno-Karabakh’s President Arayik Harutyunyan spoke to the leaders of the protest, on the condition that the conversation was held off the record. No details of their conversation were made public.
Around the same time, a smaller protest was held in front of the Russian Embassy in Armenia’s capital, Yerevan, where protesters demanded that Russian peacekeepers fulfil their obligations and lift the blockade of the Lachin corridor.
Nagorno-Karabakh’s Security Council held an emergency meeting on Monday evening, following an extraordinary meeting of parliament. According to official statements, President Harutyunyan informed the security council about what was being done to find out what had happened to the men ‘kidnapped by Azerbaijan’, and the steps being taken to return them to Nagorno-Karabakh.
In total, Azerbaijan has arrested four men while they attempted to pass through the Azerbaijani checkpoint at the entrance of the Lachin corridor, the sole road connecting Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia.
The incidents have sparked concerns in Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh that residents of the region are not safe travelling through the corridor, despite Baku's repeated claims that the road is open for civilians.
Vagif Khachatrian was the first Nagorno-Karabakh resident to be detained at the checkpoint in late July. The 68-year-old, who was being evacuated to Armenia by the Red Cross for heart surgery, was charged with ‘war crimes’ allegedly committed during the First Nagorno-Karabakh War.
Authorities in Stepanakert have dismissed the charges, denying that Khachatrian participated in a massacre of Azerbaijani civilians in the town of Khojaly, Nagorno-Karabakh in 1992.
Entry and exit of goods and people to Nagorno-Karabakh has been blocked since December 2022. Since mid-June, the region has been under complete blockade, prompting reports of severe shortages of food and medicine.
The International Court of Justice, and a number of Western countries and human rights organisations have in recent months called on Azerbaijan to lift the blockade and ensure traffic to and from the region.
The International Committee of the Red Cross and the HALO Trust, both operating in Nagorno-Karabakh, have warned of a humanitarian emergency in the region. The latter, an international de-mining organisation, has launched a fundraising drive to help poorer residents of the region to meet their basic needs, as the remaining food available for sale has dramatically increased in price.
For ease of reading, we choose not to use qualifiers such as ‘de facto’, ‘unrecognised’, or ‘partially recognised’ when discussing institutions or political positions within Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh, and South Ossetia. This does not imply a position on their status.