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Trial of Nagorno-Karabakh Armenian for war crimes continues in Baku

Vagif Khachaturyan in court. Photo: Trend.az

A Nagorno-Karabakh Armenian detained in July is on trial in Azerbaijan on charges of committing war crimes during the First Nagorno-Karabakh War. 

Vagif Khachatryan, 68, was arrested in July as he was being evacuated to Armenia by the Red Cross for heart surgery. He is accused of taking part in a massacre of Azerbaijani civilians in the village of Meshali, in Khojali district, on 22 December 1991. 

[Read more: Azerbaijan arrests Nagorno-Karabakh resident for ‘war crimes’]

A 1992 report by the Russian human rights group, Memorial, cited ‘severe violence against the civilian population’ in Meshali by ethnic Armenian forces in 1991.

According to Azerbaijan’s General Prosecutor’s Office, 25 Azerbaijanis were killed, 14 were injured, and 358 were displaced from their places of residence during the events in Meshali village.

Khachatryan is being tried on charges of genocide and deportation or forced transfer of the population. If found guilty, he faces 14 to 20 years or life imprisonment. 

Khachatryan has denied all charges against him and claimed that witness statements had been falsified. He claimed that the attack had been planned in Stepanakert (Khankandi) a day earlier, but that he only learnt about the attacks in Meshali a day after they happened, as he was working at the time. 

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‘Someone comes and says they saw me at the bottom of the village, someone says that I was at the top of the village, someone says that I saw him near the pond. How is it that I was in all those places?’, asked Khachatryan. ‘I swear to God, I was not there’. 

He added that if he had been a participant in such a crime, he would not have attempted to enter Armenia at the Lachin checkpoint and ‘would have crossed illegally like others’. 

Witnesses interrogated on 18 October claimed that Khachatryan was one of the main perpetrators of the violence in Meshali, with some claiming to have directly seen Khachatryan, while others stated that their family members had told them of his participation in the attack. 

Fazil Hajiyev, one of the witnesses, stated that Khachatryan had been a leading perpetrator of the massacre.

Hajiyev described the events of the day in court, stating that inhabitants of the village were blocked from leaving. 

‘Five people were set on fire in one house. Imagine they set the house on fire and shot at the door so that they cannot leave the house. Five or six people were also burned alive in the school’, said Hajiyev. 

The case’s victims include the legal heirs of those killed in Meshali, those injured there, and the Executive Power of Khojali district. 

Khachatryan’s trial will continue on 24 October. 

A ‘blatant violation of fundamental rights’

Armenian authorities and Khachatryan’s family have been swift to condemn the trial, with one of his daughters telling RFE/RL that the accusations against him were ‘defamation’. 

‘He was neither a commander nor a deputy commander. He was a driver’, said Tsovinar Khachatryan. 

Vera Khachatryan, also Vagif’s daughter, told OC Media that the family was going through a very difficult and emotionally overwhelming time. 

‘We are upset because we don’t have any information, we get information from the internet like you. We only know that our father is innocent, but we don’t know why he is there now,’ said Vera. 

Vera added that the family had been in contact with Vagif Khachatryan only once through the ICRC since his arrest, prior to the start of his trial on 13 October. 

Armenia’s Human Rights defender Anahit Manasyan stated that the trial was a ‘blatant violation’ of Khachatryan’s ‘fundamental rights’, and called on international human rights organisations to respond. 

Manasyan had earlier dismissed Azerbaijan’s accusations, stating that no ‘international prosecution’ was registered in any international databases against Khachatryan. 

The Armenian Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated after Khachatryan’s arrest that the ICRC had provided a list of patients to be transported in advance, and transported patients only after they had received agreement. 

It also claimed that the Azerbaijani Prosecutor General’s statement released shortly after the detention was ‘full of false narratives and accusations’, proving that Khachatryan’s arrest had been ‘thoroughly planned in advance’. 

The Ministry noted that Azerbaijan’s statement contained ‘an open threat to apply the same approach to other residents of Nagorno-Karabakh as well’.

In late August, Azerbaijani border troops detained three Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians at the Lachin checkpoint. They were released after ten days of administrative detention, allegedly for insulting the Azerbaijani flag in 2021. 

‘Using the judicial process for a domestic audience’

Araz Aliyev, a political commentator and member of the Board of Directors of the Azerbaijani pro-democracy NIDA Movement, told OC Media that it was important that the trial was held openly, with public access to ‘the issues and accusations’. 

He stated that while Azerbaijan should be interested in ‘uncovering the truth’ in Khachatryan’s trial and in the case of other historical crimes, media reports suggested that the authorities were attempting to use the judicial process ‘for the domestic audience’. 

He added that two Azerbaijani soldiers imprisoned in Armenia, one on charges of murdering a security guard in Syunik, should be tried in a ‘fair and legal manner’. 

‘The issue of the fair, objective, and legal trial of Khachatryan and prisoners of war can be an important step in the restoration of lasting peace and justice for both countries’, said Aliyev. 

 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.