The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), on Tuesday, announced a ruling that Azerbaijan violated a key European convention by pardoning, rewarding and glorifying an Azerbaijani army officer who hacked to death a sleeping Armenian colleague during a 2004 NATO training program.
Armenian Army Lieutenant Gurgen Margaryan was brutally killed by Azerbaijani officer Ramil Safarov during a NATO Partnership for Peace Program in Hungary. Safarov was pronounced guilty by a Hungarian Court and sentenced to life in prison, yet Safarov was later extradited to Azerbaijan where he was absolved of any crimes, gifted an apartment, received 8 years of back pay, promoted to a higher rank in the Azeri military during a public ceremony and praised as a national hero by Azeri dictator Ilham Aliyev.
In the case, Makuchyan and Minasyan v. Azerbaijan and Hungary, the ECHR ruled that Azerbaijan violated Article 2 (right to life) and Article 14 (prohibition of discrimination) of the European Convention. The plaintiffs sought legal action against Aliyev’s pardon of the killer after he was extradited to Azerbaijan and pardoned.
The suit was brought forth in 2013 by Hayk Makuchyan, another participant of the NATO program whom Safarov attempted to murder with the same axe and Samvel Minasyan, the uncle of the slain Lieutenant.
The plaintiffs appealed to the ECHR to rule that the Azerbaijani and Hungarian governments’ actions violated several articles of the European Convention on Human Rights and requested that the killer’s pardon be revoked. One of those articles upholds a person’s right to life and while another forbids any ethnic or religious discrimination.
With its decision, the ECHR declared the Azerbaijani government’s actions amounted to the “approval” and “endorsement” of a “very serious ethnically-biased crime” and violated the European Convention by freeing the killer Safarov after extraditing him to Azerbaijan.
“Nevertheless, it turned out that there was no justification for the fact that the Azerbaijani authorities did not ensure that Ramil Safarov served his sentence, leaving him unpunished for a serious hate crime,” the ECHR verdict notes. The court added that Azerbaijan had no justification in the actions they took to protect the killer whose heinous hate crime was racially motivated.
“Quite apart from his pardon, the Court is particularly struck by the fact that, in addition to immediate release, upon his return to Azerbaijan [Safarov] was granted a number of other benefits, such as salary backpay for the period spent in prison, a flat in Baku and a promotion in military rank awarded at a public ceremony,” reads the ruling.
“In addition, the Court finds particularly disturbing the statements made by a number of Azerbaijani officials glorifying [Safarov,] his deeds and his pardon. It also deplores the fact that a large majority of those statements expressed particular support for the fact that [Safarov’s] crimes had been directed against Armenian soldiers, congratulated him on his actions and called him a patriot, a role model and a hero,” it says.
The ECHR also ruled that Azerbaijan should pay plaintiffs Makuchyan and Minasyan around £15,000 in legal fees incurred during the trial. The plaintiffs had not requested any monetary compensation.
In a 2017 report, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) revealed that from 2012 to 2013, more than $9 million was transferred to Hungarian bank accounts of an offshore company owned by the son of a senior Azerbaijani government official. The report showed that the first $450,000 cash transfer was carried out in July 2012, one month before Safarov’s extradition.
The OCCRP report titled “The Azerbaijan Laundromat” claimed that Azerbaijan’s ruling elite used a $2.9 billion slush fund to pay off European politicians, buy luxury goods, and launder money in 2012-2014.
Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto strongly denied any connection between the cash flows and the scandalous extradition. Hungary’s controversial Prime Minister Viktor Orban visited Baku in June 2012.
Yet the ECHR’s decision further stated that the Hungarian government was absolved of any violations for their lax behavior against Azerbaijan’s extradition since they had no knowledge of Baku’s decision to pardon the killer, in spite of heavy opposition by the Armenian government.
Safarov’s release provoked a furious reaction from Armenia and strong international criticism including Armenia suspending diplomatic ties with Hungary in protest.
Armenia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement viewing the “ruling of the ECHR as a demand addressed to the authorities of Azerbaijan to restore justice in the dreadful murder of Gurgen Margaryan and end its racist policy towards Armenians. To this end, the Republic of Armenia will make consistent efforts in the relevant international bodies.
“The release of convicted murderer Ramil Safarov by the decree of the President of Azerbaijan and his glorification is a disrespect and affront to the standard of civilization and human dignity.” the statement continued. “Today, when those actions received their legal assessment, we more than ever are determined to prevent hate crimes and protect the security of the Armenian people in the region.”