Human Rights Watch (HRW) is calling on Azerbaijan to investigate all allegations of ill-treatment against Armenian prisoners of war from last fall’s war over the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region, and to hold those responsible to account.
Azerbaijani forces subjected POWs to “cruel and degrading treatment and torture either when they were captured, during their transfer, or while in custody at various detention facilities,” the New York-based human rights watchdog saidin a statement on March 19.
It said Azerbaijan should also immediately release all remaining Armenian POWs and civilian detainees and provide information on those who were last seen in Azerbaijani custody.
“The abuse, including torture of detained Armenian soldiers, is abhorrent and a war crime,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at HRW.
“It is also deeply disturbing that a number of missing Armenian soldiers were last seen in Azerbaijan’s custody and it has failed to account for them,” Williamson added.
HRW said it had interviewed four former POWs who described “prolonged and repeated beatings” while in Azerbaijani custody.
“One described being prodded with a sharp metal rod, and another said he was subjected to electric shocks, and one was repeatedly burned with a cigarette lighter,” the group said, adding that the men “were held in degrading conditions, given very little water and little to no food in the initial days of their detention.”
HRW also cited “scores of videos” posted to social media showing scenes in which Azerbaijani officers can be seen apparently ill-treating POWs.
The watchdog said it had verified more than 20 of these videos, including through interviews with repatriated POWs and family members of servicemen who appear in the clips but have not yet returned.
Raising concerns that POWs still in Azerbaijani custody are at risk of further abuse, HRW urged Azerbaijani authorities to ensure that the detainees “have all the protections to which they are entitled under international human rights and humanitarian law, including freedom from torture and ill-treatment.”
Six weeks of fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan in and around Nagorno-Karabakh ended in November with a Moscow-brokered cease-fire deal. More than 6,000 people were killed during the conflict.
Under the truce agreement, a chunk of Nagorno-Karabakh and all seven districts around it were placed under Azerbaijani administration after almost 30 years of control by ethnic Armenian forces. The agreement also provided for an exchange of POWs and other detained people.
The number of Armenian POWs still in custody is unclear.
By the end of February, Armenia had asked the European Court of Human Rights to intervene with Azerbaijan regarding 240 cases of alleged prisoners of war and civilian detainees, according to HRW.
Armenia has said that its neighbor had returned 69 POWs and civilians. Azerbaijan claimed it had returned all the POWs to Armenia but was still holding about 60 people suspected of terrorism.
HRW said it could not verify the claims by Baku or Yerevan about the numbers of people remaining in custody or their status.
Nagorno-Karabakh is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan, but the ethnic Armenians who make up most of the region’s population reject Azerbaijani rule.
They had been governing their own affairs, with support from Armenia, since Azerbaijan’s troops and Azeri civilians were pushed out of the region and seven adjacent districts in a war that ended in a cease-fire in 1994.