Azerbaijani forces abused Armenian prisoners of war (POWs) from the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, subjecting them to cruel and degrading treatment and torture either when they were captured, during their transfer, or while in custody at various detention facilities, Human Rights Watch said Friday.
Azerbaijani authorities should investigate all allegations of ill-treatment and hold those responsible to account. Azerbaijan should also immediately release all remaining POWs and civilian detainees and provide information on the whereabouts of servicemen and civilians whose situation is unknown but 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 Human Rights Watch. “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.”
Human Rights Watch interviewed four former POWs who detailed their ill-treatment in custody as well as the ill-treatment of other POWs with whom they were captured or shared cells. They all described prolonged and repeated beatings. 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 men were held in degrading conditions, given very little water and little to no food in the initial days of their detention.
Scores of videos showing scenes in which Azerbaijani officers can be seen apparently ill-treating Armenian POWs have been posted to social media. Human Rights Watch closely examined and verified more than 20 of these videos, including through interviews with recently repatriated POWs and family members of servicemen who appear in the videos but have not yet returned. Human Rights Watch also reviewed medical documents.
The accounts of torture and ill-treatment raise concerns that Armenian POWs still in Azerbaijani custody are at risk of further abuse, Human Rights Watch said. Azerbaijani authorities should ensure that Armenian POWs and other detainees still in custody have all the protections to which they are entitled under international human rights and humanitarian law, including freedom from torture and ill-treatment.
The armed conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh escalated on September 27, when Azerbaijan began a military offensive. Hostilities ended on November 10 with a Russia-negotiated truce. The peace agreement provided, among other things, for “an exchange of prisoners of war and other detained persons and bodies of the dead.”
The number of Armenian POWs still in custody remains unclear. By the end of February 2021, Armenia’s Representative Office at the European Court of Human Rights had asked the court to intervene with Azerbaijan regarding 240 cases of alleged prisoners of war and civilian detainees. In approximately 90 percent of those cases, the office said, they had provided photo and/or video evidence confirming that Azerbaijani forces had taken these people into custody.
Armenia’s leadership said that Azerbaijan has returned 69 POWs and civilians. Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev said that his government has returned all the POWs to Armenia but was still holding approximately 60 people as terrorism suspects. Human Rights Watch is not in a position to verify the claims by Azerbaijan or Armenia about the numbers of people remaining in custody or their status.
An Armenian Foreign Ministry representative in Yerevan told Human Rights Watch on February 24 that families are “increasingly desperate” to find their loved ones, especially in light of numerous credible reports of prisoner abuse.
All four former POWs who spoke with Human Rights Watch had been wounded before their capture. In one case, Human Rights Watch documented, an Azerbaijani officer provided first aid to a wounded Armenian soldier shortly after capturing him. Another Azerbaijani officer gave pain medication to another POW. One former POW said the commanding officer told his subordinates not to hit the POWs but that as soon as the commanding officer was no longer present, the soldiers would abuse them.
International humanitarian law, or the law of armed conflict, requires parties to an international armed conflict to treat POWs humanely in all circumstances. The third Geneva Convention protects POWs “particularly against acts of violence or intimidation and against insults and public curiosity.” Azerbaijan is also bound by the absolute prohibition on torture and other degrading or inhuman treatment in international law as articulated in both the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), to which it is a party.
“We heard accounts and viewed images of prolonged and repeated beatings of Armenian prisoners of war, designed, it seems, solely to humiliate and punish them,” Williamson said. “Torture and ill-treatment of prisoners of war constitute war crimes for which accountability is urgently needed.”