It is by seeing the picture of his father in a detention center in Baku, looking tired and stuck between two Azerbaijani officers, that David Vardanyan learned that his eldest is now a political prisoner. It is September 27, and Azerbaijan has just taken by force the Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, the subject of conflicts for more than thirty years between these two Caucasian neighbors. Fearing for their safety, more than 100,000 Armenians who populated this unrecognized self-proclaimed republic left their ancestral land to take refuge in Armenia.
Among them, Ruben Vardanyan. But he couldn’t pass the checkpoint to reach the Armenian border. He was caught by the Azerbaijani authorities, who accused him of “financing terrorism” in Azerbaijan, of having “entered Nagorno-Karabakh illegally” last year and of having “provided military equipment to the forces armies of this republic.
For the Azerbaijani regime, the capture of Ruben Vardanyan is a great achievement. A former Russian-Armenian oligarch who made his fortune in the banking sector, he abandoned his dual nationality to occupy the post of Prime Minister of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic in 2022. The greatest Armenian philanthropist, he has become a central figure in the economic development of Armenia and its culture, he who comes from a family of intellectuals who survived the 1915 genocide. Quite a symbol. “The last time I spoke to my father was before Azerbaijan began its military operation in Karabakh. Since then, my mother has only had a few phone calls with him, but we don’t “We don’t know more about his conditions of detention, nor how he is doing,” his son David told L’Express from Singapore, where he lives.
“No one is safe”
Behind bars, Ruben Vardanyan finds himself alongside 54 other Armenians from Karabakh. Civilians and soldiers kidnapped from disputed lands between Armenia and Azerbaijan are detained there, the majority since the 2020 war. In September 2023, Azerbaijani authorities also captured 7 senior officials of the self-proclaimed republic, including three former presidents.
Some have already been sentenced to heavy sentences, like Vagif Khachatryan, 68 years old, found guilty on November 7 of “genocide” and illegal deportation. This former soldier was extricated from an ICRC vehicle [NDLR : Comité International de la Croix-Rouge] while on his way to Armenia for heart surgery. He received 15 years in prison.
All these detainees fear receiving the same sentence. Represented by Azerbaijani lawyers, “there is no doubt that they will remain imprisoned”, according to Luis Moreno-Ocampo, former prosecutor of the International Criminal Court. “In Azerbaijan, there is no independent justice system and detainees are often tortured,” he says. For this reason, David Vardanyan says he is “very worried” for his father, as for his country: “it is a message sent to the entire Armenian world that no one is safe.”
The release of the fifty Armenian prisoners is the subject of legal procedures carried out at the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) and the International Criminal Court, but “they will take some time before being implemented”, deplores Siranush Sahakian, representative of Armenian prisoners of war at the ECHR. At the same time, the fate of the prisoners also weighs on the political negotiations between Baku and Yerevan. “We are convinced that the Azerbaijanis are using them to put pressure on the Armenian government so that it responds to their political demands,” warns the Armenian lawyer.
“It is above all a matter of obtaining forced confessions of the Armenian occupation in Azerbaijan from the eight former leaders of Nagorno-Karabakh, to have Armenia recognized as guilty,” analyzes Benyamin Poghosyan, president of the Center for Strategic Studies, political and economic of Armenia.
It is difficult, in this context, to achieve normalization of relations between the two countries. The small Armenian republic demands mutual recognition of its national integrity and the demarcation of borders between the two states. Therefore, “if Azerbaijan recognizes these principles, a peace agreement can be initiated”, further supported Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian at the Paris Peace Forum on November 10. But faced with these calls, Azerbaijani diplomacy remains silent.
It is above all the choice of the format that the negotiations will take which, for the moment, is blocking the peace process. “Armenia is in favor of Western mediation by Brussels or Washington, to obtain solid security guarantees in the event of another violation of this agreement by Azerbaijan,” explains Benyamin Poghosyan. But the Azerbaijani side is reluctant to involve the West and declines every opportunity for dialogue.
Because Azerbaijan certainly has other plans. “Why would Ilham Aliev stop in Nagorno-Karabakh, he who has not been punished in any way? alarms Siranush Sahakian. The Azerbaijani regime continues to advance hatred of Armenia and speaks of a Western Azerbaijan “. Many expect to see Azerbaijan attack Armenia, first through the Syunik region, which forms the junction between mainland Azerbaijan and its enclave of Nakhichevan. “The pause in the negotiation process creates additional dangers for new military escalations, in particular around the “enclaves” that Baku presents as Azerbaijani territories occupied by Armenia, in the north or on the Nakhchivan border,” underlines Benyamin Poghosyan. Azerbaijan would give itself time to flex its muscles again.