Ex-Karabakh official held by Azerbaijan was tortured in custody, lawyers say

  • World
  • Friday, 14 Jun 2024

(Reuters) - The legal team for a former top official in the ethnic Armenian administration of Nagorno-Karabakh has alleged in a letter to a U.N. official that the politician has been tortured while in custody in Azerbaijan.

Azerbaijani authorities did not immediately reply to a request for comment on the alleged mistreatment of Ruben Vardanyan, a billionaire banker who headed the separatist Karabakh government from November 2022 to February 2023.

Vardanyan was arrested and jailed along with several other top Karabakh officials following a lightning offensive last September by Baku's forces to recapture Nagorno-Karabakh, which is part of Azerbaijan but had been under the control of ethnic Armenian separatists since the 1990s.

Lawyers for Armenian-born Vardanyan said the 56-year-old had been abused while on hunger strike in April. He is currently being held in a pre-trial detention centre in Baku.

In a letter sent on Thursday, his counsel pressed the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture to condemn Vardanyan's alleged mistreatment, which they said was retaliation for his political work in Nagorno-Karabakh and a clear violation of U.N. rights conventions.

The lawyers said Vardanyan was kept in a special punishment cell during his three-week hunger strike, where the lights were kept on constantly, causing sleep deprivation.

They also said he was forced to stand for hours, denied drinking water for two days and not allowed to bathe or change his clothes. He was also denied communication with his lawyers and family.

Vardanyan has been charged with offences including financing terrorism and illegal border crossing. His family denies the allegations and demands that his trial, when it happens, should be open to international observers and the media.

Vardanyan's son David said the family was shocked to hear the allegations concerning his father's treatment and urged the United Nations to hold Baku accountable to protect his father's life.

Vardanyan's lawyer Jared Genser said it was "extremely revealing that Azerbaijan views him as a threat that must be silenced through arbitrary detention and, more recently, torture and ill-treatment".

"If Azerbaijan wants to be taken seriously on the international stage...then it must stop mistreating Ruben and release him and the other Nagorno-Karabakh political prisoners immediately," said Genser.

Over 100,000 ethnic Armenian refugees fled Karabakh in a mass exodus after Azerbaijan retook control, sparking Armenian accusations of ethnic cleansing which Baku has rejected.

(Reporting by Lucy Papachristou in London; Editing by Mark Trevelyan and Gareth Jones)

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