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Azerbaijan Refutes Armenian Claim It Killed Captive

Armenian captive Manvel Saribekian
BAKU/YEREVAN -- Armenian Foreign Minister Eduard Nalbandian has publicly accused the Azerbaijani authorities of killing an Armenian man found hanged in Azerbaijani custody on October 5, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reports.

Addressing the Armenian parliament on October 6, Nalbandian described the death of 20-year-old Manvel Saribekian as "horrendous" and the result of "terrorist" and "medieval" methods.

Saribekian was taken captive by Azerbaijani officials on September 11. The Armenian authorities say he was a civilian herdsman who inadvertently strayed into Azerbaijani territory while searching for lost cattle.

Azerbaijani officials, however, insist that Saribekian was an intelligence operative who committed suicide in custody.

An Azerbaijani television channel aired an interview in September with a man who appeared to be Saribekian. The man admitted to being a member of an Armenian sabotage unit that planned to blow up a school on Azerbaijani territory.

Azerbaijani Defense Ministry press service head Eldar Sabiroglu told RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service on October 6 that "claims about the murder of Saribekian in Azerbaijani custody are groundless. No country would kill an intelligence officer [in custody]. Azerbaijan would never do that. Manvel Saribekian committed suicide in circumstances that are unclear."

Sabiroglu further suggested that Saribekian killed himself because he feared the possible repercussions of his televised confession if he were returned to Armenia.

Samvel Stepanian, mayor of Saribekian's village, said he didn't believe Saribekian was an intelligence operative.

"I knew the boy and can say he wouldn't do such a thing," Stepanian told RFE/RL's Armenian Service. Stepanian said Saribekian "would commit suicide only if he was treated so badly that he felt hanging himself would be better than living."

Sabiroglu accused Armenia of "trying to exploit" Saribekian's death to depict Azerbaijan as a country that mistreats captives. He said it is Armenia that is violating international conventions by refusing to return to Azerbaijan the bodies of two Azerbaijani servicemen killed in clashes between Azerbaijani and Armenian forces along the line of contact in the breakaway Azerbaijani region of Nagorno-Karabakh this year.

Sabiroglu further noted that there are currently six Armenian prisoners of war in Azerbaijan and a family of five civilians, all of whom refuse to return to Armenia.

"They have asked us for help to go to third countries because they are afraid of ending up in Armenian jails for 14-15 years," Sabiroglu told RFE/RL. "But so far no third country has offered them asylum."

Meanwhile the U.S, Russian, and U.S. co-chairmen of the OSCE Minsk Group that seeks to mediate a solution to the Karabakh conflict and UN experts arrived in Stepanakert on October 7 to begin a "field-assessment mission" of the situation in the districts of Azerbaijan bordering Nagorno-Karabakh that are currently under Armenian control.