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Row Erupts After Azerbaijan Pardons Armenian Officer's Repatriated Killer


Azerbaijani military officer Ramil Safarov (center) testifies at his trial in Budapest in April 2006 to having hacked to death an Armenian soldier over an "insult."
BAKU -- The quick pardon by Azerbaijan's president of the repatriated killer of an Armenian army officer has sparked a diplomatic maelstrom involving arch foe Armenia and European Union and NATO member Hungary.

The confessed killer, Lieutenant Ramil Safarov, had been sentenced to life in prison by a Hungarian court for killing an Armenian military officer.

But he was returned to Azerbaijan on August 31 and immediately pardoned by President Ilham Aliyev.

The move has infuriated Armenia, which is still engaged in a frozen conflict with Azerbaijan and whose president quickly pressed for an "appropriate response" to the release.

Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian followed up by saying Yerevan was suspending diplomatic relations and all official contacts with Budapest.

'Insult' Sparked Killing

In 2006, the Hungarian court sentenced Lieutenant Ramil Safarov, now 35, to life in prison with the possibility of parole after 30 years for the nationalism-fueled killing.

Safarov was found guilty after he confessed to hacking to death Gurgen Markarian, an Armenian army officer, while both were in Hungary for a language course in 2004 organized by NATO.

Safarov reportedly said at the trial that he killed the Armenian for an "insult to the Azerbaijani national flag."

Safarov's lawyers had claimed during the trial that the defendant had been traumatized because some of his relatives were killed after the outbreak of war in the 1990s with Armenian forces over Nagorno-Karabakh, the Armenian-controlled separatist region in Azerbaijan. They alleged that Markarian had insulted Safarov's homeland.

European Union and NATO member Hungary said earlier on August 31 that its decision to send Safarov back to Azerbaijan was based on the European Convention on the Transfer of Sentenced Persons. Budapest said he was repatriated only after demanding and receiving assurances from the Azerbaijani Justice Ministry that Safarov's sentence would be enforced.

In a statement from Baku, Azerbaijani President Aliyev said Safarov was being "released from serving his life sentence."

Yerevan 'Cannot Tolerate' Release

Within hours of the pardon, Armenian President Sarkisian told an emergency meeting of that country's National Security Council that Hungary had made a "grave mistake," and soon after he announced the interruption in diplomatic ties.

He announced the decision at a meeting with Yerevan-based foreign ambassadors and representatives of international organizations.

“With these joint actions, Hungary’s and Azerbaijan’s authorities have cleared the way for a repeat of such crimes,” Sarkisian told the envoys. “They are sending a message to murderers. They [murderers] know now that a murder committed on the basis of religious or ethnic hatred can go unpunished.”

“I cannot tolerate that,” Sarkisian said. “The Republic of Armenia cannot tolerate that. The Armenian people will not forgive that.”

“I am officially declaring that today we are suspending diplomatic relations and all official contacts with Hungary,” he added.

Armenia and Hungary have no embassies in each other’s capitals. The Armenian ambassador to that Central European state is based in Vienna.

Tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan remain high, with the two countries still locked in conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, the Armenian-controlled separatist region in Azerbaijan.

Sarkisian also ordered Armenian forces on a high alert after Safarov's release.

In Washington, the White House said President Barack Obama was "deeply concerned" at the Azerbaijani pardon and was seeking an explanation from Budapest as to why the convicted man was handed over to Baku.

Based on reporting by RFE/RL's Armenian and Azerbaijani services; with additional reporting by Trend, AP, AFP, and Interfax
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