The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) says Azerbaijan was wrong to release a man convicted of killing an Armenian national while the two were on a NATO training course in Hungary.
The Strasbourg-based court said on May 26 in a 6-1 vote that there had been no justification for the Azerbaijani authorities' failure to enforce the punishment of Ramil Safarov "and to in effect grant him impunity for a serious hate crime" following his conviction in Hungary for the 2004 murder of Gurgen Margarian.
Safarov was sentenced to life in prison in a 2006 trial for hacking the sleeping Armenian military officer to death with an ax during a NATO Partnership for Peace training mission.
Safarov admitted to the murder, saying Margarian had urinated on an Azerbaijani flag and otherwise "insulted" his country.
However, in 2012 Hungary extradited Safarov back to Azerbaijan to complete his sentence. Upon his arrival, he was promptly pardoned by President Ilham Aliyev, freed from his sentence, and given a hero's welcome. His back salary was paid and he was given an apartment.
Relatives of the murdered Armenian officer said they took the case to the ECHR for justice, not compensation. There were hoping the court would rule against Hungary for the extradition of Safarov and Azerbaijan for its release of the convicted murderer.
In its ruling, the ECHR said it "found that there had been no justification for the Azerbaijani authorities' failure to enforce the punishment of R.S. [Ramil Safarov] and to in effect grant him impunity for a serious hate crime."
"Moreover, the applicants had provided sufficient evidence to show that R.S.'s pardon and other measures in his favor had been ethnically motivated, namely statements by high-ranking officials expressing their support for his conduct, and in particular the fact that it had been directed against Armenian soldiers, and a specially dedicated page to R.S. on the president of Azerbaijan's website," it added.
The court said that while Azerbaijan had "clearly endorsed" Safarov's actions, the ECHR stopped short of holding the country responsible for what it called "a private decision" that was "so flagrantly abusive and far removed from the official status of a military officer" that the country could not be responsible just because he was a state agent.
Azerbaijan and Armenia fought a bloody war in the 1990s over the ethnic Armenian territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, with a shaky Russia-brokered cease-fire the only guarantee of peace since 1994.
Russia, the United States, and France are the co-chairs of the Minsk Group of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which acts as a mediator in resolving the crisis. The group has been struggling for years to mediate a solution to the situation.
The court exonerated Hungary in its ruling, saying courts there had handed down "well-reasoned" decisions, while the extradition "followed to the letter the procedure set out in the Council of Europe Convention on the Transfer of Sentenced Persons."
The court held, unanimously, that Azerbaijan was to pay the applicants, jointly, 15,143.33 British pounds in respect of costs and expenses for the case.