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Rulings Give Nagorno-Karabakh Displaced Something To Celebrate

A home destroyed in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict lies abandoned and derelict decades later. (file photo)
A home destroyed in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict lies abandoned and derelict decades later. (file photo)

Rulings in two cases by the European Court of Human Rights this week have achieved the seemingly impossible -- making civilian victims on both sides of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict feel satisfied that justice has been carried out.

Both cases were filed a decade ago by civilians who were displaced from their homes by fighting between Azerbaijan and Armenian forces during the early 1990s in districts adjacent to Azerbaijan's breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region.

Together, the cases establish that both Baku and Yerevan have denied displaced civilians their property rights, respect to private life, and the right to an effective remedy.

The June 16 rulings are the court's first related to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and are expected to influence more than 1,000 similar cases filed at the European court by displaced Armenians and Azerbaijanis in the area.

Fakhraddin Pashayev was one of six Azerbaijani Kurds who jointly filed a complaint after being displaced from their homes during the early 1990s in Azerbaijan's district of Lachin -- a strip of land less than 10 kilometers wide between Armenia's border and Azerbaijan's breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Pashayev told RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service that, even though it took 10 years of legal battles to receive the ruling, "we are happy with the decision of the court."

Pashayev said the court battle was a "long process," noting that one of the other five plaintiffs in his suit died before the ruling.

He said the group "believed in Europe's justice from the very start." But still, he said, he cannot imagine ever being able to travel back home to the Lachin region, which has been under the control of Armenian military forces for more than 20 years.

Never Allowed Home

The other case was lodged at the European court in 2006 by Minas Sarkisian, a displaced ethnic Armenian from the village of Gulistan in Azerbaijan's Shahumyan district who died in 2009 at the age of 80 without ever being allowed to return to his home there.

Sarkisian's house and 2,000 square meters of farmland lies on the river that has served as a volatile front line between Azerbaijani and Armenian military forces since a 1994 cease-fire deal was brokered in the frozen conflict by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

After Sarkisian's death, the court case was continued by his son, Vladimir Sarkisian, who has been living with his family in the town of Yeghvard near Yerevan ever since they fled an advance into Gulistan by Azerbaijani military forces in 1992.

Sarkisian, now in his late 50s, told RFE/RL's Armenian Service that the financial compensation the European court ordered Azerbaijan's government to pay is not the most important aspect of the June 16 ruling.

"What is important is that we have won the case," he said. "I don't know how things will be in the future. But this process is praiseworthy. I don't want anyone to experience what we did."

In Sarkisian's case against Azerbaijan, the European court noted that it was the first time it had had to decide on a complaint against "a state which had lost control over part of its territory in a war and occupation, but which at the same time was alleged to be responsible for refusing a displaced person access to property in an area remaining under its control."

Before the war, the Shahumyan district was predominantly populated by ethnic Armenians.

But, in September 1991, shortly after Azerbaijan declared its independence from the Soviet Union, ethnic Armenian separatists in Nagorno-Karabakh claimed that the Shahumyan district also was part of their self-declared republic.

As the crisis escalated into war, a military assault into the Shahumyan region by Azerbaijani forces forced Sarkisian's family and other ethnic Armenians to flee.

Sarkisian told RFE/RL that he watched his village be destroyed by Azerbaijani rockets and direct fire from tanks. He says nothing remains intact in Gulistan today.


The European court rejected Azerbaijan's argument that Sarkisian and other ethnic Armenian civilians were being prevented from returning to the region solely out of concern for their safety.

It said Azerbaijan was obliged to compensate ethnic Armenians who were displaced from territory under its control and to create easily accessible property claims mechanisms for all displaced civilians in a similar situation.

In Pashayev's case, the European court rejected Armenia's claim that it was only ethnic Armenians from Nagorno-Karabakh and volunteers -- not Armenian government forces -- who took part in the conflict.

The court said numerous reports and public statements, including from members and former members of the Armenian government, demonstrated that Armenia was significantly involved in the conflict from an early date through its military presence and by providing military equipment and expertise to Nagorno-Karabakh's ethnic Armenian separatists.

It said Armenia effectively exercises control over Nagorno-Karabakh and the surrounding territories -- ruling that Armenia and the separatists were highly integrated in virtually all important matters.

It said the separatist leaders in the breakaway region have survived by virtue of Yerevan's military, political, financial, and other support.

The European court also said Armenia's government must create easily accessible property-claims mechanisms for displaced civilians in order to restore their property rights and obtain compensation.

In both cases, the European court said the obligation of Baku and Yerevan to compensate displaced civilians and create property claims mechanisms was not lifted by the fact that OSCE-brokered peace negotiations are continuing -- including talks on the issue of property claims and compensation.

With reporting by RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz, RFE/RL's Armenian Service correspondent Sargis Harutyunyan, and RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service

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