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NATO Chief Warns Baku Pardon Could Harm Peace Efforts

Demonstrators in Hungary hold up a photo of Armenian Army Lieutenant Gurgen Margarian (right) in front of the parliament building in Budapest on September 4 at a protest against the repatriation of Ramil Safarov.
On a visit to Baku, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen has said he is "deeply concerned" over the pardoning of an Azerbaijani officer who killed an Armenian serviceman in Hungary eight years ago.

Last week, the Azerbaijani Army's Lieutenant Ramil Safarov was pardoned, promoted, and financially rewarded after arriving in Baku from Budapest, where he had been serving a life sentence for hacking to death Gurgen Margarian, a soldier from Azerbaijan's rival Armenia.

Rasmussen said the 2004 murder during a NATO training session in Hungary was a terrible crime that should not be glorified, as this damaged trust and did not contribute to resolving the conflict over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Rasmussen made the same statement on September 6 in the Armenian capital, Yerevan, where public outrage over the case has sparked protests.

Safarov's pardon has inflamed tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan, which are locked in an unresolved conflict over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, a mainly Armenian-populated region within Azerbaijan.

The two neighbors fought a war over the territory in the 1990s, with a fragile cease-fire in place since 1994. The separatist leadership's declaration of Nagorno-Karabakh's independence has never been recognized by another country.

Rasmussen on September 7 warned Baku and Yerevan against renewed hostilities.

"Two things are clear. First, that there is no military solution. And second, the only way forward is through dialogue, compromise and cooperation," Rasmussen said.

Aliyev Remains Defiant

But Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev remained defiant despite the NATO chief's comments, which followed similar criticism from Washington, Brussels, and Moscow.

Speaking at a joint news conference with Rasmussen, Aliyev said, "Armenia is unjustifiably kicking up a fuss over Ramil Safarov's pardoning," arguing that the process was legal and fair.

He said that Safarov had been repatriated "in conformity with the European Convention [on the Transfer of Sentenced Persons] and his pardoning is based on Azerbaijani legislation."

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on September 7 also voiced concern over Safarov's release, saying in a statement that "ethnically motivated hate crimes of this gravity should be deplored and properly punished -- not publicly glorified by leaders and politicians."

Hungary insists it returned Safarov to Azerbaijan after receiving assurances his life sentence would be enforced. Nevertheless, Yerevan broke off diplomatic links with Budapest over the case.

Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian said on September 6 that "making a hero out of a criminal is unacceptable," and accused Azerbaijan of endangering peace.

Aliyev's website, however, has been publishing a series of letters from citizens congratulating him for freeing the killer.

With reporting by AFP and Reuters
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