The Azerbaijani prosecutor general has launched criminal proceedings against three Europarlamentarians who monitored a referendum on constitutional changes in the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, APA news agency reported on February 22.
The three MEPs are said to have been in Nagorno-Karabakh, a region that Armenia and Azerbaijan have contested for decades, during the popular poll on February 20. The prosecutor general has reportedly submitted a request to Interpol to have the MEPs - Frank Engel (Luxembourg), Jaromir Stetin (Czech Republic) and Eleni Teoharus (Cyprus) - apprehended.
Visiting Nagorno-Karabkh or the seven surrounding regions that are under occupation by Armenian forces is illegal in Azerbaijan. Until recently, however, the Azerbaijani state has limited itself to blacklisting foreigners who visited the territories. Among them are journalists, politicians and even music stars like Catalan opera singer Montserrat Caballe.
Earlier this month, Azerbaijan successfully lobbied the state of Belarus to have a Russian blogger that was visiting the latter country extradited to Azerbaijan, where he is being tried for visiting Nagorno-Karabakh.
There is no prohibition in international law on visiting Nagorno-Karabakh.
With the trial, Baku is likely seeking to bolster its image internally, and to prove to its own population that it is willing to take a strong stance against those that it perceives as "violating its territorial integrity".
Nagorno-Karabakh is internationally recognised as being part of Azerbaijan, although its population is predominantly Armenian. Armenia and Azerbaijan fought a bitter war over the region in the early 1990s, which left over 20,000 casualties and some one million internally displaced persons.
In recent weeks, Azerbaijan has made a show of its rebuilding of Jojug Marjanli, a village that it managed to recapture from Nagorno-Karabakh after a four-day war waged in April 2016, which left some two hundred casualties on both sides.
The news of the trial came amidst a renewed crackdown on opposition politicians and critics in the notoriously oppressive country. Reports of torture in police detention of activists of the "REAL" opposition movement and of the arresting of family members of exiled dissidents prompted human rights watchdog Freedom House to issue a statement on February 21 calling on Baku to cease illegal detentions.
"In recent days, [the government of Azerbaijan] took into custody 10 relatives of a blogger living in the Netherlands, Ordukhan Babirov. This followed the detention of the relatives of a rapper living in Germany, Jamal Ali, because of a music video critical of President Aliyev. The harassment highlights the government’s fear of its own citizens and its lack of respect for freedom of speech," Robert Herman, Freedom House's director of international programmes, said in the statement.
Azerbaijan is preparing to on February 25 commemorate the Khojali massacre, an episode during the Nagorno-Karabakh war, during which ethnic Azeris were killed by Armenian forces. The country has been fighting to have the unfortunate event recognised by other governments, with some success to date among Arab countries and Turkey. Inside the country, the government is organising speeches and awareness campaigns. Some of its recent actions could be perceived as part of a concerted effort to put pressure on Armenia to liberate its territories.
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