The European Weightlifting Championships in Yerevan, Armenia, kicked off on Friday with a scandal after an Armenian national set fire to the flag of Azerbaijan during the opening ceremony.
During the Parade of Nations where flags of participating countries are presented, Aram Nikolyan, a Yerevan-based fashion designer, snatched the Azerbaijani flag from a flag bearer to set it ablaze and take it outside the venue.
Nikolyan was brought to a police department in Yerevan shortly after the incident, but was released later.
The Azerbaijan weightlifting team withdrew from the tournament following the incident. They left Yerevan late on Saturday for Georgia’s capital Tbilisi, from where they departed to Baku.
Kanan Mastaliyev, a spokesperson to the Azerbaijan Weightlifting Federation, said the provocation was intentional by the Armenian side.
“At the time of the incident, the internet was lost. The flag-burning episode was not broadcast live. We saw this on social media shortly after the incident,” he told journalists at the Heydar Aliyev International Airport in Azerbaijan’s capital.
Mastaliyev added that the incident has once again highlighted that the Armenians still prefer hatred over peace with Azerbaijan.
Nazila Ismayilova, a member of the Azerbaijani weightlifting team, said the incident was aimed at preventing the Azerbaijani athletes from competing in the tournament, winning medals, and performing the national anthem in Armenia.
The Youth and Sports Ministry and the National Olympic Committee of Azerbaijan condemned the "barbaric act" and called it evidence of ethnic hatred and racism. They blamed Armenia for failing to ensure the safety of athletes, adding that it lacked the capability to host international sporting events.
“In conditions when such an atmosphere of hatred prevails in Armenia, security is not ensured, the normal participation of Azerbaijani athletes in competitions is impossible due to the psychological pressure,” the statement said.
“Politicising sport is absolutely unacceptable,” it added, urging the European Weightlifting Federation to impose sanctions on Armenia.
However, Armenia rejected the criticism, claiming that the incident was resolved without any danger to competitors at the European sports event.
In the meantime, the Prosecutor General’s Office of Azerbaijan launched on Saturday a criminal case into the provocation.
Investigation Department of the Prosecutor General's Office announced that ethnic hatred and animosity against Azerbaijan in Armenia were established as the basis for the criminal case.
“Requests will be filed to the appropriate foreign authorities, and collaboration with international organizations will be secured to bring Aram Nikolyan and others who perpetrated this criminal conduct intended to incite national hatred and enmity to domestic and international judicial responsibility,” the department said in a statement.
Armenia and Azerbaijan have long been at odds over the latter's Karabakh (Garabagh) region. Following the Soviet Union’s dissolution in 1991, Armenia launched a military campaign against Azerbaijan that lasted until a ceasefire deal was reached in 1994. As a result of the conflict, Armenia occupied 20 percent of Azerbaijan’s internationally recognized territories. Over 30,000 ethnic Azerbaijanis were killed, and one million were expelled from these lands in a brutal ethnic cleansing campaign carried out by Armenia.
On September 27, 2020, the decades-old conflict between the two countries spiralled after Armenia’s forces deployed in occupied Azerbaijani lands shelled military positions and civilian settlements of Azerbaijan. During counter-attack operations, Azerbaijani forces liberated over 300 settlements, including the cities of Jabrayil, Fuzuli, Zangilan, Gubadli, and Shusha. The war ended in a statement signed on November 10, 2020, under which Armenia returned the occupied Aghdam, Kalbajar, and Lachin districts to Azerbaijan.