Humanitarian aftershocks of the brutal war that took place in the Nagorno-Karabakh region more than two decades ago continue to take their toll on Azerbaijan, as hundreds of its citizens are still held hostage by Armenia and the fate of thousands more remain unknown.
Azerbaijan’s State Commission on Prisoners of War, Hostages and Missing Persons announced on Thursday that 871 citizens remain in captivity in Armenia, while the number of missing persons is 3,888.
“In the wake of Armenia’s non-constructive position, settlement of the [Nagorno-Karabakh] conflict is delayed, even though a long period of time has passed,” the head of the commission, Madat Guliyev, said in his speech at a meeting dedicated to the 25th anniversary of the commission’s creation, held in Baku on Thursday.
“Although 1,480 persons were freed from captivity as a result of cooperation with international organizations, particularly the International Red Cross Committee, throughout these years there is information that 871 Azerbaijani citizens still remain in captivity,” Guliyev said. According to information we acquired, Armenians even tell the hostages that they have fully occupied the Republic of Azerbaijan and that such country doesn’t exist, thus exerting psychological pressure on them.”
Azerbaijanis still bear psychological scars from the years leading up to what was a bloody war in the Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan.
The collapse of the USSR in December 1991 paved the way for the armed forces of the newborn Republic of Armenia to invade the Republic of Azerbaijan and capture its Nagorno-Karabakh region that had been partially populated with ethnic Armenians alongside indigenous Azerbaijanis.
A full-fledged war erupted in 1991 and did not abate until 1994. By that time Nagorno-Karabakh region and seven surrounding districts, together which comprise 20 percent of Azerbaijan's internationally recognized territory, had been occupied by Armenia. Over 30,000 Azerbaijanis were killed and one million were expelled. Despite four UN Security Council resolutions, Armenia has not, to this day, withdrawn its forces.
Three ethnic Azerbaijanis – Shahbaz Guliyev, Dilgam Asgarov and Hasan Hasanov – were taken hostage by Armenian soldiers during a visit to the graves of their relatives in the occupied Kalbajar district, in the summer of 2014. Asgarov holds Russian citizenship.
Hasanov was shot dead on the scene, while Guliyev and Asgarov were taken into custody in Khankendi, the central city of Nagorno-Karabakh region. Hasanov’s corpse was returned to Azerbaijan and buried in Baku in 2014.
After what was considered a bogus, two-month trial held in Khankendi in December 2014, Asgarov was sentenced to life imprisonment and Guliyev was put behind bars with a sentence of 22 years. Both were charged with ungrounded "espionage" accusations.
The International Human Rights Defense Committee, a non-profit association of independent lawyers in Europe and based in France, reported in March that Azerbaijani hostages Asgarov and Guliyev were in dire situation in the wake of physical and moral tortures they have endured.