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Russian peacekeepers promise to oversee return of all Armenian prisoners held in Azerbaijan

Armenian PoWs on trial in Azerbaijan. Video report by Civilnet.

This article was first published on JAM News. An edited version is republished here under a content partnership agreement.

On December 4, 2021, Azerbaijan returned ten Armenian prisoners of war (POW) captured in November 2021, in exchange for maps detailing landmine locations, according to a statement issued by the Azerbaijan State Security Service.

The November clashes were reportedly the worst since the 44-day Nagorno-Karabakh War in 2020. Seven Azerbaijani and six Armenian soldiers were killed during the renewed fighting on November 16, 2021. Armenia also reported that more than 30 Armenian servicemen were captured as prisoners of war.

Commenting on the most recent exchange, Deputy Commander of the Southern Military District, Rustam Muradov, said, “the work on the return of captured Armenian soldiers is ongoing at the moment. There are positive signs. There is an understanding. I believe this issue must be completely resolved. And the Russian peacekeepers will bring this matter to an end.”

Muradov oversaw all of the previous prisoner exchanges, even after leaving the post of commander of the peacekeeping contingent. The Russian general also said that he regards returning prisoners “as a civil duty of peacekeepers.”

“As a military man, I understand who the prisoners of war are, what they experienced while in captivity. I remember the first flight, when we left Baku, and the faces of those servicemen when they flew to Yerevan, to the Erebuni airfield. Tearful, they could not believe they made it home,” said Muradov.

Repatriating prisoners of war is a painful issue in Armenian society. According to the ceasefire signed on November 9, 2020, both parties pledged to return all prisoners. However, while Armenia returned all Azerbaijani prisoners, the number of Armenian POWs still in Azerbaijan remains unknown.

Although Azerbaijan has returned more than 100 prisoners so far, according to some estimates, roughly 40–140 Armenian soldiers remain captive in Azerbaijan. Following the clashes in November, the nation captured another 32 soldiers (though ten of them were returned in a recent exchange). The remaining captives are considered “saboteurs” and are subject to Azerbaijan's domestic laws.

The Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces, Valery Gerasimov, discussed the issue on December 9, saying that within the framework of the peacekeeping operation on the Nagorno-Karabakh territory, the Russian military personnel is now focused on repatriating the prisoners, implementing infrastructure projects, and solving other humanitarian issues.

“The Russian Armed Forces continue to carry out peacekeeping tasks in Nagorno-Karabakh. More than a year ago they managed to stop the bloody war and create conditions for the restoration of peace in the region. In order to reduce tension and observe the ceasefire regime, Russian peacekeepers have organized duty at observation posts and patrols in the area of the peacekeeping operation,” Gerasimov said.

Tensions at home over Armenian POWs

Back in Armenia, the sentiments over remaining prisoners differ. In an interview with Eurasianet, Siranuysh Sahakyan, a human rights activist who is representing the prisoners at the European Court of Human Rights, said, “Our [Armenian] authorities should have understood that the return of prisoners of war isn't subject to negotiation, it's demanded by international law.” Sahakyan also said that the official Yerevan position on the current exchange process has “created an environment that allows Azerbaijan to solve the issue by demanding concessions from Armenia.”

According to reporting by Ani Mejlumyan for Eurasianet, the Armenian government has come under fire recently over the issue of prisoners of war. In a secret video recording distributed on an anonymous Telegram channel that was leaked on December 7, Alen Simonyan, the speaker of parliament and a close ally of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, reportedly said he considered the remaining soldiers deserters.

Although Simonyan later dismissed the video saying it was edited out of context, it did trigger a wave of protests across several cities in Armenia. In Gyumri, Armenia's second-largest city, relatives of some of the soldiers currently in captivity gathered outside the local government building demanding that the government responds. “Alen Simonyan needs to answer us,” one woman said. “We have waited patiently, but our patience has run out now you will see what happens.”

Similar demands were made in the capital Yerevan. “We need our children back. What did Alen Simonyan do yesterday? He sent a message to the Turk [a derogatory term used to refer to Azerbaijanis], saying we have no prisoners of war — to slaughter them. Is he gifting our children to Azerbaijan? I'll put a red ribbon on him and gift him to Azerbaijan,” one of the parents told Armenia's TV Channel 5 reporters.

In an interview with Eurasianet, Benyamin Poghosyan, the head of the Yerevan think tank Center for Political and Economic Strategic Studies, said the government might be intentionally portraying remaining prisoners as deserters and criminals in case they can not secure their return in order to prevent “public outrage.”

“They could be doing this because there are no more maps to give and nothing left to trade,” Poghosyan told Eurasianet.

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