Aleksander Lapshin, left, meets with Azerbaijani opposition journalist Mohammed Mirzali in Paris

Russian-Israeli Blogger Lapshin Tours the Americas, Still in Pursuit of Justice

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WATERTOWN — Russian-Israeli blogger Aleksander Lapshin, once imprisoned by Azerbaijan for having visited Artsakh several times, is on a tour of the Americas. He recently held meetings in New York City with Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the Committee to Protect Journalists, and planned to speak at a United Nations panel on human rights, though due to the Canadian wildfires this has been postponed till the fall.

Aleksander Lapshin in New York City

Lapshin said, “I began to prepare for this trip a couple of years ago. I have been to America a number of times but this time it is different. I just want to meet people like politicians, journalists and human rights defenders.” He is giving some talks to the Armenian community, including at the Armenian Catholic Church of Toronto for the Armenians in Canada Social Network on June 3, and at Holy Martyrs Armenian Church in Bayside, Queens on June 11.

Aleksander Lapshin meets with the Armenian community in Toronto, Canada.

Lapshin had taken three trips between 2011 and 2016 to Karabakh, and was accused by Azerbaijan of illegally crossing its state border through Armenia in an attempt evidently to intimidate people from visiting Karabakh. Belarus detained him in 2016 upon Azerbaijan’s request, and after two months’ incarceration, he was extradited to Azerbaijan in February 2017. He was sentenced to three years in prison in July 2017, but was given a pardon that September and flown to Israel after what he describes as an attempt by four masked men in prison on his life. The Azerbaijani government, however, claimed that he had tried to commit suicide.

In 2018, Lapshin filed a case against Azerbaijan in the European Court of Human Rights for attempted murder, torture and illegal imprisonment. Though he won on May 21, 2021, Azerbaijan has refused to pay the compensation of 30,000 euros or accept the verdict. Meanwhile, the United Nations Human Rights Committee adopted a resolution on July 19, 2022 condemning the Belarusian authorities for illegally arresting Lapshin and extraditing him to Azerbaijan.

The Azerbaijani government in its turn, according to Lapshin, attempted to again order his arrest while he was visiting the Baltic states in 2019.

Pressure in Israel

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Lapshin was born in Russia but moved to Israel when 13. Lapshin’s wife is from Moldova and moved to Israel to be with Lapshin 14 years ago. Their 8-year-old daughter was born there and automatically received Israeli citizenship but Lapshin’s wife had to apply for it based on marriage to a citizen. She was supposed to receive it in 2017, but when she had to go for her final interview the officer asked where her husband was. Lapshin related that she replied that he was in jail in Azerbaijan. She showed a newspaper with a picture of Lapshin in handcuffs in Azerbaijan, explaining that he was arrested as a journalist, but the government officials denied her interview anyway, saying the reason for his absence did not matter to them. She pointed out that their daughter, then 2-years old, was an Israeli citizen, but the officials only offered two options – leave the country together, or place your daughter into an orphanage here and leave. So, Lapshin concluded, she took their daughter and alternated between Armenia and Georgia, because they had many friends in both countries.

When Lapshin returned from jail, he had broken ribs and fingers, so after four days in a Baku hospital he spent two more weeks in an Israeli hospital. It took two months to bring his wife back to Israel and restart the naturalization procedure. At a certain point, he was invited to the Israel Security Agency, which goes by the acronyms Shin Bet or Shabak, for a discussion. Lapshin said, “They told me, ‘first of all, our congratulations that you were released and you are still alive – ribs broken, but still alive – this is the good news.’ I then asked what about the bad news. ‘The bad news? Azerbaijan is our ally.’”

They advised him to abandon his case in the European Court of Human Rights against Azerbaijan concerning his treatment there. They also said that it was a really bad idea to apply to the United Nations against Azerbaijan. Lapshin said, he recalled, “No, no way. I will go to the end and I will win.” So they declared that they all were Jews in the room, who all served the Israeli army. They had to think about realpolitik.

They told him, Lapshin related, “You are still alive just for one reason – because we are protecting you…Furthermore, we have received messages from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Azerbaijan. They are kind of nervous about what you continue to do. They said that next time if they catch you, you will die.” They then emphasized, “Think about your family. Think about your 2-year-old daughter.”

However, when Lapshin said he could not abandon his principles, they told him once again to abandon the Armenian case, and that they hoped that his wife would receive her Israeli citizenship when she applied for it. Lapshin said that this conversation happened four years ago and his wife still has not received her citizenship.

For this reason, he and his family had to go back and forth between Israel and Armenia and traveled to the European Union and now the Americas. Lapshin said, “We are kind of digital gypsies.” He is able to work remotely but his work as a travel blogger is limited because there are some 30-35 countries which he cannot visit because of Azerbaijani and Russian influence. Jokingly he said, “Of course I can go to Belarus again and receive a free flight to Azerbaijan.”

Lapshin also has problems with Russian law enforcement agencies, he said, because he published a number of articles in support of Ukraine and against the current war. For this reason, when his father passed away in Russia this January, Lapshin was unable to go to his funeral for fear that he might be arrested. Similarly his wife could not visit her family in Belarus and Moldova for almost six years, so their daughter has not been able to see her maternal grandparents.

The list of dangerous countries for the Lapshins includes all of the former Soviet Union except Armenia, but after stating this, he hesitated and said, “I just said except Armenia, but who knows? Armenia is under huge Russian influence.”

Armenia

Lapshin continues to pursue his own case against Azerbaijan’s violations of human rights but is committed also to helping Armenia. He understood, he said, that “it would be better for me, my family and for our safety, to just leave it aside and continue our old life.” However, he continued, “I just cannot abandon what I do in favor of Armenia and Artsakh because I have many friends in Armenia. Some of them were killed during the second Karabakh war. I actually love this country, so I feel in Armenia like my second home.”

He added, “Look, six million Jews were killed during the Holocaust. A lot of Armenians actually supported Jews and saved their lives. So, I feel the same.”

He stressed: “Of course I do not receive any support from the government of Armenia.” Furthermore, the fact that Armenia, facing an existential threat, is trying to sign a peace agreement with both Azerbaijan and Turkey, seems to create complicated motivations. Lapshin said, “Even some of the politicians in Armenia tried to convince me to leave it aside, for some political reasons. What I do against Azerbaijan, somehow, in some ways, is against the national interests of the current Armenian government…So I feel a bit alone in this fighting, but this time, fortunately, I have a lot of friends, both Armenian friends, and American and European friends, who actually support me.”

Human Rights

The human rights organizations in New York and elsewhere already know about Lapshin’s personal case and supported him publicly during his arrest. Lapshin said that though they were aware also of issues concerning Azerbaijani opposition leaders and journalists in exile, they did not seem very informed about what was going on inside Azerbaijan, including the deaths and large numbers of refugees caused by the second Karabakh war. He declared, “So I have to explain to them from the zero level about what is going on. I was really surprised that I was the first person – and I am not Armenian – to bring them the point of view of the 120,000 inhabitants of Artsakh.”

When he asked Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, Lapshin related, whether they had had meetings with Armenian community or governmental representatives, they replied in the negative.

However, it should be noted that a Google search brings up many reports from these organizations covering Artsakh topics, indicating that they are well informed. Consequently, it may be speculated that different divisions of these organizations (often located in different cities and countries) may be the ones specializing on issues concerning Artsakh and Armenia.

When asked about what result he thought his meeting with the New York organizations would have, he said they will prepare a press release about the meeting and put this documentation in their files on the case of Azerbaijan. He said he hoped they would use it in their conferences on human rights and mention his case, as well as the situation in Artsakh.

He added, “I was just happy to bring up Armenian prisoners of war, and just tell them about experiences in Azerbaijani jail, because from the point of view of the human rights organizations, I am the only person who has suffered from Azerbaijan. It is amazing.” He said that they had not spoken with any Armenian prisoners of war who had been tortured.

Lapshin related that while he was in the Kurdakhani prison in Azerbaijan, he had an opportunity to speak with the head of the prison, Col. Rashid Safarov. The latter told Lapshin that they kept between 4 and 8 Armenians imprisoned, supposedly because they were terrorists who crossed the border, and secondly, for purposes of exchange with Armenian prisoners. Currently, Lapshin said, according to what some Azerbaijani opposition leaders, mostly Talysh, told him, there are between 40 and 60 Armenian prisoners of war held in the same prison.

While in Armenia, Lapshin met several former prisoners of war who had been raped in that jail and tried to convince them to go with him to the US and Europe to testify about this, but, Lapshin said, they felt uncomfortable about talking about such experiences openly due to Armenian social norms or culture.

They also said that there were strict warnings from Armenian intelligence services for them not to communicate with journalists or human rights activists. One can speculate that if true, this is due to the precarious current situation of Armenia, which is doing anything in its power to avoid a new war of aggression by Azerbaijan.

Lapshin on his current trip is attempting to continue contacts with Azerbaijanis critical of the current regime. He related that on his way to America, he had a stopover in Paris, France, where he met with an Azerbaijani journalist in exile named Mahammad Mirzali. Last year he was stabbed at least 16 times by a number of Azerbaijanis in Nantes, France, but after recovering continued to publish articles and videos against the regime.

The Americas

In America, Lapshin said he hoped to meet with a formerly extremely wealthy businessman Ilgar Hajiyev, who used to be friends with Ilham Aliyev but now lives in the US as a refugee and struggles for justice against corruption in both Azerbaijan and Russia.

Lapshin said that he keeps in touch with the Jewish community in the United States but they do not support as a group his human rights actions. He said, “Most of the Jews here in New York – I am telling about my friends and people in the human rights field – are somehow a little bit confused with me because most of them tell me, look, we have enough trouble with the Palestinians. Why do you need to deal with Azerbaijan, because Azerbaijan is actually the ally of Israel. Okay, you had a bad experience with Azerbaijan, but still, you have to think globally. This is realpolitik. What you do against Azerbaijan is against the national interest of Israel.”

In fact, he said, “Jews here, all the Jewish organizations in New York and Washington, told me the straight way, you cannot expect support from us if what you do is against our interests, because our interests are the same interests as Israel.”

Lapshin, traveling with his wife and daughter, first came to Canada, where he met with human rights organizations and the Armenian community. After going from Toronto to New York, he plans to go to Los Angeles, San Francisco, Sacramento, Las Vegas, Seattle, Portland, Dallas, Miami, and probably Chicago, as well as Vancouver in Canada.

During these trips, Lapshin said, “When I meet with the Armenian communities here in the United States and Canada, or in any place, I am trying to explain to them that it is very important to be persistent in what you do.” In other words, they should not give up in the Armenian cause. However, Lapshin said that after the second Karabakh war, “I think the Armenian community is so divided and weak.” There is mistrust of the Armenian government and each other, he said, and this situation made him feel emotionally depressed.

While he has contacted the Armenian National Committee of America and the Armenian Assembly of America in the past, he said that he has not received any support from them now. Nevertheless, he said that at least half of his meetings in America are organized by local Armenians, while Lapshin himself organizes the other half. He declared, “If someone wants to invite me for meetings, with human rights activists or politicians even on the state level I will be more than happy [to oblige].” His email is puerrtto@gmail.com.

Lapshin succinctly summarized the goal of his current trip as follows: “I travel for the living, for meetings, and for my revenge against the Azerbaijani government.” So in addition to calling attention to Azerbaijani human rights abuses and the situation in Artsakh and Armenia through meetings and talks, Lapshin is working as a travel blogger and journalist to support himself. He gave the example of going to the Manhattan Bridge in New York City after his meetings with Amnesty International and Human Rights watch to film a documentary in connection with the movie “Once Upon a Time in America” (featuring Robert De Niro), which itself was filmed in front of that bridge.

In September, the Lapshin family already has tickets booked to go from New York to Israel, where Aleksander’s wife can only remain for 90 days at a time. He is planning to go to Armenia after that, but, he said that due to the unstable political situation, “I can never know if I am going to be allowed to enter Armenia.”

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