Ruben Vardanyan, a former head of Nagorno-Karabakh, is detained by Azerbaijani border guards on Wednesday September 27 (Photo Azerbaijan State Border Service/EPA-EFE)

Anxious World Waits to Hear about Fate of Vardanyan, Other Armenian Leaders Arrested in Karabakh

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YEREVAN (Combined Sources) — Authorities in Azerbaijan brought on September 28 a string of criminal charges against Ruben Vardanyan, an Armenian-born businessman and former Nagorno-Karabakh premier, one day after arresting him in the Lachin corridor. A video showing him handcuffed, walking with his captors in Baku, is particularly ominous.

Vardanyan, who held the second-highest post in Karabakh’s leadership from November 2022 to February 2023, was arrested at an Azerbaijani checkpoint on the main road connecting Karabakh to Armenia as he fled the region along with tens of thousands of its ordinary residents.

Azerbaijan’s State Security Service said the prominent billionaire was charged with “financing terrorism,” illegally entering Karabakh last year and supplying its armed forces with military equipment. It said an Azerbaijani court remanded him in pre-trial custody.

Born and raised in Armenia, Vardanyan is a former investment banker who made his fortune in Russia in the 1990s and 2000s. The 55-year-old relocated to Karabakh and was appointed as its state minister last November shortly before Baku blocked traffic through the Lachin corridor. He made defiant statements during and after his short tenure, urging the Karabakh Armenians to resist Azerbaijani efforts to force them into submission.

Vardanyan is the first Karabakh leader arrested after last week’s Azerbaijani military offensive that paved the way for the restoration of Azerbaijani control over the Armenian-populated territory. There are growing indications that Baku is seeking to also jail other current and former Karabakh officials.

Davit Babayan, a well-known adviser to Karabakh’s current and former presidents, said on Thursday that “the Azerbaijani side has demanded my arrival in Baku.” He said he will turn himself in later in the day because he does not want to “cause serious damage” to other Karabakh Armenians who have not yet left the region.

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In Yerevan, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan expressed serious concern at “arbitrary arrests” made at the Azerbaijani checkpoint. Without mentioning Vardanyan by name, he said the Armenian government will take “necessary steps to protect the rights of arbitrarily arrested individuals, including in international bodies.”

The government on Wednesday asked the European Court of Human Rights to order Baku to urgently provide information about Vardanyan’s whereabouts and detention conditions. The Armenian Foreign Ministry said it will do its best to try to secure the tycoon’s release.

Vardanyan, who renounced his Russian citizenship late last year, has been increasingly critical of Pashinyan in recent months, repeatedly denouncing his recognition of Azerbaijani sovereignty over Karabakh.

Calls for Vardanyan’s Release

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCR) called on Azerbaijan to respect the rights of Vardanyan.

Trossell said that they call on the Azerbaijani authorities to take all measures to ensure that due process and fair trial rights are respected—as required by international human rights law.

Former Foreign Minister of Armenia Vardan Oskanyan on his Facebook page asked for the safe return of Vardanyan and Babayan.

“The return of all Armenian captives, arrested and kidnapped to Armenia should be one of the main issues on the agenda of the Armenian authorities. Azerbaijan’s accusations against Ruben Vardanyan are fabricated. Azerbaijan does not have any legal basis to keep him. The same applies to Davit Babayan and others who may have a similar fate. Ruben Vardanyan is a citizen of the Republic of Armenia. He was there to stand by his people and defend their right to self-determination. Davit Babayan is a citizen of Artsakh by birth, he also fought to protect the land his ancestors left him as a legacy and to live freely there. The Armenian authorities should make every effort, including the interruption of negotiations, to secure their release. In return for the great gift given to Azerbaijan, the authorities of Armenia should at least demand the return of these people. Diaspora should also make this issue an agenda item. And the international community should definitely demand from Azerbaijan to refrain from such persecutions.”

The Aurora Humanitarian Initiative, co-founded by Vardanyan, issued a statement on the arrest, signed by a host of Aurora Prize laureates and members, including fellow co-founder Noubar Afeyan.

“The Aurora Humanitarian Initiative, to which Ruben has given so much, has for the past eight years honored and supported the work of those who fight for basic human rights, often at the risk of their own lives, all around the world. The irony is that Ruben now finds himself a victim of the same persecution as those he has sought to help as a human rights defender.

“When Ruben moved to Nagorno-Karabakh over a year ago, prior to the 10-month-long blockade of all food and basic necessities and recent bombings, he did so knowing that there were significant risks, but he was determined to help find a peaceful resolution to the conflict.

“Detaining Ruben, a man who has spent the last 20 years dedicated to advancing the socio-economic development of the region, is unjust.  This action deprives him of his basic rights much like the tens of thousands of Armenians of the region whose fundamental human rights are violated daily.

“Ruben Vardanyan is being held captive because of his support for the people of Nagorno-Karabakh and their right to a democratic way of life. The Azerbaijani government must release him and demonstrate their respect for human rights – his and those of all Armenians of the region.

Similarly, the Armenian General Benevolent Union issued a statement asking for Vardanyan’s release and for Azerbaijan to face retributions for its blatant violation of human rights.

AGBU President Berge Setrakian, upon hearing about Vardanyan’s release said, “This showcase arrest sends a clear message that Azerbaijan is following the same genocidal playbook as its Turkish partner in crime. In effect, nothing has changed since 1915 and we are back to ground zero for the first genocide of the 20th century. International players must take a stand to ensure that all citizens who are forced out of their ancestral homeland leave with dignity.”

In its statement, the organization said, “The AGBU calls upon every member of the United Nations Security Council, all heads of state and foreign ministries of the free world to stand up in resounding solidarity to act without delay. The world is watching to see if the levers of the international order are functioning to stop Azerbaijan in its tracks.”

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