YEREVAN and BUDAPEST (Combined Sources) — The extradition of an Azerbaijani soldier jailed in Hungary for the 2004 murder of an Armenian soldier, Lt. Gurgen Markarian, to Azerbaijan and his subsequent — and immediate — presidential pardon and hero’s welcome touched off a firestorm in Armenia, the Armenian Diaspora as well as within Hungary itself.
Armenia said it was suspending diplomatic relations with Hungary on Friday.
“Hungarian authorities should understand that they have made a grave mistake,” President Serge Sargisian told his Security Council. “They de-facto made a deal with the Azeri authorities.”
The row erupted after Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev pardoned Ramil Safarov, who had been sentenced to life in prison for the killing of Markarian during a NATO Partnership for Peace English-language training in Budapest.
Hungary agreed to return Safarov to Azerbaijan after it had received assurances he would serve out his sentence in a local prison but he received a presidential pardon and was promoted from lieutenant to major.
Hungary has been developing economic ties with energy-rich Azerbaijan and gave backing to the Nabucco pipeline project, seen as the main route for Azeri gas exports to Europe. Hungarian media reported that Azerbaijan could lend Hungary 2-to-3 billion euros ($2.5-3.8 billion).
Internationally, leaders have condemned the action but refrained from doing any more than a verbal rebuke. Several hundred angry demonstrators in Armenia burned the Hungarian flag and threw eggs, tomatoes and coins.
“The Hungarians have sold their honor and conscience to the Azerbaijanis like a common prostitute,” protest organizer Armen Mkrtchian said.
President Barack Obama said he was “deeply concerned” over the move. “President Obama is deeply concerned by today’s announcement that the president of Azerbaijan has pardoned Ramil Safarov following his return from Hungary,” said National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor. “We are communicating to Azerbaijani authorities our disappointment about the decision to pardon Safarov,” Vietor added in astatement.
“This action is contrary to ongoing efforts to reduce regional tensions and promote reconciliation. The United States is also requesting an explanation from Hungary regarding its decision to transfer Safarov to Azerbaijan.”
Armenia warned Azerbaijan it was ready for war as tensions soared Monday between the ex-Soviet foes after Baku pardoned and promoted an Azerbaijani officer who axed an Armenian soldier to death.
“We don’t want a war, but if we have to, we will fight and win. We are not afraid of killers, even if they enjoy the protection of the head of state,” Sargisian fumed in a statement last week.
“They [Azerbaijanis] have been warned,” he said, calling Azerbaijan a country where “illicit orders set free and publicly glorify every bastard who kills people only because they are Armenians.” The co-chairs of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group,” the troika negotiating on Artsakh, met in Paris with the Armenian foreign minister on Sunday and his Azerbaijani counterpart on Monday.
The co-chairs “expressed their deep concern and regret for the damage the pardon and any attempts to glorify the crime have done to the peace process and trust between the sides,” an OSCE statement said.
Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mamedyarov also spoke by telephone with US Deputy Secretary of State William Burns on Monday, ministry spokesman Elman Abdullayev said.
Mamedyarov “underlined that the question of Ramil Safarov must not be looked at outside the context of the fact of the occupation, because it is a consequence of this Armenian aggression,” Abdullayev said. Armenian Foreign Minister Eduard Nalbandian in turn said “international society cannot tolerate the continuation of Azerbaijan’s adventurist policy under the cover of the negotiations process.”
Separately from the OSCE statement, Russia’s Foreign Ministry condemned both Hungary’s release of Safarov and Azerbaijan’s pardon of him.
“We believe that these actions of Azerbaijani as well as Hungarian authorities contradict internationally-brokered efforts, of the OSCE’s Minsk group in particular, to ease tensions in the region,” the ministry said.
During his trial in Budapest, Safarov claimed that the Nagorno-Karabagh conflict was at the root of his actions and that he killed Markarian while the victim was sleeping after the Armenian repeatedly provoked and ridiculed him. Parliamentary Assembly Council of Europe (PACE) President Jean-Claude Mignon said, “I join the international condemnation of the ‘glorification’ of the terrible crime which Mr. Safarov has committed, and for which he has been condemned by a court in a Council of Europe member state. His liberation is unacceptable, and I am extremely disappointed by the abusive use of a Council of Europe legal instrument in this affair. This scandalous liberation is having very negative consequences on the already-strained relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan and also risks destabilizing the situation in the region. I call on the Azeri authorities to reconsider their position, in line with the standards and the ethos of the Council of Europe.”
Several members of congress in the US issued statements on the subject, including Rep. Brad Sherman, a senior member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee: “I am deeply dismayed by the Hungarian government’s decision to release an Azeri military officer who was sentenced to life imprisonment for murdering an Armenian officer in cold blood in Budapest in 2004. The convicted criminal was wrongfully and unjustly pardoned and set free by Azerbaijan’s President immediately after arriving in Azerbaijan. I stand by our friend and ally Armenia in her ongoing quest for peace and security for her citizens. I call on the Azeri government to bring this individual to justice instead of freeing a convicted criminal. Baku’s actions demonstrate a stubborn refusal to avoid threats against its neighbor.”
Thorbjorn Jagland, the Council of Europe’s secretary general, also condemned the move.
“I do not want to comment on the legal proceedings, but I find it unacceptable that a convicted murderer is welcomed as a hero,” Jagland said in the latest in a series of statements by European officials criticizing the pardoning of Ramil Safarov immediately after his extradition from Hungary.
“I reject the prospect of a world whose moral code begins to fray, where respect for human dignity is denied,” he said. “This is not the Europe that we should wish for future generations.
“I condemn such glorification of crime, and urge that we all work to uphold the respect for life, and our values as defended by the Council of Europe,” added the Norwegian politician.
Anger regarding the move has not only happened outside Hungary, but within it, where members of the opposition are expressing their solidarity with the Armenian people. Almost 2,000 Hungarians protested in Budapest on Tuesday against the government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban.
Protesters chanting “We are sorry, Armenia” said they doubted the government’s motives, adding that whatever the reasons, the decision was unacceptable.
“Murderers should not be extradited to countries where it is clear that ethnic hate crimes are considered heroism,” said protester Laszlo Muhari, 30. “In a democratic country this is not acceptable.”
“Orban should stop lying and start giving clear answers, because it is simply impossible that such a brutal killer is just released without a background deal.”
NATO’s Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen was scheduled to visit Armenia this week in the aftermath of the debacle, to meet with Nalbandian and Defense Minister Seyran Ohanian.
(Stories from Reuters, the Associated Press, Radio Free Europe, Agence France Presse and Armenpress were used in compiling this report.)