Can States Reward their Criminals?

By Nickolaos Angelis

Budapest, January 2004.
The 26-year-old Ramil Safarov, along with another officer from Azerbaijan, went to Budapest Hungary, to participate in the three-month English language courses, organized by NATO‘s Partnership for Peace program for military personnel from each of the former Soviet states. Two Armenian officers, a 25-year-old Gurgen Margaryan and Hayk Makuchyan, also participated in this program.

On the evening of February 18, Safarov bought an axe and a honing stone at Tesco, near Ferenc Puskás Stadium. He took them in the bag to his dormitory room at the Zrínyi Miklós National Defense University, where all the course participants were staying.  Safarov’s roommate had returned to his homeland, Ukraine, because of the funeral of one of his relatives. He hid the axe, the knife and the honing stone under his bed case.  He was up till 5 a.m. and he had not slept at all. As he admitted, the reason for choosing this early hour is because according to his knowledge this is the time when sleeping is the deepest, when people do not wake up, not even from a small noise. His first targeted victim was Margaryan because his room was closer to the murderer’s room and secondly because he decided to begin with the more muscular and more athletic person and to finish his carnage with the physically weaker man and so with the less capacity of resistance.

At around 5:00 am on February 19, Safarov took the axe and went to Margaryan’s room, which he was sharing with his Hungarian roommate, Balázs Kuti. The door of their room was not locked. As he turned on the light, the Armenian turned to his back, trying to open his eyes, but at that time Safarov hit him on his forehead with the flat side of the axe. At that time , the Hungarian woke up and begged Safarov to spare his life, something that apparently happened because according to the killer, that was a business strictly between Armenians and Azeris. Then he turned the axe to the sharp side and aimed at the middle of Margaryan’s  neck, arm and leg.

Afterwards, Safarov headed for the room of Makuchyan, the other Armenian student, with the intention of attacking him also, but found his door locked.He shouted out Makuchyan’s name in a threatening voice and also shouted  “Come out, no matter where you hide, I will find you” in Russian.   

Safarov then attempted to break the door with the axe, but, by this time, the students in the neighboring rooms already woke up (one Uzbek and one Albanian), went out to the corridor and tried to persuade him to stop. Soon after, the Hungarian police, summoned by Balázs Kuti, arrived and arrested Safarov at the scene. 

During his interrogation, Safarov stated that he decided to use an axe, because although he had a knife, he  rather thought not using that, because if he pierced  the victims through by the knife, they could have shouted for help. Instead, hitting their head the axe, would cause them lose consciousness.

Questioned about his motives during the interrogation, Safarov stated:

I regret that I hadn’t killed any Armenian before this. The army sent me to this training and here I learnt that two Armenians were taking the same course as us. I must say that hatred against Armenians grew inside me. In the beginning, we were greeting each other, or rather they saying “hi” to me but I didn’t respond. The reason why I committed the murder was that they passed by and smiled in our face. At that moment, I decided to kill them.

According to Balázs Kuti, the Hungarian roommate of the victim, at the very beginning of the language courses, when the students got acquainted, there was a conversation about different international issues, but nobody spoke of it afterwards. Kuti also said that he had not noticed any strain in the relationship between Margaryan and the Azerbaijani officers. 

When the case went to trial, Safarov’s defense asserted that the murder was committed because Margaryan had insulted the Azerbaijani flag. This explanation later underwent several variations in the press in Azerbaijan and among his defenders. It was claimed that Margaryan and/or Makuchyan had urinated on the Azerbaijani flag; used it to clean and wipe their shoes; and had played an audio recording of voices of suffering Azerbaijani women and girls. Despite the obvious exaggerated nature of these claims,  Safarov did not mention any of this in either his interrogation or his court trial and made it very clear he killed Margaryan just because he was an Armenian. No witnesses were ever called during the trial to corroborate these allegations of harassment in court and prosecution lawyers strongly disputed that they had taken place. Despite the lack of evidence, the Azerbaijani media, including state-owned media outlets, have circulated the flag allegation to turn Safarov into a national hero. Thus, during the years of his imprisonment in Hungary there was a massive wave of support in Azerbaijan for a “national hero” that was endorsed by many public organizations calling the prosecution of Safarov “unjust”.

The defense also claimed that Safarov was mentally sick when committing the murder; however, the forensic medical examination upheld by the judge, showed that “Safarov was sane and aware of the consequences of his act“.

On April 13, 2006, a Hungarian court sentenced Safarov to life imprisonment with no right of appeal for 30 years. The judge, András Vaskuti, cited the premeditated nature and brutality of the crime and the fact that Safarov showed no remorse for his deeds as the reasons for the sentence. Handing down a life sentence, the judge particularly emphasized that “the murder of a sleeping man in peace time is always a crime and cannot be an act of heroism”.

During his imprisonment in 2011, Szabolcs Voros, a Hungarian journalist met Murderer Ramil Safarov and interviewed him. What surprised him most, was the high intelligence of Safarov who translated several Hungarian novels into Azeris; one of these was the classic Hungarian novel “The Paul Street Boys” that takes place in Budapest of 19th century and has to do with the rivalry between two gangs of boys, one of which is described as good and the other as bad. In his question to Safarov about which group he supported as a reader, Safarov replied the good leader, the good group was his favorite. 

After serving eight years of the life sentence, Safarov was extradited under the framework guidelines of the 1983 Strasbourg Convention on the Transfer of Sentenced Persons and was sent to Azerbaijan on August 31, 2012, to serve the rest of his sentence in his home country.

While swift to imprison peaceful domestic dissidents, the authoritarian regime of Azerbaijani president, Ilham Aliyev, was generously working towards the release of the criminal, by reportedly showering Hungary with an as much as $3.8 billion loan offer, enabled by the Caspian’s energy riches – although Hungarian PM Viktor Orban denied it.  This secured Ramil Safarov’s extradition – and de facto release – from Hungary. 

On his arrival in Baku, Safarov was pardoned, promoted to Major, given back pay for the eight years he had spent in prison and was awarded a house, suggesting that Margaryan’s brutal murder based on his ethnicity was, retroactively, a state-sponsored hate crime. 

After arriving in Baku he visited Martyrs’ Lane to lay flowers at the tomb of Azerbaijan’s former president Heydar Aliyev and he also laid flowers at the Eternal Flame monument where there is a monument included in the memory of the victims of Khojaly Massacre, a bloody incident that took place on 26 February 1992 (And that is why Safarov wanted to kill the Armenians officers on 26th February , as an act of Anniversary but the death of his  Ukrainian roommate’s relative changed his plans). Till this day, there is a special section dedicated to R. Safarov on the President of Azerbaijan website.

On 26 May 2020, the European Court of Human Rights rendered a chamber judgment in Makuchyan and Minasyan v. Azerbaijan and Hungary. The Court found that although Azerbaijan had clearly endorsed Safarov’s acts it could not be held responsible under the stringent standards of international law which required a State to “acknowledge” such acts as its own”. (State Responsibility)

The Court held, unanimously, that Azerbaijan was to pay the applicants, two Armenian nationals, Mr Hayk Makuchyan (the survivor colleague of the victim) and Mr Samvel Minasyan, jointly, 15,143.33 pounds sterling (GBP).

According to legal experts:  “From the standpoint of the development of the legal standards, and based on the facts of the case, the failure of the Court to find a breach by Hungary for its lack of due diligence and reliance on imprecise diplomatic assurances will cast a longer shadow and also in respect of the procedural limb of Article 2 ECHR, the Court has implied that clear diplomatic assurances in the context of transfer of prisoners are not required. The relatively low due diligence standard, which it has adopted in this regard, may have a sizable impact on future prisoner transfer decisions.

Armenia and Azerbaijan are fighting over  Nagorno-Karbakh/Artsakh since the late 1980s. The endless ongoing conflict in this region is a factor that explains the deep hatred that seems to be rooted in people’s bones of both nations. 

In 2013, the famous Azerbaijani writer Akram Aylisli published his novel “Stone Dreams”. The book tells about the atrocities during the Armenian pogroms in Azerbaijan in 1990 and also discusses the possibility of coexistence between Azerbaijanis and Armenians.This novel became the subject of special discussion in the parliament of Azerbaijan, where it was unanimously condemned. On 5 February 2013, Aylisli’s son was dismissed from the Customs Committee and the writer’s wife, likewise, from the children’s library where she had worked as director for 30 years. On 7 February, Akram Aylisli was deprived of the title of “People’s Writer of Azerbaijan” and the state pension by a decree of President Ilham Aliyev. Moreover, Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Education, decided to remove Aylisli’s essays from school textbooks and the pro-government Modern Musavat party announced a reward for whoever cuts off the writer’s ear. Earlier, on January 31, a group of young people gathered near the writer’s house (reportedly, from the youth branch of the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan Party) who were burning Aylisli’s portraits and chanting “Akram, get out of the country!”. Later, there was a rally in the writer’s native village. Those gathered there chanted “Traitor!” and “Death to Akram!” .

On February 26, 2015, a small group of staff and supporters of the Azerbaijani Embassy in Washington, DC repeatedly chanted the name “Ramil Safarov,” in an apparent attempt to intimidate participants at an Armenian Youth Federation organized vigil marking the 25th anniversary of the Baku pogroms.   

More recently, there was the war of 2020, when Azerbaijan attacked Artsakh with Turkish endorsement and support. The aftermath of the 44 days war (so-called Second Nagorno-Karabakh War) was the Azerbaijani victory. After the war, a morbid “trophy park” appeared in Baku, in which there was an “exhibition” of the helmets of murdered Armenians.  

The recent Russian invasion of Ukraine has resulted in a renewed EU-Azerbaijan focus on energy due to the fact that Azerbaijan plays the role of an important fossil fuel supplier to replace imports from Russia. And, after all, the EU is Azerbaijan’s main trading partner, and continues to be Azerbaijan’s major export destination and second biggest import market while the EU considers Azerbaijan a “strategic partner”. 

As regards to Hungary-Turkey relations in 2023, it was agreed to elevate bilateral relations to Enhanced Strategic Partnership level. Furthermore, Hungary has observer status in the Organization of Turkic States, which is an organization that serves the Pan-Turanic and Pan-Turkic Neo-Ottoman visions and in which Turkey and Azerbaijan are full members. At this point we have to mention that both Hungarians and Turks are sharing a historic common past. They originated from North and Central Asia respectively and then they migrated westward in different eras. It is believed that the Hungarians are an Uralic population and partially Turkic. Coincidentally, Orban (or Urban) was the name of the Hungarian engineer who cast large-caliber artillery for the Ottoman siege of Constantinople in 1453, which proved to be a decisive weapon for the capture of the city. In short, the Turkish Republic has followed the same cynical path as Azerbaijan by glorifying and restoring financially the murderer of Solomos Solomou, Kenan Akın (who became Minister) and the provocateur of 1955 false flag operation in Thessaloniki (who became Mayor) that lead to the pogroms of the Greek-Orthodox minority of Constantinople.

In September 2012, the same year that Safarov was sent to his homeland, the Kipest district of Budapest (which has an established brotherhood with the Turkish city of Pendik) had a new square named after Kemal Atatürk and a statue of him was erected. That caused protests from local Armenians and Greeks who considered it a provocation. In December 2022, Armenia and Hungary agreed to restore diplomatic relations and to appoint non-resident ambassadors, following a 10-year break resulting from the Budapest murder.

The underlying question is whether the EU can ignore cases as the humanitarian situation in the Artsakh where humanitarian corridors were  blocked by Azeri militias and there was a growing worry over the risk of famine in the region. Meanwhile Orban is still endorsing an illiberal democracy for his country. More recently, on September 19, 2023, Azerbaijan launched a full scale attack; ironically these corridors serve as an opening in order to complete the ethnic cleansing of the Artsakh region. As regards the stance of the EU, Hungary has blocked a joint statement by the European Union which condemned Azerbaijan. The Armenian enclave of Artsakh within Azerbaijan has fallen considering that the president of “Artsakh Republic”  subsequently signed a decree to dissolve all institutions of the republic by 1 January 2024 and as of 1 October 2023, almost the entire population of Nagorno-Karabakh has fled to Armenia. Next, a new strategic objective is to be set concerning the integration of the enclave of Nakhchivan in Azerbaijan, a fact that  in combination with the demographic decline in Armenia , will put in danger its sustainability, 100 years after the end of Armenian Genocide (1915-1923) and will open the Zangezur corridor (that unites the main country with the enclave) and with it; the way to actualization of the Turkish-inspired pan-Turanian ideology. 

Safarov’s case is a crime that reminds us that ethnically-motivated violence is not only acceptable, but also laudable and washable by some State-Actors. Thus, Europe has to wonder if it would be wise to tolerate the crimes that generate new crimes on the altar of fleeting profits from the cooperation with these States.

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