Events of 1993

Human Rights Developments

Having suffered serious losses in the Nagorno Karabakh war, Azerbaijan's Popular Front (PFA) government, led by President Abulfaz Elchibey, was overthrown in June 1993 by a coalition of forces led by renegade Col. Surat Huseinov and Heidar Aliev. Aliev claimed that the change in government was legitimate and constitutional; he was elected President on October 3.

Neither regime distinguished itself with a good human rights record, choosing to harass its political opponents through arrests, censorship, police beatings, and other violations of basic civil rights.

Two people in 1992-1993 were charged with slander for insulting then-President Abulfaz Elchibey. In November 1992, prosecutors charged Social Democratic Party (SDP) leader Araz Alizade with allegedly calling President Elchibey a fascist; the charges were later dropped. Toward the end of 1992, Miralim Bakhronov, a discontented member of the PFA, was reportedly charged with insulting the President and was imprisoned for organizing an unsanctioned demonstration. He was released from prison only after the Aliev government came to power.

Throughout the Popular Front period (June 1992 through June 1993), at least ten demonstrations were broken up by Azerbaijani police, who arrested and either imprisoned demonstrators or made them pay heavy fines. In late December 1992, demonstrators protesting language reform in Azerbaijan were reportedly beaten by police.

On March 27 the PFA government's Minister of Internal Affairs, Iskander Hamidov, attacked Zardusht Alizade, editor-in-chief of Istiglal (Independence), at the office of the SDP. Alizade told Helsinki Watch that Hamidov, angered over several articles published about him in his paper, threw a heavy ashtray at the editor's head and punched another man in the face. Alizade was then thrown into the trunk of Hemidov's car and detained at Ministry of Interior Affairs, where he was beaten by law enforcement officials and held for several hours. Alizade reported that throughout the three months prior to this incident, he had received threatening phone calls – at times up to five or six per week – in response to politically controversial articles.

Due to this incident, and a March 27 incident in which Hamidov disrupted a live television debate between officials and the opposition National Independence Party of Azerbaijan (NDPA), Hamidov was chastised publicly by the President in April and dismissed in May.

The PFA government introduced a state of emergency on April 2 which, among other things, banned public demonstrations and sanctioned "military" censorship in view of the Karabakh war. Many believe, however, that it was aimed at suppressing political opposition in the face of the PFA government's weakness and waning popularity. Istiglal, the weekly newspaper of the Social-Democratic Party of Azerbaijan, was not published for more than two months, according to its editor, as a result of the censorship. The Russian-language Zerkalo reported that any article it attempted to publish on Heidar Aliev was routinely censored.

When Heidar Aliev came to power on June 24, he made a variety of public statements and pledges, including some to Helsinki Watch, that the new government would rule by democratic means only, based on human rights principles. Yet his government, instead of living up to these pledges, presided over waves of arrests, police beatings and censorship aimed at individuals and organizations in Azerbaijan's political opposition, mainly the PFA. From June through September 1993, police used violence to break up at least five reportedly peaceful demonstrations in support of the Popular Front of Azerbaijan, punching and clubbing morethan one hundred peaceful demonstrators. Among the victims were at least eight journalists; their notebooks were snatched away and video cameras smashed; twelve journalists were arrested at two demonstrations and then released.

Each time Azerbaijan police broke up peaceful demonstrations, they detained large groups of opposition activists. One local human rights group estimated that at least 137 individuals were arrested for participating in unsanctioned demonstrations under Aliev's government in 1993. Some of the detained were released immediately, and others were kept in administrative detention. According to reliable reports, in some of the latter cases law enforcement officials refused to release political activists at the end of their brief terms of administrative detention while they criminal evidence against them. In other cases, individuals were released after several hours, only to be re-arrested the next day.

Opposition activists were detained for other non-violent political activity. On September 12 and 13, for example, Baku police arrested a group of Popular Front supporters for pasting up posters around the city announcing a demonstration to protest Azerbaijan's entry into the Commonwealth of Independent States. In mid-September, ten other Popular Front activists were arrested for printing and distributing leaflets, "agitation," "organizing provocations" and other activities that were either vaguely defined or qualified as civil and political rights. They were given fines and administrative penalties of up to fifteen or up to thirty days, but before the October elections, Aliev amnestied the ten.

High-ranking members of the PFA and Musavat a part belonging to the Popular Front also were arrested. In July, four Musavat party members were arrested while drinking tea at a Baky cafe. Ali Omarov, the general procurator of Azerbaijan, reportedly stated before the Milli Mejlis (parliament) that the men possessed texts that harshly criticized the Aliev government, and that this constituted a "state crime." All four were later released. On August 24, law enforcement officials arrested a group of political activists gathered in Tovuz at the coordinating council of the Popular Front, Musavat, and other political organizations.

Six high-ranking former government officials were arrested on July 16 in connection with events the previous month in the city of Gianja: in June the PFA government had attempted to put down a rebel army division (which eventually ousted President Elchibey). The six detained included the former chairman of the Milli Mejlis, the former deputy minister of security, the former deputy minister of justice, and the former deputy minister of interior, all of whom have been charged with using the army against the people and with misuse of public office. After much public outcry the former Chairman of the Milli Mejlis, Isa Gambar, was released on August 17, although charges against him were not dropped.

The Aliev government actively continued censorship, even after it suspended the state of emergency on September 20. Parts of Amnesty International's annual report on Azerbaijan, published in Istiglal, were cut by censors. The September 25 issue of Milliet, the National Independence Party newspaper, had contained a brief article on press censorship; the article was whited out by press censors. The wide-circulation daily Azadlyg's entire print run – about 35,000 copies, according to some reports – was burned on September 11 because of a political cartoon depicting Aliev's visit to Moscow.

Because of the ongoing war in Nagorno Karabakh, Armenians remaining in Azerbaijan – mostly people in mixed marriages – faced the danger of being seized hostage, having their apartments confiscated and other forms of persecution. In February the Gray Wolves, a Turkish-oriented paramilitary group, repeatedly published lists of twenty-two Armenians who had changed their last names and national identity as indicated on Soviet-era passports, in order to escape persecution.

The Right to Monitor

On July 17 the Inter-party Commission on the Rule of Law and Human Rights, initiated by thePopular Front and representing a broad political spectrum, attempted to have its founding meeting. The gathering was disrupted by police troops, who reportedly broke into the Popular Front headquarters where the meeting was about to take place, shot into the air, ransacked the headquarters, and arrested a large group of people. Foreign human rights monitoring groups, including Helsinki Watch, were not harassed in Azerbaijan during 1993.

U.S. Policy

The Clinton administration firmly supported the Elchibey government, and publicly criticized the human rights policies that followed its overthrow. The U.S. Embassy in Baky issued a sharp protest after the arrest of Isa Gambar and other PFA government figures, and the U.S. ambassador was known to have raised human rights issues in his meetings with President Aliev.

This promotion of human right in situ was matched by statements from Washington. On August 30, for example, a State Department spokesperson unequivocally emphasized human rights in Azerbaijan, stating:

We have consistently urged the Azerbaijani government to take steps to restore Azerbaijan to a democratic path. We continue to watch events in Azerbaijan closely and remind the Azerbaijani government that we expect it to demonstrate its express commitment to democracy through free elections, freedom of speech and the press . . . We urge the Azerbaijani government to protect the rights of all citizens, and we will continue to stress the importance of human rights issues in our relations with Azerbaijan.

At the same time, the Clinton administration sought to reverse the restrictions on aid to Azerbaijan set out by the Freedom Support Act of 1992 in order to be an "honest broker" in the conflict in Nagorno Karabakh [see section on Nagorno Karabakh]. Amb. Strobe Talbott noted at a September 7 Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing: "We have found by experience, including in [Azerbaijan,] that [assistance] is not a very good instrument of punishment or pressure." Helsinki Watch took the position that human rights would best be served by providing no aid, other than humanitarian assistance, to any party to the conflict, including Armenia. Helsinki Watch considered it unwise to reestablish aid to Azerbaijan after human rights abuses had worsened so dramatically in such a short period of time.

During 1993 the Clinton administration delivered humanitarian aid to Azerbaijan through the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the Red Cross. In June it distributed medical supplies through those organizations, and in September made grants of $1 million to each for relief.

The Work of Helsinki Watch

Early in the rule of Heidar Aliev, Helsinki Watch sought to have an immediate influence on human rights. To this end we sent a mission to Baky in June 1993, after the Popular Front government was overthrown, and met with Heidar Aliev. Mr. Aliev told Helsinki Watch that government in Azerbaijan "would be only by democratic means, . . . [whose] main principles are human rights, political pluralism, and full rights for all people" and that although during this transition period "Azerbaijan faces many problems, one can be sure that we will not change our ways." Helsinki Watch gave a small press conference following the meeting. A Helsinki Watch letter to Aliev issued several weeks later, and published in Azadlyg, protested press censorship and the violent breakup of a peaceful demonstration in support of the PFA. Helsinki Watch sent Aliev another letter on October 1, on the eve of Azerbaijan's elections, pointing out the gap between the Aliev government's human rights pledges and its pattern of human rights violations from June through September. The letter was published in full in Jumhurriat.

In April, before Aliev took power, Helsinki Watch sent a letter to President Elchibey protestingInterior Minister Hamidov's beating of Zardusht Alizade, editor-in-chief of an opposition newspaper, and requesting that the Azerbaijan government take disciplinary action against Mr. Hamidov.

Nagorno Karabakh

Human Rights Developments

Now in its fifth year, the war between Armenian forces and Azerbaijan over the disputed, Armenian-populated enclave of Nagorno Karabakh in 1993 was marked by failed attempts to negotiate peace and by the capture by ethnic Armenians of at least five towns in Azerbaijan outside of the Nagorno Karabakh borders, including Kelbajar, Agdam, Fizuli, Goradiz, and Jebrail.

The towns' capture came at staggering human costs, creating 250,000 new Azerbaijani refugees. Civilians fled Kelbajar in April through high mountains still covered with snow. Refugees claimed that hundreds of people froze to death attempting to flee. Following the attacks on Fizuli, Goradiz and Jebrail, about 150,000 refugees flocked toward the Iranian border in August, where the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other relief organizations set up refugee camps. Hundreds of civilians were either killed or wounded in this offensive. The same Armenian offensive into towns in southern Azerbaijan, near its border with Iran raised fears that refugees would flood into Iran if attacks continued. The September 27 Armenian seizure of Gorodiz, near the Iranian border, would have cut off the population of that town from the rest of Azerbaijan had Iran not created a corridor to evacuate civilians. The U.N. announced a program of assistance to refugees and displaced persons who fled the war and the 1988 Armenian earthquake. The program provided $22.5 million to the displaced in Armenia and $12.5 million to Azerbaijan.

Ethnic Armenian forces developed a pattern of looting and burning villages after the withdrawal of Azerbaijani forces and the evacuation of civilians. (When they were on the offensive in 1992, Azerbaijani forces did the same to Armenian villages in Karabakh). Some reports suggested that Azerbaijani forces also looted Azerbaijani villages as they retreated.

Azerbaijani forces continued their pattern of long-range shelling and aerial bombardments, which in the past had taken a heavy toll in civilian casualties. According to Armenian sources, long-range artillery rockets and aerial bombardments were used before the Azerbaijaini retreats from Agdam and Fizuli. On August 18, Azerbaijani forces bombed Kapan in southern Armenia, killing seven civilians.

On May 28, 1993, the mutilated remains of Armenian civilians killed during 1992 by Azerbaijani forces were found near Lachin. The civilians had attempted to flee Nagorno Karabakh to Armenia and were reportedly massacred by the Gray Wolves.

Both sides continued the widespread practice of seizing and maintaining hostages during 1993, although both the Karabakh authorities and the Azerbaijan government adopted decrees criminalizing the keeping of hostages in private homes. Ethnic Armenian forces seized about ninety-two hostages from Kelbajar, most of them children and the sick and elderly. Two months later they released four Kelbajar hostages, all infants. On August 24, Karabakh authorities released thirty-eight Azerbaijani detainees; several days later Azerbaijani authorities released twenty-eight Armenian detainees into the care of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). In late September, Karabakh Armenians released five more civilians. President Aliev of Azerbaijan claimed in August that Karabakh Armenian forces held 320 women, seventy-one children, and 173 elderly people as hostages; Karabakh authorities admit to holding 150. Azerbaijan also released to Russia five Russian mercenaries who had been sentenced to death in May.

The ICRC reported that, on August 2, Azerbaijani forces intentionally shelled its humanitarian convoy traveling along Armenia's border with Azerbaijan. One passenger was killed as a result.

During the year the United Nations gave some limited attention to the war in Nagorno Karabakh. U.N. Security Council resolution 822 condemned the Armenian attack on Kelbajar, called on Armenian forces to withdraw, and urged all sides to return to mediation efforts. A resolution adopted on July 29 condemned the seizure of Agdam and other occupied areas of Azerbaijan and demanded an end to hostilities and the withdrawal of troops from all occupied areas.

A June agreemen, brokered by the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) and accepted by Armenia, Azerbaijan and Nagorno Karabakh authorities, based on Resolution 822, would have provided for a sixty-day cease-fire, an end to the Azerbaijani blockade of Nagorno Karabakh and Armenia, and the deployment of CSCE monitors with a mandate to observe troop withdrawal from all occupied areas, disarmament, provision of humanitarian assistance, and the creation of secure conditions for the return of refugees and displaced persons. It was disrupted when Azerbaijani President Elchibey was removed and ethnic Armenian forces captured Azerbaijani territory, but a September cease-fire enjoyed some success.

A buildup of Turkish troops in early September along the Turkish border with Armenia raised fears that the conflict might widen. Prime Minister Tansu Ciller added to these fears when she announced in September that any Armenian advance on Nakhichevan would trigger a declaration of war against Armenia.

The Right to Monitor

Helsinki Watch received no reports of infringement on monitoring efforts during 1993. According to one Western journalist, however, Nagorno Karabakh authorities began in September to restrict journalists' access to the Nagorno Karabakh area and captured territories.

U.S. Policy

Responding to new offensives by Armenian forces, the Clinton administration appeared to be grappling for a more balanced approach to the war over Nagorno Karabakh, a departure from the previous administration's pro-Armenian inclinations. On April 6, Secretary of State Warren Christopher issued a statement in Washington that condemned the ethnic Armenian attack on Kelbajar, acknowledged the increased suffering it caused civilians, and called for the forces' withdrawal. Other statements expressed deep concern over continuing fighting and support for CSCE efforts to negotiate an end to the war.

The State Department also urged Congress to reconsider the Freedom Support Act's ban on U.S. aid to Azerbaijan. While human rights violations within Azerbaijan were serious indeed, it should be noted that the Freedom Support Act's ban on aid to Azerbaijan was based solely on the latter's blockade of Nagorno Karabakh and its military activities in the region. The Act made no mention of Armenia's responsibilities in the conflict. Special Ambassador Strobe Talbott noted that a shift in policy had the goal of creating a role for the United States as "an honest broker in [the] conflict." Helsinki Watch considered that, rather than calling for a ban on Azerbaijan, the U.S. government could more effectively bring the war to an end by denying non-humanitarian assistance to both Azerbaijan and Armenia.

The Work of Helsinki Watch

Helsinki Watch monitored the conflict in Nagorno Karabakh during 1993, as it had since 1991. In 1993, in addition to monitoring violations of the laws of war, we worked to bring needed attention to this much-ignored and lengthy war. Helsinki Watch's newsletter on the appalling 1992 Azerbaijani air bombardment campaign was released in Yerevan and Baky in June, where it generated significant media attention and debate. During high-level meetings in the region,Helsinki Watch raised the issue of the air bombardment campaign, prospects for a negotiated end to the war, blockades and the Armenian advances.

This is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.