Ax Murderers, Values, and International Law

At a NATO conference in Hungary in 2004, an Azeri officer, Ramil Safarov, murdered one of the other participants, an Armenian officer named Gurgen Margaryan. Actually, that doesn’t quite capture it. Safarov broke into Margaryan’s room, stabbed him while he was sleeping, then severed his neck with an ax. Safarov confessed to the crime; Hungary convicted him of murder and sentenced him to life imprisonment. Two weeks ago, Hungary extradited Safarov to Azerbaijan, which┬ápromptly pardoned him, promoted him, restored his back pay for his years in the Hungarian prison, and generally gave him a hero’s welcome.

The extradition and pardon have caused a storm of protest — from Armenia, of course, but also from the UN, NATO, the US, Russia, and several church bodies within and outside Hungary. Hungary’s ┬áLutheran and Reformed Churches wrote to condemn “the unacceptable amnesty” given Safarov. The Hungarian Catholic Bishops Conference was more circumspect, writing only to express solidarity with Armenians and condemn ethnic violence, but the point was clear. The World Council of Churches, and the National Council of Churches in the US, also condemned the actions of Hungary and Azerbaijan. On Friday, the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights, through a spokesman, strongly criticized the pardon, stating that “ethnically motivated hate crimes of this gravity should be deplored and properly punished.”

How can one begin to make sense of this incredible episode? It’s important to focus on three things. First, Armenia and Azerbaijan have been locked for twenty years in one of the Caucasus’s “frozen conflicts,” a dispute over the region of Nagorno-Karabagh. Indeed, Azerbaijan alleges that Safarov was incited by Margaryan’s insults to the Azeri flag — at his trial, Safarov did not mention any such insults, and of course they could not have justified this brutal murder even if they had occurred — and by injuries Safarov’s family suffered in Read more