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 promptly 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 Lutheran 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 the N-K war. Many observers think Azerbaijan, flush with petrodollars and weapons, wishes to reignite the conflict, and that the very public pardon of Safarov is meant as a provocation. That’s what’s worrying the UN, NATO, and the great powers.
Second, Azerbaijan argues that the extradition and pardon were valid under international law, specifically, the Council of Europe’s Convention on the Transfer of Sentenced Persons. This is a superficially plausible, but ultimately incorrect, legal argument. Article 12 of the Convention, on which Azerbaijan relies, does allow a receiving state to pardon a prisoner for the crime he committed in the transferring state. But one must read this article together with Article 2 of the Convention, which states the Convention’s overarching purpose: a prisoner may be transferred “in order to serve the sentence imposed on him.” That is, under the Convention, a prisoner may not be transferred in order to evade the sentence imposed on him. Read together, articles 2 and 12 suggest that a receiving state may not pardon a prisoner immediately and for any reason at all. The implication is that there must be some changed circumstance casting doubt on the sentence — the prisoner’s remorse or good behavior, for example. Besides, Hungary claims Azerbaijan gave assurances that it would not pardon Safarov. If that’s true, Azerbaijan breached the international law obligations of good faith and cooperation in the performance of a treaty.
But of course — and this is the third point — this sad episode has nothing to do with international law. It’s simply not credible that Hungary believed Safarov would serve his sentence in Azerbaijan. This was obviously a tacit deal to allow Safarov to evade justice, and it results from Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s policy of pursuing close ties with Azerbaijan, which has agreed to purchase billions of euros worth of Hungarian government debt. Orbán also wants a piece of various Azeri gas pipeline projects. Evidently, Orbán made the hardheaded assessment that Hungary’s economic interests outweighed the release of one unrepentant ax murderer. Well, you might say, that’s international relations: it’s about realpolitik, not justice. The ironic thing, though, is that the Orbán government has made a big show of embracing Hungary’s Christian roots and cast itself as the brave defender of Catholic values against a secular onslaught. (Which Catholics? The Borgias?). Apparently, those values stop at the national border.