A general view of the city of Stepanakert, known as Khankendi in Azerbaijani, in Azerbaijan’s controlled region of Nagorno-Karabakh on Oct. 5, 2023. / Credit: STRINGER/AFP via Getty Images

CNA Staff, Oct 10, 2023 / 11:30 am (CNA).

Several key ethnic Armenian leaders in Nagorno-Karabakh were arrested over the past week following a violent takeover by Azerbaijan.

Arayik Harutyunyan, recent president of the now defunct ethnic Armenian Republic of Artsakh, also known as Nagorno-Karabakh, was among those arrested by the Azeri military on Oct. 3. He has been imprisoned in the Azeri capital city of Baku and is currently being tried for his role in leading the separatist government and participating in military campaigns against Azerbaijan, according to the Azeri State Security Service.

The Azeri Times, a pro-Azeri government news source, reported that Harutyunyan is also being charged with “directing missile strikes” in 2020 “that led to the death of 100 Azerbaijani civilians and injured 416 others.”

Other key Armenian leaders who have been arrested by the Azeri military include Ruben Vardanyan, Bako Sahakyan, and Arkadi Ghukasyan, all former presidents of Artsakh.

All are being similarly charged with crimes related to “terrorism” and war crimes, according to the Azeri State Security Service.

Since their arrests, the Azeri Times has revealed pictures of the captured leaders and claimed that they are being treated humanely and have been able to make phone calls to relatives. Currently, their fates are unclear as Azeri authorities have not said what potential punishments they face.

These arrests follow a short but intense Azeri military offensive that put an end to ethnic Armenians’ self-sovereignty in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Until two weeks ago, the region was majority Armenian and Christian despite existing within the borders of Azerbaijan, a majority Muslim nation.

Claimed by both Armenia and Azerbaijan since 1991, the Azeri government seized Artsakh during the 2020 “Second Nagorno-Karabakh War.”

Though internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan, ethnic Armenians in Artsakh continued to claim self-sovereignty until an Azeri attack on Sept. 19.

Following the attack, the Azeri government promised “full protection of the rights and freedoms of persons of Armenian nationality.” However, the vast majority of the Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh have now fled for Armenia proper. 

According to several human rights advocates, the Armenian Christians of Nagorno-Karabakh fear cultural, religious, and ethnic persecution by the government of Azerbaijan.

According to the Armenian government, 100,632 ethnic Armenians — that is, more than 80% of the total 120,000 Nagorno-Karabakh population — have fled since the Azeri takeover.

Some experts fear that Azerbaijan, emboldened by its victory in Nagorno-Karabakh and backed by its ally Turkey, is planning to invade Armenia proper. 

“Let us be realistic,” Siobhan Nash-Marshall, a U.S.-based human rights advocate, told CNA last week. “Azerbaijan already has grabbed a part of the region … They are also firing on border villages and have been for a year. What, then, is the threat to Armenia? Invasion.”

France promises military aid to Armenia

On Oct. 3, French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna announced France’s intention to send military equipment to Armenia. The announcement demonstrates an ongoing political shift by Armenia away from Russia and toward the West. 

Since Russian peacekeeping forces stationed by Nagorno-Karabakh failed to stop the Sept. 19 attack, Armenia has begun to back away from Russian influence. 

Armenia’s Parliament voted last week to join the International Criminal Court (ICC), which has an active arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin. This indicates that if Putin were to set foot in Armenia, authorities would be obliged to arrest him.

Nikol Pashinyan, Armenia’s prime minister, reportedly canceled his plans to attend an Oct. 10 summit in Kyrgyzstan at which Putin was also scheduled to attend.

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