In September 2022, eight unarmed Armenian servicemen were shot dead by Azerbaijani soldiers during clashes on the Armenian-Azerbaijani border, Yerevan claims. The incident was studied by BBC journalists, the investigative group Bellingcat (declared an undesirable organization and a “foreign agent” in Russia) and the international human rights group Human Rights Watch (HRW). We looked into how this would affect the peace talks between Azerbaijan and Armenia.
On a hilltop illuminated by dawn, armed men who have just captured enemy combat positions, at gunpoint, herd a group of prisoners into one place and force them to sit on the ground with their hands raised.
Shots are fired. A shout in Azerbaijani can be heard: “Vurma! Vurma! (Don’t shoot!)”. The captives fall down, the shooting of those lying on the ground continues for some time.
The 40-second clip, shot on a cell phone, quickly went viral on social networks and telegraph channels. Armenia accused Azerbaijan of inhumane treatment of prisoners of war and extrajudicial killings. Armenian human rights ombudsman Kristina Grigoryan told the BBC that she has sent materials on the case to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).
At the beginning of October the Office of Public Prosecutor of Azerbaijan stated that preliminary investigation is being conducted and “if the guilt of alleged persons, military servicemen is proved”, “the question of criminal responsibility may be solved”.
Who shot and who was the victim
The video shows at least 15 soldiers surrounding a group of eight (other reports say nine) unarmed men wearing helmets and camouflage matching the uniforms used by the Armenian army.
The BBC verified this camouflage from well-known photos of the new uniforms of the Armenian armed forces and helmets used by the Armenian army.
The uniforms of the attacking soldiers in camouflage are the same as those used by the Azerbaijani army. However, it is impossible to identify the unit of attackers by their stripes.
Bellingcat investigators came to the same conclusions – they compared the colors of the uniforms with the samples posted on camopedia.org website, where the camouflage variants of different countries are collected.
Pro-Azerbaijani Telegram channel, which published the video, said that the servicemen shot in it belong to the special forces of Azerbaijani Armed Forces (XTQ – xüsusi təyinat qüvvələri).
BBC, HRW and Bellingcat investigators also confirmed that the word Vurma (“Do not shoot!”) was shouted by a person, whose native language is Azerbaijani.
What happened to the captives is not known, but professor of UC Berkeley Rohini Haar, cited by HRW, thinks that the possibility of survival by shooting from automatic weapons from such a distance is very low.
When and where the shooting took place
The video is believed to have been filmed in September 2022 during the border clashes between the armies of Azerbaijan and Armenia. According to Armenian ombudsman Kristina Grigoryan, the incident could have happened on September 13 or 14.
In order to establish the time of the incident, Bellingcat investigators used chronolocation methods, including satellite images and position of the sun relative to the shooting location.
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The available data is insufficient to determine the exact date of the shooting: according to the investigators, the incident could have happened between mid-August and 6:00-6:30 am on September 13. But given that the September fighting on the border between Armenia and Azerbaijan took place on the night of September 12 to 13, the early morning of September 13 may be the most likely time.
The place where the shooting took place coincides with the one discovered by the BBC team in parallel with HRW and Bellingcat.
According to the Armenian version, the incident took place on Armenian territory, on Ishkhanasar hill north of Lake Sevan, at a military position formerly known as “Khovaz-1”.
The coordinates provided by the Armenian Foreign Ministry’s representatives point to a location approximately one kilometre from the point identified by BBC and Bellingcat investigators, as well as by the French newspaper Liberation.
Investigators were unable to confirm the statement by the Armenian Foreign Ministry and found no match between the video and the landscape of the area of Ishkhanasar heights.
According to BBC specialists, given the angle of the footage, this must be a point on the border between the two countries in the Lachin region of Azerbaijan (marked in blue on the diagram). The border here has not been delimited since the collapse of the USSR, as this region has been under Yerevan’s control since the 1990s.
Reactions and mutual accusations
Armenia has accused Azerbaijan of committing a war crime and has appealed to the European Court of Human Rights and the International Court of Justice, which considers claims by states against each other.
The Azerbaijani authorities have announced “numerous investigative actions” in connection with the video, including the opening of 10 criminal cases.
First Deputy Prosecutor General Elchin Mammadov declined to comment to the BBC Azerbaijani service, citing investigative secrecy, but said “there are elements of falsification in the video”.
Many observers, based on Azerbaijan’s past experience, harbour little hope that any action will be taken.
“When shortly after the end of hostilities between the sides in the 2020 war videos of Armenian soldiers being tortured emerged, Azerbaijani prosecutors also promised action and arrested several suspects. However, the investigation stalled and no one was convicted. At least one of the military men arrested in 2020 was awarded the Medal for Service to the Fatherland in 2022. No one has been convicted of war crimes in Armenia either,” Joshua Kuchera, Ani Mejlumyan and Ulker Natiggyzy recall in an article on eurasia.org.
On 8 November Azerbaijan celebrated the second anniversary of the victory in the second Karabakh war. President Ilham Aliyev, speaking on the occasion in Shusha, said that the events of 13-14 September “should be a lesson for Armenia”. He said nothing about possible steps to restore trust between Baku and Yerevan. Even two years later, the atmosphere of mutual hatred between the two countries has not weakened, but rather strengthened.
“Prez. Aliyev’s speech in Shusha, where he calls Armenia an ‘enemy’ and speaks about the ‘lesson taught to it’ in September, evokes an oppressive feeling,” tweeted Thomas de Waal, author of the book on Karabakh and senior fellow at the Carnegie Foundation. He also recalled that for two years Baku and Yerevan have never managed to restore transport communications, as stipulated in the agreement that ended the war in 2020.
Each side tries to justify its tough stance by the other’s rejection of peace. Azerbaijan’s General Prosecutor’s Office has opened 87 criminal cases ‘alleging that the Armenian forces waged a war of aggression and committed crimes during the second Karabakh war’.
There are regular reports of clashes and military deaths both on the border between Azerbaijan and Armenia and in Nagorno-Karabakh, a zone controlled by Russian peacekeepers. Meanwhile, the Azerbaijani media refers to Armenian fighters in Karabakh as illegal armed formations, while the Armenian media refers to soldiers of the army of Artsakh (as Karabakh is called in Armenia).
Why is this happening?
Hostages of history
The preference for military methods must be seen in the context of how the conflict developed from the beginning, reminds Leyla Aliyeva of the School of Global and Regional Studies at Oxford University.
“In fact, military methods are a kind of compensation for the poor (or no) functioning of international law governing relations between countries. For example, the violation of internationally recognised borders, as was the case in the first Karabakh war, had no consequences from international organisations and the international community, say, in the form of sanctions or other forms of pressure’, Leyla Aliyeva believes.
Azerbaijan is often reminded of the four UN Security Council resolutions adopted during the first Karabakh war in 1993, which condemned the occupation of Azerbaijani districts by Armenian forces and demanded the immediate withdrawal of armed units. Armenia did not follow them in any way, and there were no consequences.
Yerevan sees Azerbaijani military pressure differently. “Baku has been actively pursuing this policy of military diplomacy since the first days of Russian aggression against Ukraine, trying to take advantage of the obvious power vacuum in the South Caucasus and the existing military imbalance between Armenia and Azerbaijan,” says Armenian political analyst Tigran Grigoryan.
In his opinion, this is a kind of intimidation tactics to force Armenia to accept a peace agreement on terms favourable to Azerbaijan, if it wants to avoid further military escalation.
He recalls that “Armenia already accepted Azerbaijan’s demands during a quadripartite meeting in Prague on 6 October 2022 and agreed to sign a peace agreement and to complete the delimitation process by the end of the year.
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But even if the borders and the peace agreement can be agreed, there is a question of legitimising it in the eyes of the populations of both countries. A workable agreement requires compromise solutions, but neither side seems ready for them yet. And the more blood is shed, the longer the road to trust.
How can we “sell the people” a peace agreement?
Tigran Grigoryan believes that ceasefire violations “will not change the current dynamics in the negotiation process. However, they will seriously complicate the task of the Armenian government to “sell” the peace agreement to the general public”.
He said there is an ingrained perception in Armenia that an unjust peace is being imposed on the country. “Azerbaijan’s war crimes greatly reinforce such sentiments,” he says.
“During conflicts, people acquire a tendency to imagine the society of the opposite side as a kind of monolithic unity, where there is no difference of opinion and where everyone is worthy of the same treatment,” Armenian journalist and writer Mark Grigoryan recalls. – And videos that show atrocities against people deprived of defence reinforce extremely negative stereotypes in Armenia about [Azerbaijani] neighbours.
In Armenia, Mark Grigoryan notes, it is customary to call Azerbaijanis “Turks” and thus as if to transfer to them all the emotions associated with “real” Turks and going back to the mass slaughter of Armenians in 1915-1923.
“One can sense how deep the chasm of hostility, rejection and resentment is, which has now only become deeper.”
In Azerbaijani public space, the neighbours are rarely talked about positively. Social media campaigns against those who disagree with the military pressure on Armenia are carried out under the hashtag “Know the traitor”.
BBC Azerbaijan Service correspondents witnessed five- to six-year-old children in a primary school being taught to shout in chorus at the morning ruler, “Hate! Hate the enemy!” (along with another slogan: “Karabakh is Azerbaijan!”).
In 2022, Azerbaijan commemorated the hundreds of victims of the Khojaly tragedy, the massacre of Azerbaijani civilians by Armenian forces in the first Karabakh war. Azerbaijan calls for the perpetrators to be brought to justice, but in Armenia even today there are opinions that the tragedy was the work of the Azerbaijanis themselves.
The Russian military patrols the line of separation in Nagorny Karabakh itself and is also deployed in Armenia itself. However, Russian influence in the region is weakening with each day of the war in Ukraine. Western countries mediating in the conflict have had to work hard to keep the parties from escalating again, but even this is obviously not enough.
True, despite the pessimism of some observers, Baku and Yerevan are still moving, albeit slowly, towards an agreement that could be the first significant step towards peace after the 2020 document, diplomats believe. But a bloodbath like September’s is seen differently in the two capitals: for some it is “peace enforcement”, for others it is the success of the argument that “forceful pressure works”.
What happened in September
The reasons for the military clashes on 13-14 September along almost the entire border between Azerbaijan and Armenia are still unclear. Azerbaijan has accused Armenia of provocations and attempts to mine communications on Azerbaijani territory.
Armenia has accused Azerbaijan of invading its sovereign territory. Baku denies this.
Intensive diplomatic efforts resulted in a ceasefire agreement. Baku stressed Russian mediation, while Yerevan insisted on the contribution of the US State Department. The number of casualties on both sides exceeded 280.
In November, in his speech on the second anniversary of the end of the war, President Ilham Aliyev confirmed that the result of the September fighting was the entrenchment of the Azerbaijani army on the dominant border heights.
The justice systems in Armenia and Azerbaijan can hardly be expected to assume responsibility for investigating crimes committed by their own soldiers.
Although there was some criticism in Azerbaijani society following the release of the prisoner-of-war video, it was not widely discussed.
One of the main reasons for this was that after neither the first nor the second Karabakh war war war war crimes were investigated by either side, and societies perceived this as the “new normal”, says Zaur Shiriyev, an Azerbaijani analyst at the International Crisis Group. Hence the constant mutual accusations.
Interethnic conflicts are not a new phenomenon, but where they have been successfully resolved, a system of transitional justice has been a great help.
Transitional justice is a mechanism for the hybrid application of legal and non-legal processes to help countries where there have been massive human rights violations to overcome a difficult political legacy.
Transitional justice has been used in many conflicts where there has been little, if any, chance of using the standard process.
In Canada and Australia, historical injustices against indigenous peoples have been dealt with in this way.
In South Africa, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established in the 1990s, headed by the late Archbishop Desmond Tutu. The Commission was attended by survivors of apartheid violence who spoke out about their experiences and by perpetrators who confessed in return for amnesty.
It was this commission that many believe helped South Africa’s transition to democracy. Although the mechanism was far from perfect, it is considered a success for transitional justice.
It was also tried in the Balkans after the bloody inter-ethnic wars. The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, set up by the UN in 1993, indicted more than 160 people, sentenced 91 and imprisoned 59.
Crucial was the verdict that the Srebrenica massacre, where 8,000 Muslim men were killed by the Serbian military, constituted genocide. But in some Balkan countries the process has stalled, recalls Alexandra Niksic, head of the BBC’s Serbia Service: witness intimidation and lack of cooperation between regional law enforcement agencies have meant that missing persons remain unaccounted for and the truth about war crimes remains unexplained.
How to heal the wounds?
There is a huge need to bring elements of transitional justice into the peace talks, and this should be reflected in a peace agreement between Azerbaijan and Armenia, said Zaur Shiriyev.
There is a need for a healing process for all the victims of the two wars on both sides, because after three decades of conflict there is little trust left for peace.
The mechanism of transitional justice in general, as well as the truth about the events and reparations in particular, need public support. And this requires an active civil society and a free press to lead the process.
“Unfortunately, we don’t see this activism after the 2020 war,” says Shiriyev. – And if these steps are not taken, unfortunately we will see more war crimes and the public of both countries will justify them.”
Paul Myers contributed to this story.