The government of Armenia accused the Azeri military on Monday of beheading an Armenian soldier in Nagorno-Karabakh, taking photos with his severed head, posting them on social media, then using the dead soldier’s mobile phone to call his brother and mock him with “hate speech.”
Armenia and Azerbaijan have been engaged in an active military conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh since late September, when both sides claimed the other attacked across the border between the region and undisputed Azeri territory. Nagorno-Karabakh has technically been part of Azerbaijan since Joseph Stalin moved it into the Azeri Soviet Socialist Republic during his tenure, but has an indigenous ethnic Armenian population that Baku has no control over.
A war killing an estimated 25,000 people erupted between the two countries in the immediate aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union that resulted in Azerbaijan preserving its official claim to Nagorno-Karabakh but retaining no real power there. Its residents consider the territory the “Republic of Artsakh” and govern themselves. Armenia does not recognize Artsakh as a state but supports Armenian self-determination.
Armenians are ethnically distinct from Azeris and a majority Christian population. Azeris are majority Muslim and a Turkic people with close ties to Turkey and Central Asian ethnic groups.
The current Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is somewhat different from past disputes in that Turkey is actively supporting Azerbaijan. Both Armenian government and independent reports have accused Turkey of flying in thousands of experienced jihadis and inexperienced mercenaries from Syria to fight the Armenians, as Ankara has done in Libya and other war theaters President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has invaded. Armenia, on its end, has attracted volunteer fighters from Greece as well as Yazidi fighters.
The Human Rights Defender’s office of the government of Armenia issued a statement on Monday after Azeri sources began circulating images that appeared to show the nation’s soldiers beheading, then holding up the head, of an Armenian soldier.
“Today, the Human Rights Defender received an alarming call certifying that Azerbaijani military forces beheaded an Armenian soldier several days ago,” the statement read.
“On 16 October, at around 13PM [1 p.m. local time] a member of the Azerbaijani armed forces called the brother of an Armenian soldier and said that his brother is with them; they beheaded him and were going to post his photo on the Internet,” the statement continued. “Afterwards, several hours later, the brother found the photo of on his killed brother’s social media page.”
The Human Rights Defender’s office asserted that the culprits were “members of the Azerbaijani army” and that they appeared to use the man’s phone to publish the images in question on the Armenian soldier’s social media accounts.
“There were two phone calls with Azerbaijani soldiers who used hate speech with intention to humiliate the Armenian killed soldier’s brother. As the latter informed the Human Rights Defender, the calls were made from the Armenian soldier’s phone number,” the office stated.
Armenian officials concluded calling the incident “cruel and terroristic” and warning that evidence suggests the incident is not isolated.
Armenia received nearly immediate support in its declaration from Iran. Iran is the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism and responsible for widespread atrocities but has largely refused to involve itself in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Both Armenia and Azerbaijan border Iran to its north and Iran has only interjected prior to Tuesday’s statement to complain that the Azeris were, apparently accidentally, bombing targets within Iran’s borders. Iran is a Shiite Muslim country – with an interest in keeping Sunni Syrian fighters away from its border – boasting a minority Azeri population that has erupted in unrest since September.
“Iran will not accept beheading people like Takfiris or targeting cities and innocent people,” Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said on Tuesday. “Takfiri” is a word Iranian officials use in reference to Sunni jihadists.
Khatibzadeh added that Iran was concerned about the “worrying images released from Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.”
Azeri soldiers beheading Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh is not without precedent. During another spate of fighting in 2016, Yerevan accused Azeri soldiers of beheading three soldiers and mutilating their bodies after the heading. Armenian officials claimed that they had evidence that at least one of the soldiers was alive during his beheading. Other bodies of soldiers returned to Armenia at the time were not beheaded but did show signs of other mutilation, officials said.
In the case of one Armenian soldier, 19-year-old Kyaram Sloyan, Azeri soldiers also reportedly took photos with his severed head and posted them online. The soldier’s parents had to bury the teen twice, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) reported at the time, as they did not have his head when they first received the body and no one warned them that he had been beheaded.
Shortly after the killing, the Armenian-American news outlet Asbarez reported that Azerbaijan’s president, Ilham Aliyev, awarded the soldier believed to be responsible for Sloyan’s beheading a medal for his service.
Azerbaijan is facing accusations of other war crimes in the region currently. In early October, Amnesty International accused Baku of using cluster bombs to attack civilians in Nagorno-Karabakh. Human rights groups frown upon the use of cluster bombs because they are highly inaccurate; it is nearly impossible to use them to target exclusively military areas without hurting civilians.
“Over the weekend, footage consistent with the use of cluster munitions in the city of Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh, was published by the region’s de facto authorities,” Amnesty International revealed. “They also reported an unidentified number of civilian casualties after further shelling in Stepanakert and the town of Shushi.”
The government of Artsakh has accused Baku of displacing half the population of the region since hostilities began in late September.