BAKU (AFP) – Azerbaijan on Thursday sentenced a Russian-Israeli travel blogger who wrote in support of Armenian separatists to three years in jail for visiting the disputed territory of Nagorny Karabakh.
Alexander Lapshin — who also has Ukrainian citizenship — was put on trial after he was arrested in the Belarusian capital Minsk in 2016 and extradited to Azerbaijan in February.
Lapshin was found guilty of illegally crossing tightly controlled Azerbaijan’s state border by visiting the territory of Nagorny Karabakh in 2011 and 2012. He was acquitted of a second charge of making public statements against the country.
Nagorny Karabakh has been under Armenian control since it was seized during a bloody conflict in the early 1990s after the break-up of the Soviet Union.
The territory is still internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan and visiting it without Baku’s permission is a criminal offence in the country.
In court Lapshin told the judge that he felt a “moral, not a criminal guilt” and apologised for writing blogs advocating for Nagorny Karabakh to be split officially from Azerbaijan.
The sentence makes Lapshin the first foreigner to be jailed in Azerbaijan for visiting Nagorny Karabakh.
Amnesty International has previously condemned the detention of Lapshin — who mainly wrote about his experiences travelling the globe — and called for his immediate release.
Azerbaijan and Armenia remain locked in a bitter dispute over Nagorny Karabakh, with frequent exchanges of fire along the volatile frontline nearly spiralling back into all-out war last year.
The two sides have never signed a definitive peace deal and attempts to negotiate a final settlement have long been stalled.
Azerbaijan has been under the authoritarian rule of President Ilham Aliyev since he rose to power after the death of his father Heydar.
The oil-rich country has repeatedly been accused by rights groups of using spurious charges to crack down on dissent against Aliyev’s regime.