This article was originally published by Hromadske's partners JAMNews.
Travelling to Azerbaijan’s separatist Nagorno-Karabakh region has landed a popular travel blogger behind bars, imprisoned for crimes he had no idea he was committing.
A Baku court sentenced Alexander Lapshin to 3 years in prison for illegally crossing state borders. Lapshin — who holds Russian, Ukrainian and Israeli citizenship — used different passports to travel to Karabakh in 2011 and Azerbaijan in 2016. He is the first foreign national to be jailed in Azerbaijan for visiting Karabakh.
That’s where the problem started. Nagorno-Karabakh is a disputed territory between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan, the area is largely populated by ethnic Armenians.
Since the 1988 Nagorno-Karabakh War, which ended in a 1994 ceasefire, the region has been governed by the de-facto independent Nagorno-Karabakh Republic. The disputed territory is broadly regarded as a frozen conflict, but has seen frequent upticks of violence. The last large-scale escalation occurred over four-days in April 2016.
Lapshin became wanted by Azerbaijani authorities following his trip to Azerbaijan. In December 2016, he was arrested by law enforcement in Minsk, Belarus and extradited to Azerbaijan on February 7, 2017, despite protests from both the Russian and Israeli governments.
While politics rarely featured in Lapshin’s blog, “Life Adventures” — which mainly details his thoughts on unusual locales and their people — Azerbaijani authorities accused him of violating Azerbaijan's “territorial integrity” by calling for Karabakh’s independence, a violation of the Azerbaijani criminal code.
If convicted, it would have carried a minimum sentence of six and a half years in prison. However, the court dropped that charge due to a lack of evidence. The relevant posts on Lapshin’s blog were deleted following his arrest.
Lapshin was ultimately sentenced to prison for trespassing on the Azerbaijani border under Article 318.2 of the Criminal Code of Azerbaijan.
In his final plea, Lapshin expressed regret that he’d inflicted damage to the Azerbaijani nation, stressing that this guilt was ‘moral and in no way of a legal nature.’
“I realize the importance of Karabakh for Azerbaijan. Under no circumstances did I enter into a criminal relationship with the Armenian authorities,” Lapshin said.
He also expressed hope for the settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict to preserve Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity.
“I repent the deed, I regret that, having traveled to Karabakh, I brought suffering to its residents, who are facing the hardships of occupation. I had no idea about the occupation. While I’ve was staying there, I’ve experienced only positive attitudes,” Interfax-Azerbaijan quoted him as saying.
In his closing speech before sentencing, Eduard Chernin, Lapshin’s defense lawyer, requested the blogger’s acquittal. He claimed that the charges brought against his client were groundless, since “in his publications, Lapshin had never called for the violation of Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity.” Lapshin’s defense has made no statements indicating whether it will appeal the conviction.
Azerbaijan’s recent crackdown on freedom of speech has proven to reach far beyond its borders. On May 29, 2017, Azerbaijani journalist Afghan Mukhtarly, who fled AAzerbaijanin 2014, was abducted from his home in Tbilisi, Georgia and appeared in a Baku court several days later. On June 22, 2017, another Azerbaijani journalist, Kamran Mahmudov, was arrested at the Georgian-Azerbaijani border, but subsequently released.
Journalists from 16 countries have protested for the release of Mukhtarly, who investigates the Azerbaijani first family’s business dealings in Georgia.
/ Original article published on Jam News
/Additional reporting by Chen Ou Yang