Ramil Safarov had been sentenced to spend the rest of his life behind bars after killing an Armenian officer with an ax in Budapest, Hungary. Instead he is back in his home country of Azerbaijan -- and free.
Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev pardoned the convicted killer last week after Hungary agreed to return him to Azerbaijan, outraging Armenians in the midst of tense negotiations over a disputed territory once wracked by a bloody war and now occupied by Armenian forces.
Eight years ago, Safarov killed Armenian officer Gurgen Margaryan with an ax while he slept, nearly decapitating him. The two were in Budapest for an English course sponsored by NATO. Safarov claimed that Margaryan had insulted him and the Azerbaijani flag.
The court found no evidence of such an insult, according to Amnesty International, which says Safarov stated he was sorry he had not had the opportunity to kill any Armenians earlier.
"How can anyone trust Azerbaijan after this?" Glendale Community College history professor Levon Marashlian lamented earlier this week.Spokesman Rupert Colville said the United Nations human rights agency was "seriously concerned" that Safarov had been pardoned, publicly praised and even promoted after an ethnically motivated crime, which "should be deplored and properly punished -- not publicly glorified by leaders and politicians."
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen warned that the act could undercut the ongoing peace process. "There must be no return to conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan," he said Thursday at Yerevan State University in Armenia.
President Aliyev defended his actions Friday, telling reporters they were in keeping with the Azeri Constitution. His words were echoed by an Azerbaijani delegate to the Council of Europe, who reportedly argued that Safarov faced emotional stress because his family was from the disputed area.
"His family's relatives for many years had to live the life of refugees, and a young relative of Ramil Safarov was killed during the occupation," Azerbaijani delegate Rafael Huseynov was quoted by an Azeri news website. He added, "Of course, every death is a tragedy and we do not approve of this murder, but we cannot lose sight of the conditions under which the crime was committed."
Ethnic Armenians are the majority in the southwestern enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, which voted to join Armenia decades ago before the territory was plunged into violence. About 30,000 people were killed in the conflict, and as many as a million people were driven from their homes.
Though hostilities halted in 1994, skirmishes have periodically broken out when tensions between the two countries increase. The two former Soviet republics are still working toward a settlement.
-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles
Photo: Azerbaijani military officer Ramil Safarov , center, walks in the Azerbaijan capital of Baku on Aug. 31 after being pardoned and freed. Credit: Aziz Karimov / Associated Press