Ruben Vardanyan tortured in Baku prison, lawyers claim

Today, the international legal team for Ruben Vardanyan, a political prisoner detained in Azerbaijan, filed an urgent appeal with the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, imploring her to condemn the torture and ill-treatment that the Azerbaijan Government has perpetrated against him.

Ruben is an influential Armenian business leader, social entrepreneur, and philanthropist who also briefly served as Nagorno-Karabakh’s Minister of State. On September 27, 2023, in the wake of Azerbaijan’s ethnic cleansing of 120,000 Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh, Ruben was arrested as he attempted, together with the remaining civilian population, to cross the border into Armenia through the Lachin corridor. That same day, he was remanded to pretrial detention and he has been detained on baseless alleged criminal charges ever since. In a continuation of Azerbaijan’s campaign of ethnic cleansing, his detention was soon followed by the arrest of other Nagorno-Karabakh leaders.

Disturbingly, Ruben’s family and international counsel learned that during his hunger strike in April 2024, Ruben was placed in a punishment cell, denied access to drinking water, deprived of sleep, forced to hold stress positions, denied access to his lawyer, and held in incommunicado detention. We are still unaware of the full extent of the psychological and physical trauma resulting from this treatment.

Jared Genser, international counsel to Ruben said: “Ruben Vardanyan is an inspiring humanitarian and philanthropist who has been advocating for the human rights of the people of Nagorno-Karabakh for many years. It is extremely revealing that Azerbaijan views him as a threat that must be silenced through arbitrary detention and, more recently, torture and ill-treatment. If Azerbaijan wants to be taken seriously on the international stage – and if it wants COP29 to be the ‘COP for peace’ – then it must stop mistreating Ruben and release him and the other Nagorno-Karabakh political prisoners immediately.”

From April 5-25, 2024, Ruben engaged in a hunger strike to protest his politically-motivated prosecution and that of the other Armenian prisoners. In retaliation, the authorities of the Pre-Trial Detention facility of the State Security Service – where he is currently detained – moved him to a punishment cell, which he was never allowed to leave for the duration of the hunger strike. The lights in the cell were kept on around the clock, which lead to severe sleep deprivation and exhaustion. In addition, he was forced to stand for extended periods of time and was deprived of drinking water for over two full days. Moreover, he was not allowed to bathe or change clothes; he was not given any toilet paper; he was not allowed to have any books or paper; and there were no bed sheets (so he had to sleep on a dirty mattress). Of particular concern, neither Ruben’s lawyer nor anyone else (including the local ombudsman) was allowed to visit him during the hunger strike and his communication with the outside world (for example, through phone calls with family) was cut off.

This treatment – intended to punish Ruben for engaging in a hunger strike, and also for his political service in and advocacy for Nagorno-Karabakh – violates Azerbaijan’s obligations under the Convention Against Torture, as well as The United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (the Nelson Mandela Rules). Unfortunately, Ruben’s mistreatment comes as no surprise – Azerbaijan has a well-documented history of torturing political prisoners generally and ethnic Armenian detainees specifically. Given Ruben’s ethnicity, his status as a former high-level official in the Government of Nagorno-Karabakh, his outspoken criticism of Azerbaijan’s treatment of Nagorno-Karabakh and its people, and his detention at the hands of the State Security Service (which is notorious for the torture of ethnic Armenians), he is at imminent risk of further torture and ill-treatment.

Ruben’s son, David Vardanyan, said: “We were shocked to learn of the horrors that my father has had to endure. It is terrifying to think of what is being done to other less prominent prisoners in Azerbaijan who have not received the international support that my father has. For the sake of all the current political prisoners in Azerbaijan – whether Armenian, Azerbaijani, or any other nationality – this inhumane treatment of prisoners must be stopped. We urge the UN to hold the Azerbaijan Government accountable and to help protect my father’s life.”

Numerous human rights organizations, national governments, and international bodies have called for Azerbaijan to release Ruben and the other Nagorno-Karabakh political prisoners. Most recently, on June 11, 2024, U.S. Senator Ed Markey called for the prisoners’ release on the Senate floor, specifically noting and condemning Ruben’s recent mistreatment.

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