Israeli blogger Alexander Lapshin was sentenced to three years in prison for illegally entering Nagorno-Karabakh, a disputed territory that sits between Azerbaijan and Armenia. The Baku court acquitted Lapshin of charges of insulting the Azeri people after Lapshin reportedly claimed on his blog that the territory belonged to Armenia.
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The judge explained that the reason Lapshin did not receive the full six-and-a-half year sentence is because he had no criminal record and because he is the father to a baby. The time Lapshin has already spent in custody since December 2016 in Belarus is to be counted as part of his sentence.
MK Ksenia Svetlova (Zionist Union) said that: "The deprivation of liberty for three years by the Azerbaijani authorities is too severe a punishment for a person whose only crime is the use of freedom of expression and a good faith visit to a disputed country, an offense that would receive a minor punishment in any other country."
"I approached President Reuven Rivlin and asked him to work with the Azerbaijani authorities in order to pardon Lapshin," the parliamentarian added.
On Wednesday, in the concluding session of the trial, Lapshin made a personal statement in which he expressed his regret for visiting Nagrno-Karabakh and his posts on his Russian-language travel blog against Azerbaijan and its president, Ilham Aliyev.
Lapshin's statement in court was not part of a deal with prosecutors but was made at his lawyer's advice in the hope of convincing the judges to be lenient in their sentencing, said a source close to Lapshin.
Moscow-born Lapshin, 40, is a resident of Haifa and has Ukrainian, Russian and Israeli citizenship. He has used his blog to describe life in Israel and his trips to 122 countries – including a number that were part of the Soviet Union.
The trial followed two trips Lapshin made to Nagorno-Karabakh, over which the Azeri government claims sovereignty. As the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991, Nagorno-Karabakh, which has an Armenian ethnic majority, declared independence from Azerbaijan. The result was a war that ended with Armenia's conquest of the area. Today, however, Armenia controls little of the territory.
Lapshin told the court that he is just a blogger who writes about his trips all over the world, and does not involve himself in politics at all – and has never worked in any way for any country, but only writes about his personal experiences.
"As for my visit to Nagorno-Karabakh, I honestly regret it," said Lapshin in court. During that period I did not know Azerbaijan's laws against visiting there and all the information I had on the matter came only from Armenian sources, he told the court.
Azeri authorities accused Lapshin of claiming in his blog, “Life Adventures,” that the area belongs to Armenia and of supporting the Nagorno-Karabakh claim for independence. The rest of the world recognizes Nagorno-Karabakh as a part of Azerbaijan, a country which has come in for major criticism by human rights organizations over alleged violations of human rights.
Lapshin said he never imagined his posts on Nagorno-Karabakh would offend the Azeri people, who are a friendly people and during his months under arrest in Azerbaijan they never treated him as an enemy and was always treated generously. Lapshin said he hopes the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh ends in a way that preserves Azeri territorial integrity.
"I realized how much the issue of Nagorno-Karabakh is important to the Azeri people, and I hope the matter will be solved quickly in a way that takes into account the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan," he said. "It is clear to me that I receive one-sided information from the Armenians, without having any idea about the occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh and the suffering of the Azeri people. I express my regret and ask to be forgiven for my rash actions."