Azerbaijan to Israel: We Won’t Back Down Over Israeli Blogger Arrested in Belarus

'The Azeris want to make an example of Lapshin,' a senior official tells Haaretz, saying Baku will not give up on bid to extradite blogger from Belarus.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Azeri President Ilham Aliyev in Azerbaijan.
Haim Zach/GPO

Senior Foreign Ministry officials in Azerbaijan told diplomats at Israel's embassy in Baku that their government would not back down from a request to extradite Israeli blogger Alexander Lapshin, who was arrested by police in Belarus last week.

A senior official, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue, said there is great concern in Israel's Foreign Ministry about the matter causing a serious crisis in ties with Azerbaijan.

"Senior officials in Azerbaijan's Foreign Ministry told members of our embassy that Lapshin in on a list of wanted people and that they want him extradited and have no intention of giving in," the senior official said.

Alexander Lapshin
From the Facebook page of Alexander Lapshin

"The Azeris want to make an example of Lapshin. This incident could turn into a serious mishap in our relations with them."

Haaretz has learned that the authorities in Azerbaijan knew well that Lapshin is an Israeli citizens when they asked Belarus to arrest him and extradite him a day after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's visit to Baku last week.

The fact of his being an Israeli citizen was mentioned on an Azeri government "black list" after his visit to the Nagorno-Karabakh region and due to the posts on his blog and Facebook page which included serious criticism of Azeri President Ilham Aliyev's government.

Discreet contacts were launched last week between the Israeli embassy in Baku and the Azeri authorities in attempt to bring about a quiet end to the affair.

The Israeli embassy in Minsk sent a formal letter on Sunday to the foreign ministry in Belarus asking to permit a consul to meet with Lapshin, and a request that the Belarus authorities "not take any irreversible steps" with regard to the Israeli blogger, in other words, that they not extradite him to Azerbaijan.

Lapshin, 40, was born in Moscow and I migrated to Israel more than 20 years ago. He served in a combat unit of the IDF. His mother lives in Haifa and he divides his time between Israel and other places. He is a dual Russian Israeli national, possibly a Ukrainian national as well.

Lapshin blogs about his trips around the world and writes about various countries he has visited. He was arrested on Wednesday at the hotel he was staying at in Minsk and is suspected of violating two legal clauses in Azerbaijan: 

Clause 281.2 bans public calls or support for undermining Azerbaijan's territorial integrity, and another clause, 318.2, bans crossing Azerbaijan's borders without proper papers, or not via a proper border crossing.

Both these laws were legislated in Armenia's occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh.  The maximum punishment for the first offense runs from five to eight years in prison, and for the second offense, a maximum five year term.

The Prosecutor's office in Baku said that in addition to Lapshin visiting Nagorno-Karabakh against the law, he also violated the law by repressing support for the local government there, which operates under Armenian sponsorship.

The prosecutor's office says Lapshin published blogs in April and June 2016 in which he described Nagorno-Karabakh as an independent country from Azerbaijan and expressed support for the district's independence and violating the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan.

Azerbaijan's general prosecutor has issued an international arrest warrant and launched a criminal investigation against Lapshin, following these blog posts and his past visits to Nagorno-Karabakh.

Nagorno-Karabakh constitutes some 20 percent of the area of Azerbaijan; most of the region’s population is Armenian. In 1991, after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the region declared independence, which led to a bloody, three-year war between Azerbaijan and Armenia.

The Armenians won the war and were able to occupy the entire region, as well as territories that enabled them to create territorial contiguity between Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh.

The Baku government considers it Azeri territory that is currently under Armenian occupation. According to Azeri law, it is forbidden to visit Nagorno-Karabakh without advance permission from the authorities in Baku.

There has been a strategic relationship between Israel and Azerbaijan for many years: Azerbaijan is Israel’s chief oil supplier, and Israel is one of Azerbaijan’s main arms suppliers.

Aliyev said during his meeting with Netanyahu that, to date, Azerbaijan has purchased about $5-billion-worth of weapons from Israel. According to recent reports in the Azeri media, it was agreed during Netanyahu’s visit that Israel will sell Iron Dome anti-missile batteries to Azerbaijan.

Azerbaijan uses Israeli weapons in its conflict with Armenia in the Nagorno-Karabakh region.