Alexander Lapshin, the Israeli blogger who was sentenced to three years in prison by Azerbaijan for having entered the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh, landed in Israel on Thursday. Lapshin was pardoned on Monday by Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, a day after Lapshin allegedly tried to commit suicide in his prison cell in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan.
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Upon his return to Israel, Lapshin told his confidants that the reason for his hospitalization was not a suicide attempt as claimed by the Azerbaijani government. "I did not try to commit suicide in prison," said Lapshin. "From my first day in prison in Baku, inmates threatened my life to no end."
Lapshin was hospitalized after the alleged attempt, but was in good condition and his life was not in danger.
Senior Israeli officials, who asked to remain anonymous, said Aliyev’s announcement of the pardon surprised both the Israeli Embassy in Baku and the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem. They said embassy staffers first heard the news from the Azerbaijani media.
The Israeli officials said the suicide attempt, and the Azerbaijani government’s fear that the Israeli might die in a Baku prison, are what led to the immediate pardon.
In an interview with the Azerbaijani news agency AZERTAC after the pardon was granted, Ali Hasanov, an aide to Aliyev, claimed that Lapshin tried to commit suicide because Israeli officials have been dragging their feet over requesting his transfer to Israel to serve out his sentence there.
“But thanks to the vigilance and agility of prison guards the suicide attempt was prevented, and he was immediately provided with medical care and is currently undergoing a treatment under the supervision of a physician,” Hasanov added.
In July, Lapshin was sentenced to three years in jail for illegally entering Nagorno-Karabakh, a territory whose ownership is disputed between Azerbaijan and Armenia. In 1991, following the break-up of the Soviet Union, the territory’s residents, who are mostly Armenian, declared independence from Azerbaijan, sparking a war that ended with Armenia in control of the territory. In Azerbaijan’s view, it is under Armenian occupation, and under Azerbaijani law, it’s illegal to go there without Baku’s permission.
The original indictment also charged Lapshin with saying, in his blogs about his trip, that the area belongs to Armenia, and that he supports the residents’ claim of independence from Azerbaijan. In addition, it charged him with writing posts critical of Aliyev’s regime. But the court in Baku acquitted him of charges of offending the Azeribaijani people via these posts and gave him a much lighter sentence than the six and a half years the prosecution had requested.
Lapshin, 40, holds Israeli, Russian and Ukrainian citizenship and divides his time between Israel and several other countries. On his Russian-language blog, he documents his life in Israel and his travels to 122 other countries, including many that were part of the former Soviet Union.
According to the indictment, he visited Nagorno-Karabakh in April 2011 and October 2012 and wrote on his blog that the area belongs to Armenia. Because of this, he was put on the Azerbaijani government’s list of wanted men in 2013.
He was arrested on December 15, 2016 in Minsk, the Belarusian capital, at the request of the Azerbaijani authorities, who demanded his extradition. The arrest occurred one day after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to Baku.
In February, Belarus extradited him to Azerbaijan, despite efforts by both Israel and Russia to prevent the extradition.