Israeli Blogger Feared Soon to Be Extradited From Belarus to Azerbaijan

Family of Alexander Lapshin, who wrote critically of Azerbaijan and its president, say Belarus pressuring him to consent to extradition. Diplomatic efforts currently at dead-end.

Clockwise: Azeri President Ilham Aliyev, Israeli blogger Alexander Lapshin, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko.
Nelson Ching, Bloomberg / Facebook / Amir Cohen, Reuters / Sergei Grits, AP

Officials in the Israeli Foreign Ministry fear Israeli blogger Alexander Lapshin, who has been under arrest for almost a month in Belarus, may be extradited to Azerbaijan in the next few days. The Azeris want Lapshin because he wrote several critical posts against Azerbaijan and its president, Ilham Aliyev, in recent months.  

Lapshin's family says the security forces in Belarus are applying physical and mental pressure in order to convince him to sign an agreement for his extradition to Azerbaijan. His family is afraid that if he’s extradited to Azerbaijan, his life will be in danger.

Lapshin, 40, writes a blog in which he records his travels throughout the world, and writes about the various countries he has visited. On December 13, he and his wife arrived in the Belarus capital, Minsk. A day later, shortly before midnight, Lapshin wrote on his Facebook page: “At this moment I was arrested by the police in Minsk at the request of Azerbaijan. I’m at the Piersamajskaja station in Minsk.”

Lapshin's arrest took place just one day after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan. 

Aside from his critical posts, the Azeris also want Lapshin because of his past visits to the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh, to which Baku claims sovereignty but is under Armenian control.

Lapshin was born in Moscow and immigrated to Israel over 20 years ago, serving in a combat unit in the Israel Defense Forces. He and his mother live in Haifa, and he holds Russian and Israeli citizenship – and most likely Ukrainian citizenship, too.

The Foreign Ministry's fear has grown in light of the statement made by the prosecutor's office of Azerbaijan on Saturday that documents concerning the official extradition request have been presented to the authorities in Belarus. Two further reasons for worry about Lapshin's fate are the dead-end in diplomatic contacts between Jerusalem and both Belarus and Azerbaijan on the issue, along with reports that Lapshin's conditions in jail have worsened.

The Foreign Ministry has been conducting contacts with both former Soviet states since the arrest to solve the crisis, but these attempts have failed completely. Senior Azeri Foreign Ministry officials have made it clear to Israeli diplomats in Baku that the Azeri government does not intend to withdraw its extradition request.

At the same time, requests by Israeli diplomats in Minsk to visit Lapshin in jail have been rejected. A senior Israeli Foreign Ministry official said the authorities in Belarus claim they are treating Lapshin as a Russian citizen, because he holds Russian citizenship, and not as an Israeli. Belarus says Lapshin represented himself as a Russian and not as an Israeli, so Israel does not have any standing in the matter, and Belarus will not hold any contacts with Israel concerning him.

A large meeting is scheduled to be held in the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem on Sunday in order to examine additional ways to end the crisis. "We are taking the issue very seriously, but as of now it does not look good," said a senior Foreign Ministry official.  "Our ability to influence Azerbaijan and Belarus is limited and these two countries relate to him as a Russian and not as an Israeli citizen.  We are very worried he is close to being extradited," said the official.

 MK Ksenia Svetlova (Zionist Union), who is assisting Lapshin and his family, updated the head of the Russia, Ukraine and Belarus desk in the Foreign Ministry, Yakov Livne, on Saturday about the significant worsening in Lapshin's prison conditions. She wrote Livne in a letter that the fears as to Lapshin's condition are great, and will only get worse if he is extradited, and asked that the ministry act to save him because his life is in danger.

Lapshin's wife, Ekaterina Kopylova, who has been trying for weeks, with the help of a lawyer, to have her husband released to house arrest, told Haaretz that the worsening of his conditions began immediately after the Christmas vacation. She says this is intended to put pressure on him to agree to extradition without a need for a proper legal process. 

Kopylova said that on January 2 two men who refused to identify themselves, but seemed to be members of the Belarus security forces, visited his cell. Lapshin told her that the two men said the Azeri extradition request had been received by Belarus and was being dealt with. 

Then the two offered Lapshin a proposal, she said. They told him that Azerbaijan, Belarus and Israel had reached an agreement in which if Lapshin agreed to be willingly extradited, he would be transferred to Baku, and there he would immediately be handed over to Israeli diplomats, who would return him to Israel.

Kopylova said he was not given anything in writing and was given the offer verbally without his lawyer or the Israeli consul being present, and the two men refused to show or give him any official document on the matter. His wife said that when Lapshin told her of the offer, she spoke to the Israeli embassy in Minsk and they denied the existence of any such agreement, as did the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem.

A day later Lapshin was moved to a different cell where it is extremely cold, she said. He is being held in such conditions so he will sign the extradition agreement, and if he does sign he will lose his right to appeal, added Kopylova.

Despite the claims by Belarus authorities that Lapshin represented himself as a Russian citizen and not an Israeli, in fact 14 days ago he wrote a letter in which he officially requested to receive consular help from the Israeli embassy and a visit from the Israeli consul, she said. But the authorities have not dealt with this request and continue to claim he they are treating him as only a Russian citizen. "We are asking the Foreign Ministry, Knesset and prime minister of Israel to intervene in the matter in order to prevent the extradition," said Kopylova.