Israeli Blogger Jailed in Belarus for Criticizing Azerbaijan and Its President

Alexander Lapshin facing extradition over his visits and comments about Nagorno-Karabakh. Israel quietly negotiating for his release: 'We are asking the Azeris to forget about it, but it's not easy,' official says.

An Israeli blogger was arrested in Belarus last Wednesday at the request of the Azerbaijani government over his visits to the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Alexander Lapshin wrote several critical posts against Azerbaijan and its president, Ilham Aliyev, in recent months. His family is afraid that if he’s extradited to Azerbaijan, his life will be in danger.

Although it’s controled by Armenia, the Baku government claims sovereignty of Nagorno-Karabakh.

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 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 probably Ukrainian citizenship, too.

Friends of Lapshin, who is represented by a lawyer, say he is suspected of violating two clauses of Azerbaijan’s criminal law: Clause 281.2, which forbids the public call or support for harming the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan; and clause 318.2, which forbids crossing Azerbaijan’s political border without the required papers, or at any location other than the border crossing.

Both of the clauses were introduced in connection with the Armenian occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh. The sentence for breaking the first clause ranges from five to eight years, while the punishment for the second can be up to five years in prison.

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

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.

The Azeri government claims that in April 2011 and October 2012, Lapshin visited Nagorno-Karabakh and wrote about the visits in his blog. After the last visit, Lapshin’s name was placed on the Baku government’s blacklist, and he in effect became a wanted man.

Last June, Lapshin entered Azerbaijan itself, using a Ukrainian passport. Because his name in Ukrainian is slightly different from the name listed in his Russian or Israeli passport, he was not arrested upon entering the country. After a few days traveling around the country, he left without any problem.

In subsequent blog posts, Lapshin criticized the poverty in certain parts of the capital, Baku; the dictatorial rule of President Aliyev; and the issue of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Last July, Lapshin wrote about his Baku visit on his blog: “When in 2012 Azerbaijan included me on the list of people who had visited Karabakh, and as a punishment barred me from entering the country, I said, ‘The idiots are giving the entire Azerbaijani people a reputation for being stupid, but I won’t play their games and I’ll find a way of visiting wonderful Baku again and meeting with my Azeri friends. In 2017, I’ll come to Azerbaijan again and it’s highly likely that once again they’ll be unaware of my arrival.’”

At the end of last week, the Prosecutor General’s Office in Baku said that in addition to Lapshin’s illegal visits to Nagorno-Karabakh, he also violated the law by expressing support for the local government there, which operates under the aegis of Armenia.

According to the prosecutor’s office, Lapshin wrote blog posts last April and June in which he presented Nagorno-Karabakh as an independent country, and expressed support for the independence of the region and violation of Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity.

As a result of the blog posts and because of his previous visits to Nagorno-Karabakh, the Azeri prosecutor general began a criminal investigation and issued an international warrant for his arrest.

MK Ksenia Svetlova (Zionist Union) is assisting Lapshin and his family. She told Haaretz that since Wednesday he has been detained in a state investigation facility in Minsk, with the threat of extradition to Azerbaijan hanging over him.

Svetlova said she turned to the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem last week and asked them to intervene, in order to try to secure Lapshin’s release and prevent his extradition to Azerbaijan.

At the lawmaker’s request, the Israeli Embassy in Minsk met with Lapshin’s wife. But Svetlova said that so far, the consulate has yet to visit Lapshin to check on his situation.

Lapshin’s friends confirmed that the embassy is in contact with the Lapshins and is trying to help them.

“I turned to the Foreign Ministry and asked them to help Lapshin, as they are obliged to help Israeli citizens in distress,” Svetlova added. “I feel things are being conducted very slowly so far. There’s a genuine threat that they will extradite him to Azerbaijan this week, and I expect the Foreign Ministry to exercise all its influence in order to prevent that – because it’s liable to endanger his life.”

Senior Foreign Ministry officials said discreet diplomatic contacts had already begun with the Azeri government last week, in an attempt to conclude the affair quietly. “We are asking the Azeris to forget about it, but it’s not easy,” a Foreign Ministry official said.

A senior Foreign Ministry official added that the Israeli embassy in Minsk officially asked the Belarus Foreign Ministry to allow the Israeli consul to meet Lepshin and demanded authorities "not to take irreversible steps" on the matter – meaning, not extradite him to Azerbaijan.

It’s still not clear whether the Azeri authorities knew that Lapshin is an Israeli citizen when they issued the warrant. In all official Baku government statements, he is referred to as a Russian or Ukrainian citizen.

The Foreign Ministry is concerned that the blogger’s arrest will create tensions between Israel and Azerbaijan. Lapshin was arrested in Minsk a day after the visit of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Baku, where he met Aliyev.

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.

Lapshin’s friends said his Belarus lawyer is currently working to secure his release, until any discussion takes place over his possible extradition to Azerbaijan.