Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev signed a pardon Monday for Israeli blogger Alexander Lapshin, who was sentenced to three years in prison for having entered the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh. The pardon, which went into effect immediately, was signed one day after Lapshin tried to commit suicide in his cell, senior Israeli and Azerbaijani officials said.
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Lapshin is currently hospitalized, but is in good condition and his life is not in danger.
In an interview with the Azerbaijani news agency AZERTAC, 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.
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.
Soon afterward, senior Azerbaijani officials informed the Israeli consul in Baku about Lapshin’s suicide attempt and asked her to go to see him in the hospital. She did so, and found him to be in good condition, with no signs that he had suffered abuse in prison.
The senior Israeli officials said it’s still not clear what actually happened, but their working assumption is that Lapshin really did try to commit suicide. They said the suicide attempt, and the Azerbaijani government’s fear that the Israeli might die in a Baku prison, is what led to the pardon.
They confirmed that the Israeli Justice Ministry had planned to request that Lapshin be allowed to serve out his sentence in Israel, but rejected the claim that there had been any delay in the proceedings on Israel’s side.
Lapshin’s parents and attorney want to return him to Israel as soon as possible and are in contact with the Israeli embassy in Baku. They hope to fly him to Israel on Tuesday, but it may take another few days.
Dan Stav, Israel’s ambassador in Baku, told the Azerbaijani news agency APA that Israel is very pleased by Aliyev’s decision to pardon Lapshin. He added that Israel’s respects Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity and supports a peaceful solution to the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon also said Israel was pleased with the pardon. “The Israeli embassy assisted him throughout his arrest and trial,” Nahshon said. “We’ll be happy to see him in Israel soon and we’ll assist in the process of returning him.”
MK Ksenia Svetlova (Zionist Union), who has been helping Lapshin and his family as well, said she was glad that Lapshin had been pardoned and could return home. “This is a welcome step that suits the close relationship between Israel and Azerbaijan,” she added. “I’ve been following the issue from the moment of Lapshin’s arrest in Belarus and his extradition to Azerbaijan last December. I contacted the prime minister and other parties. It’s good that this long, wearying saga has come to an end.”
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 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.
"I was writing a tourism piece," Lapshin said in his defense at his trial in Baku last July. "My blog post was about my experience as a tourist, not political commentary. I was in Karabakh twice and had no contacts with the authorities."