The trial of Israeli blogger Alexander Lapshin continued Tuesday in the capital of Azerbaijan, where the Baku Court of Grave Crimes heard testimony from residents of Nagorno-Karabakh, a territory disputed between two former Soviet republics, Azerbaijan and Armenia and which the Russian-Israeli blogger is charged with visiting and claiming that it belongs to Armenia.
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"I was writing a tourism piece. 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," Lapshin said in his defense.
The trial follows two trips Lapshin made to Nagorno-Karabakh, over which the Azeri government claims sovereignty, following which he posted criticism on his Russian-language travel blog against Azerbaijan and its president, Ilham Aliyev.
As the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991, Nagorno-Karabakh, which has an Armenian ethnic majority, declared independence from Azerbaijan. The result was a war that ended with Armenia's conquest of the area. Today, however, Armenia controls little of the territory.
The authorities in the Azeri capital of Baku accuse Lapshin of claiming in his blog, “Life Adventures,” that the area belongs to Armenia and of supporting the Nagorno-Karabakh claim for independence. The rest of the world recognizes Nagorno-Karabakh as a part of Azerbaijan, a country which has come in for major criticism by human rights organizations over alleged violations of human rights.
If convicted, Lapshin, 40, could face up to eight years in prison. The Moscow-born Lapshin is a resident of Haifa and has Ukrainian, Russian and Israeli citizenship. He has used his blog to describe life in Israel and his trips to 122 countries – including a number that were part of the Soviet Union.
Azerbaijan claims that in April 2011 and October 2012, he visited Nagorno-Karabakh and wrote in his blog that the area belongs to Armenia. Lapshin’s name was subsequently added to the Azeri government’s blacklist and a warrant was issued for his arrest.
On December 13, 2016 when visiting Minsk, the capital of Belarus, with his wife, Lapshin was arrested by the Belarussian authorities. The Israeli Foreign Ministry tried to resolve the matter through discreet talks with the Azeri government, but in February, Belarus extradited him to Azerbaijan, since which he has remained under arrest there.
His trial in Baku began last week. Local and Russian journalists have been allowed access to the courtroom. Lapshin is accused of illegally making public statements against the government, including statements about Nagorno-Karabakh, and of illegally crossing the Azeri border and entering Nagorno-Karabakh without a permit and without coordinating his visit with the Azeri authorities.
At a hearing on June 30, Lapshin said he acknowledges Azerbaijan’s sovereignty over Nagorno-Karabakh and denied the allegations, according to the Russian news agency Interfax. His blog had been devoted to sharing tourist experiences, not politics, he argued. Lapshin also said that he had visited Nagorno-Karabakh twice but that he had no contact with the authorities there.
According to the Azeri news agency APA, at the trial on Tuesday, two witnesses told the court that they had been expelled from the city of Shusha in Nagorno-Karabakh during the war, and urged that Lapshin be punished for “protecting the invaders.” APA reported one witness, Eyyb Abdulazimov, as saying: “These are my native lands. Lapshin went to Karabakh and introduced my native land as an Armenian state. However, these territories are Azerbaijani lands. Armenians occupied my properties in Shusha. No one has the right to violate the Azerbaijani borders. Therefore, I want Lapshin to be punished properly.”
The second witness, Fakhraddin Safarov, said that even his great-grandfather had been born in Shusha, which he said is historically Azerbaijani land. “I have fought in Karabakh. Armenians raped a 6-year-old girl there. And Lapshin violates our rights by defending the occupiers and aggressors. Therefore he should admit his guilt,” Safarov said, according to APA.
Representatives of the Russian, Ukrainian and Israeli embassies were present at the hearing. At the next hearing, scheduled for July 6, three other refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh are expected to testify, as well possibly as Lapshin’s mother.