Azerbaijan on Monday pardoned an Israeli travel blogger who wrote in support of Armenian separatists and was sentenced to three years for visiting the disputed territory of Nagorny Karabakh, officials said.
“I order the release from prison of Israeli citizen Lapshin Alexander Valeryevich,” Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev said in a decree published on his website. He was released from prison after attempting to commit suicide, an Aliev aide said.
Lapshin who also has Russian and Ukrainian citizenships was sentenced to three years behind bars in July after he was arrested in the Belarusian capital Minsk in late 2016 and extradited to Azerbaijan in February to face a trial. The blogger was found guilty of illegally crossing tightly controlled Azerbaijan’s state border by visiting the breakaway territory of Nagorny Karabakh in 2011 and 2012. Aliyev’s top aide Ali Gasanov said that talks were under way with the Israeli authorities on Lapshin’s extradition to Israel.
“The Israeli side has dragged out the extradition procedures and on Sunday Lapshin attempted to commit suicide,” Gasanov said. “Happily, prison guards reacted promptly and he is currently receiving medical treatment.”
Nagorny Karabakh has been under Armenian control since it was seized during a bloody conflict in the early 1990s after the break-up of the Soviet Union. The territory is still internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan and visiting it without Baku’s permission is a criminal offence in the country.
Amnesty International welcomed the man’s release, with Ivan Kondratenko, the human rights watchdog’s acting Russia director, saying Lapshin did not commit any “violent crimes.” In court Lapshin has said he felt a “moral, not a criminal guilt” and apologised for writing blogs advocating for Nagorny Karabakh to be split officially from Azerbaijan.
Azerbaijan and Armenia remain locked in a bitter dispute over Nagorny Karabakh, with frequent exchanges of fire along the volatile frontline nearly spiralling back into all-out war last year.
The two sides have never signed a definitive peace deal and attempts to negotiate a final settlement have long been stalled. Azerbaijan has been under the authoritarian rule of Aliyev since he rose to power after the death of his father Heydar.
The oil-rich country has repeatedly been accused by rights groups of using spurious charges to crack down on dissent against Aliyev’s regime.