A security guard in an Afghan National Army uniform approached unsuspecting Australian soldiers as they relaxed at the end of another long day with the international security assistance mission in Oruzgan Province on August 30. He opened fire at close range, killing three Australian soldiers before fleeing. On the same day, two Australian privates died when their helicopter crashed while landing in a northern province of Afghanistan.
The death of five Australian soldiers in what became Australia’s worst combat losses in a single day since the Vietnam War shocked the nation.
As a manhunt started across Afghanistan for the rogue Afghan soldier responsible for the killings, the murderer of another nation’s soldier in a different part of the world was freed from prison and granted the status of national hero. Azeri soldier Ramil Safarov’s journey to ‘heroism’ started when one February night in 2004, he hacked to death Armenian soldier Gurgen Margarian while the latter was asleep. Both soldiers were participating in a NATO-sponsored English language course at a military academy in Budapest.
The back-drop to this murder was the Armenian-Azerbaijani war fought over the Armenian enclave of Nagorno Karabakh in the waning years of the Soviet Union. A cease fire in 1994 ended the war, with Armenia achieving control over the majority of Nagorno Karabakh. One of the bloodiest wars of recent times, it is estimated to have claimed the lives of some 20,000-30,000 people. Peace talks mediated by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE) Minsk Group have failed to establish a permanent solution to the conflict.
In April 2006, Safarov was sentenced to life imprisonment in Hungary after admitting to the murder of Margarian. Earlier this month, however, the Hungarian authorities extradited Safarov to Baku following assurances from the Azeri authorities that he would serve the rest of his sentence in Azerbaijan.
Not surprisingly, the axe murderer received a hero’s welcome upon his return to Azerbaijan. Within hours, he was pardoned by President Ilham Aliyev, promoted to the rank of Major, given an apartment and eight years’ worth of back salaries as compensation for the time he spent in jail.
The incident has shocked much of Europe. Armenia has officially severed ties with Hungary. Outraged crowds in both Armenia and Hungary have protested the actions of the Hungarian and Azeri governments. Similar protests have been carried out in front of Hungarian embassies in the United States, France, Belgium, Argentina, India and many other countries. In Australia, a protest was organised outside of the Hungarian embassy in Canberra on Friday, September 14.
In Hungary, Facebook groups condemning the government’s action and apologising to Armenia gained thousands of followers in just days. Local media speculated the deal was reached in return for an Azerbaijani promise to buy Hungarian state bonds – a claim both governments have denied.
The White House, the European Union, the Council of Europe, the OSCE, NATO and the foreign ministries of a number of countries including Russia and France have all condemned the axe-murderer’s elevation to the status of national hero. Australia remains silent on the issue.
The dangerous message the Azerbaijani government conveyed by its glorification of Safarov becomes even more pronounced when viewed in the context of Aliyev’s policies towards the conflict with Armenia.
In recent years senior Azerbaijani officials have maintained a dangerous war rhetoric regarding the Nagorno Karabakh conflict. In February, Aliyev described Armenians worldwide as Azerbaijan’s main enemies. Armenia cited this speech as it justified its decision to withdraw from the 2012 Eurovision song contest in Baku in May.
Boosted by its increasing oil revenues, Azerbaijan’s military spending has increased twenty-fold during Aliyev’s presidency, according to the International Crisis Group. Standing at $4.4billion in 2012, it exceeds the entire state budget of Armenia.
With a peaceful solution nowhere in sight, tensions in the region remain high. Skirmishes on the Armenian-Azerbaijani border since early 2011 have claimed 63 lives so far. The latest of these were in June 2012. The world can’t afford another war.
No country should be permitted to lord with impunity a convicted murderer who committed a hate crime based on ethnicity. Silence and failure to condemn are often perceived as a sign of encouragement by aggressors who may feel empowered to take things further.
“Think about other pathological, maniacal, murdering patriots who now think the door has been officially opened to kill other innocent people to become national heroes. With a new house and some money,” wrote Scary Azeri, a Qatar-based blogger, while urging her readers to think about the meaning of Safarov’s glorification for peace.
As a country mourning its own tragic loss, Australia is better positioned than any other power today to condemn Safarov’s release and glorification in the name of human rights and in the name of peace.