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Friday, September 14, 2012

Azerbaijan Lieutenant Ramil Safarov and the International Politics of Murder

     In February 2004, Azerbaijan Army Lieutenant Ramil Safarov was in Budapest, Hungary enrolled in an English class under the auspices of a program called  Partners for Peace. This NATO sponsored event was designed to build ties between former Soviet allies in Eastern Europe. While attending the class, participants were housed in a campus dormitory. This co-mingling of military personnel, some of whom were from countries like Azerbaijan and Armenia that decades earlier had been at war, was intended to promote goodwill and understanding among the attendees. (Azerbaijan and Armenia are currently involved in a dispute over territory.)

     Just before dawn on February 19, 2004, Lieutenant Ramil Safarov entered the dormitory room occupied by Gurgen Markarian, a 26-year-old engineer and Armenian Army officer. Lieutenant Markarian and his Hungarian roommate were asleep when Safarov slipped into the room carrying an ax. While Markarian lay in his bed, the 27-year-old Azerbaijan officer hacked him to death with the weapon, then threw a lit cigarette onto the remains of his chopped and bloodied victim.

     According to the Hungarian forensic pathologist who performed the autopsy on the Armenian lieutenant, the officer had been struck by the ax 16 times in the face. This ferocious attack had nearly severed the dead man's head. Safarov had also stabbed the victim several times in the chest.

     The Budapest police took Lieutenant Ramil Safarov into custody later that morning. In confessing to the brutal murder, Safarov, who said he had lost relatives in the Azerbaijan-Armenian war, claimed he had become increasingly angry over repeated insults from the Armenian officers enrolled in the English class. But as the interrogation proceeded, it became obvious that the butchering of Lieutenant Gurgen Markarian constituted a premeditated revenge murder motivated by Safarov's general hatred of Armenians.

     When an interrogator asked Lieutenant Safarov why he had tossed his lit cigarette on his victim's corpse, he said, "Since I hate Armenians so much and I [had] prepared for revenge so long, it was a relieve [sic] for me. As long as I didn't care about him it didn't [matter] whether I threw the cigarette onto the ground or on his bed or into his eyes."

     Ramil Safarov went on trial in the spring of 2006. Found guilty of premeditated murder, the Hungarian judge sentenced him to life in prison with no chance of parole until he had served 30 years behind bars.

     Politicians in Azerbaijan pandering to the hatred of Armenians, began lobbying for Safarov's extradition to his homeland. On August 31, 2012, after serving eight years in a Hungarian prison, during which time Safarov translated several Hungarian novels into Azeri, he stepped off a plane in his hometown of Baku, Azerbaijan. His extradition had been predicated on assurances from Azerbaijan's president Ilham Aliyev to the Hungarians that the 35-year-old convicted ax murderer would serve 25 years in an Azerbaijan prison.

     Lieutenant Ramil Safarov not only received a hero's welcome in Baku, President Aliyev issued him an immediate pardon, awarded him with eight years of military back pay, provided him with a new apartment, and promoted him to the rank of major.

     Major Safarov's brief public relations tour came to an abrupt end as a result of an intense international backlash from citizens and diplomats in Armenia, Hungary, Russia, and the United States. Even in Azerbaijan, President Aliyev's political opponents accused him of using the Safarov affair to help him in his upcoming bid for re-election.     

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