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Axe murderer released in Azerbaijan after being transferred from Hungary

September 1st, 2012

Most commentators deplore the decision of the Hungarian government to transfer Ramil Sahib Safarov to Azerbaijan to serve his life sentence for the killing of an Armenian man in Budapest in 2004. Analysts believe Hungary should have suspected that despite Azeri assurances to the contrary, the man would be released upon his arrival in Baku.

Safarov attended a NATO sponsored English language course in Budapest in 2004, along with several young officers from various former Soviet republics. One of them, Armenian lieutenant Gurgen Margarian was his room-mate. One day Safarov bought an axe in a hypermarket and used it to kill Margarian during the night. Later he told the Hungarian court that the Armenian had systematically insulted him, his country and its national flag. In 2006, the Azeri lieutenant was sentenced to life imprisonment, with a minimum term of 30 years. While in prison, Safarov translated Hungarian poetry into Azeri. In Azerbaijan, he was widely celebrated as a hero from the very start, and Hungary repeatedly rejected requests from him and the Azeri authorities to let him serve his sentence in his homeland. On Friday August 31 he was transferred to Baku, only to be immediately pardoned by President Aliyev, released from custody and promoted to the rank of major. Armenia broke off diplomatic relations with Hungary on the same day. The Hungarian Foreign Ministry released a statement explaining that the Hungarian authorities had acted on the basis of an international treaty allowing for defendants to serve their sentences in their home countries.

In a front page editorial, Népszabadság that the editors would never have suspected any link between the affair and the news that Azerbaijan was contemplating the purchase of 2 to 3 billion euros worth of Hungarian government bonds. On the contrary, Népszabadság continues sarcastically, Hungary was surely just putting into practice the wish expressed by PM Orbán during his recent visit to Baku: “ties between Hungary, a member of the European Union and wealthy Azerbaijan are getting closer and closer.”  The left-wing daily concludes on a more sombre note, accusing the government of having cast shame on Hungary by concluding “a transaction with a murderer.”

On Index, Gergő Plankó suggests that the affair has shown how weak Hungary’s geopolitical standing now is. If we suppose that the government did not act cynically, knowing perfectly well what was going to happen, he argues, then Hungary has been treated disrespectfully by Azerbaijan. “The sad geopolitical reality is that Hungary can fall victim to such an affront,” Plankó concludes, adding that the events show what Hungary can expect when it comes to serious financial matters. “Not to mention how a self-defined National-Christian government can justify trading in murderers,” the Index commentator adds.

On Portfolio, a financial website, historian Ágnes Gereben describes the past and present of the Azeri-Armenian conflict, and remarks that Azerbaijan’s oil and gas wealth often play an important role in international relations, including in the appointment of the new US Ambassador to Baku. The original candidate, Matthew Bryza was one of the chief international mediators in the controversy between Azerbaijan and Armenia on Nagorno Karabakh, a region belonging to Azerbaijan but inhabited by an Armenian majority. The Armenian lobby in the United States suspected him of leaning towards Azerbaijan and of representing the interests of certain oil and gas companies. In any case, his candidacy was blocked by the Senate and eventually the State Department opted for Richard Morningstar as the new ambassador.

Political analyst Gábor Török thinks the Hungarian authorities probably made a mistake by transferring Safarov to Azerbaijan.

In his popular blog, Török remarks that the matter is, as usual, being judged by Hungarians very much according to their political affiliations. Anti-Orbán Hungarians have immediately become fervent supporters of Armenia, while “Orbán believers” have come forward with sober arguments of political and economic rationality. Damage control would be perhaps easier if it turned out that Hungary has mismanaged the matter out of clumsiness. In that case it would be sufficient to apologise and severely condemn Azerbaijan’s breach of faith. A lot more would be needed if Hungary had knowingly contributed to Safarov’s release. At any rate, Török would find it difficult to imagine any concrete gain that would have made it worthwhile for Hungary to satisfy the Azeri request to return Safarov to Baku.

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