The Russian Service of BBC has published accounts of testimonies from the relatives of the victims of the “TerTer” army torture case of 2017 in Azerbaijan: dozens tortured, 25 indicted with “Treason”, 9 tortured to death are the findings of this investigation of the criminal cases opened in 2017 in the Azerbaijani army over charges of espionage for Armenia.
Azerbaijani military servicemen were tortured with electric current, strangled in water, and thrown from building windows, while investigators wanted to force the suspects to confess to state treason.
Not much is known about these stories and court cases of the “Terter” military investigations as all of them were tried in secrecy and behind closed doors. The only publicly available information was the official joint statement of the Chief Prosecutor’s Office of Azerbaijan and the Ministry of Defense in May 2017 that a group of soldiers was suspected of spying for Armenia.
Nasir, a native of Kachmaze village, has moved to Baku after his son was detained over charges for state treason. He opened a group in social media, has been communicating with the relatives of other victims of the tortured soldiers, collecting documents and meeting with human rights defenders, international diplomats. He keeps the court case and ruling documents with him all the time. Human rights defenders are reporting of over 100 soldiers and officers tortured in detention, 25 indicted and sent to long-term sentences, at least 9 dead during investigation.
The horrendous human rights violations started to become public in 2019, when relatives and victims started speaking up. This has been coined the “Terter” case, in reference to the region where the officers and soldiers were transported for interrogations and torture.
“If he confessed, he’d remain alive”
Oktay Gulaliyev, a human rights defender, states that 9 servicemen fell victim to the tortures, over 5 of whom even criminal cases had not opened.
One of the killed officers is Ruslan Ojahverdiyev, 32-years old, father of two children. Ravana, his wife, says that on June 15, 2017 Ruslan went to the military unit, after which connection with him was lost as he was not answering the phone calls. Fellow servicemen told her that he was taken somewhere with not details of where and why. She was later told that he was injured. Later she was informed of his death, that he had a heart failure during military exercises.
Ravana is one of the dozen plaintiffs against the Azerbaijan’s Military Prosecutor’s Office. She learned of the forensic examination results right at the court session. Her husband’s death was caused by a trauma in his chest. The testimonies of the other servicemen shed light to more circumstances related to the tortures.
“His mouth was gagged, he was strangled, they demanded him to confess that he was spying, he was said to choose to either die or confess,” recalls Ravana from testimonies.
Ravana learned at the court hearings that Ruslan fell victim to the false report of another soldier of the Azerbaijani army who was also tortured.
“I was in tears, I was asking Fuad Agayev (accused of exercising tortures), why did you do that, he said, because if I didn’t kill, I would be killed myself,” decries Ravana.
The testimonies and forensic examination confirm that the officer was stripped of clothing, tied up, injected certain chemicals, strangled in water. This was all done in the presence of a doctor who was supposed to monitor that death not arrive before the time they anticipated.
The prosecutor’s office wrote to Ravana that no criminal offence had been attributed to her husband.
Funeral in Police Presence
Salekh Gafarov, a resigned General-Leutanant aged 39, also had two children. According to his wife Natavan, he was detained from home without any explanations. After two weeks of no news about him, she was handed over his dead body.
The police speeded up the funeral procession, police officers had encircled the coffin at the cemetery and would not allow the wife to come close to it.
“During the trial I learned that he was arrested because of the reporting of another tortured soldier. They arrested him on May 4, tortured him, on the 6th he fell into coma, he was then taken to Baku Military hospital, where he eventually died on May 13,” says Natavan.
Salekh’s hands and feet were tied, he was strangled in water, electrified, his nails were tweezed out, his jaw was broken, he was thrown out of the window of the second floor while being tied up. Then his tortures continued until he fell into coma. All of this was confirmed through eyewitness testimonies and forensic examination, which gave detailed description of injuries of internal organs, fractures of bones, missing nails.
The Rebellion of the Relatives
At least 25 servicemen of the Azerbaijanian army are now in prison for alleged state treason, assaults against higher-ranked military officers and similar offences. The relatives are lodging suits against prosecution of their loved ones, are speaking of the tortures, organizing protests in Baku.
In 2017, Elbrus Guluzade’s son, a conscript, did not come home for days off. The parents became worried and traveled to the military unit. There they learned that their son was at the military hospital, where he was not to be found. They met parents of other missing soldiers and together they went to the military police of that region.
“About 50 officers attacked us, they were speaking as if we were enemies, they were chasing us out. We threatened to turn to suicide, after which they promised to listen. They took down our names and said that they would call us within three days and tell us where are sons were,” recalls Elbrus.
“After three days our son called us. I was asking, Natik, is it really you? I asked for the locations of moles on his body to be sure it was indeed him.”
Five days later Natik and another soldier from a neighboring village come home and told their parents of their tortures. He spoke of injuries he received in his back, his testicles had been electrified, after which he fell into a coma for 5 had days. No forensic examination was conducted in this case, only photographs are available.
According to Elbrus, the next day Natik went back to the military unit and continued his service there.
In September 2017, Natik was called to Baku to sign some papers. Natik went with his brother Nahid. Later Naid was told that his brother was arrested.
“Natik told us much later that he was deceived that as if we, his parents, were arrested over charges for drug sales. He was ready to confess to anything only to free us from any possible harm. He confessed to having ties with Armenia. Only after all of this, did he learn that everything was alright with us, we were in freedom.”
Natik is now sentenced to 18 years of imprisonment. The parents are trying to appeal the court decision.
Survivors in Freedom
Many of the survivors of the tortures succeeded in avoiding prison sentences. The majority of interrogators who interrogated soldiers without grounds and torturers have been brought to criminal responsibility.
Fuad Agayev, with a rank of a Major, mentioned above, was sentenced to 10 years of imprisonment for mass tortures, another 7 are sentenced to less terms. The military police states that all the military personnel in charge of tortures have been held accountable.
Vagif Abdulayev, former commander of a military company, however, complains of the judicial processes.
“I was not charged with a groundless offence, I was simply tortured for two months. Then they forced me to pass a military preparedness exam in that condition, which I naturally failed and that was the ground based on which I was dismissed from my military job….Even if they call me back to work, I will not stop my fight until all offenders are imprisoned,” states the former military.
“People are no longer afraid to speak”
Human rights defender Oktay Gulaliyev says that neither the human rights defenders, nor the public had any information during the first months of mass arrests. Then rumors spread about tortures and killings.
According to Gulaliyev, the relatives of servicemen accused of cooperating with Armenian armed forces were afraid to participate in protests at the beginning. “Only last year did we contact the relatives of those tortured.”
Gulaliyev reports that the number of victims confirmed only by the court is 101, of which 9 died. At least 25 servicemen are charged with state treason. “I always say at least, because when we speak of the “Terter” case we mean those about whom we were able to find information,” explains Gulaliyev.
On October 29 2019, Gulaliyev was run over by a car in the center of Baku. He was badly injured, underwent several surgeries. At the moment of writing this article, he was still in a challenging condition and was receiving treatment abroad.
In 2013, there were protests in central Baku related to servicemen that had died in non-combat situations in the Azerbaijanian army. The protestors were sentenced with “public disorder” charges. The last person that was sentenced is Ilkin Rustamadze, released from prison only this year.
A journalist who often wrote about corruption in the army, Afghan Mukhtari, is still in prison with charges over smuggling and illegal crossing of the border.
Tortures are Business as Usual
Human rights defenders started making lists of political prisoners since mid 1990s, still when Heydar Aliyev, father of the current president Ilham Aliyev was ruling.
According to Gulaliyev, those imprisoned in the “Terter” case will also be added to the lists of political prisoners.
The human rights defenders based in Azerbaijan have been stating numerous times that torture is a usual practice in Azerbaijan. Since 2004, the Council of Europe’s Committee for Prevention of Torture visited Azerbaijan for 6 times. The 2018 report of the Committee states that “torture and other inhuman forms of treatment by the police and other law enforcement bodies are embedded in the system, widespread and measures are not taken to uproot them.”