YEREVAN/WASHINGTON/BUDAPEST: Hungary summoned the ambassador to Azerbaijan Sunday to protest at Baku’s decision to pardon a soldier found guilty of murdering an Armenian soldier and extradited last week by Budapest.
“Hungary finds it unacceptable and condemns the pardoning of Ramil Safarov,” Foreign Ministry state secretary Zsolt Nemeth told Ambassador Vilayat Guliyev, the national news agency MTI reported.
Safarov, an Azerbaijani lieutenant, was sentenced to life in prison by a Hungarian court in 2004 for hacking Armenian officer Gurgen Margarian to death at a military academy in Budapest where the two were attending NATO-organized English-language courses.
The rapid weekend developments have enraged Armenia’s President Serzh Sarksyan who said that Hungarian authorities have made a “grave mistake,” despite previous assurances that the sentenced soldier would serve his complete sentence.
In Yerevan, hundreds of Armenians protested in front of the Hungary’s consulate Saturday and burned Hungarian flags.
In a surprise move last week, Hungary agreed to return Safarov to Azerbaijan, where he arrived Friday, following assurances it received from Azeri authorities that he would serve out his sentence.
The White House said U.S. President Barack Obama was “deeply concerned” over Azerbaijan’s move.
“President Obama is deeply concerned by today’s announcement that the president of Azerbaijan has pardoned Ramil Safarov following his return from Hungary,” said National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor Friday.
State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said the United States was “extremely troubled” by the news.
“We condemn any action that fuels regional tensions,” he added, noting that Washington was expressing its “deep concern” to Baku and seeking an explanation from Budapest regarding its decision.
Within hours of the announcement of Safarov’s release in Azerbaijan, Sarksyan called an emergency meeting of his Security Council.
“I officially announce that as of today we cease all diplomatic relations and all ties with Hungary,” Sarksyan said in a press release distributed by his administration.
In a meeting with heads of diplomatic missions in Yerevan, Sarksyan said that the extradition of Safarov and his pardoning provide impunity to all criminals who murder based on ethnic or religious hatred.
“With this decision they convey a clear message to the butchers.”
“The slaughterers hereafter are well aware of impunity they can enjoy for the murder driven by ethnic or religious hatred,” he added.
Safarov’s lawyers claimed in court that he was traumatized because some of his relatives were killed during war with Armenian forces, and alleged that Margarian had insulted his country.
Armenia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry criticized Hungary’s extradition of Safarov over the weekend, saying that the government in Budapest should have foreseen the implications of its decision to transfer Safarov that effectively resulted in the termination of serving his sentence for a murder.
“The government of Hungary, at different levels, including the highest, has consistently and up until the last moment assured the government of Armenia that it will not take any steps whatsoever, which would result in the termination of serving justice by the perpetrator of a heinous murder and explicitly excluded any option for the execution of the transfer,” the ministry said in a statement.
Armenia and Azerbaijan have been at odds since the war between ethnic Azeris and Armenians which erupted in 1991 over the mainly Armenian Nagorno-Karabakh enclave.
A cease-fire was signed in 1994 but relations remain tense.
Cross-border clashes this year have prompted worries of a resumption of fighting in a region crisscrossed by energy pipelines to Europe.
Following the pardoning of Safarov in Baku, troops on both sides of the border have gone on high-alert.
Hungary has been developing economic ties with energy-rich Azerbaijan and gave backing to the Nabucco pipeline project seen as the main route for Azeri gas exports to Europe.
Hungarian media reported that Azerbaijan could lend Hungary 2-3 billion euros ($2.5-3.8 billion).
Oil-producing Azerbaijan, which is host to oil majors including BP, Chevron and ExxonMobil, frequently threatens to take the mountain enclave back by force, and is spending heavily on its armed forces.
Nagorno-Karabakh has run its own affairs with the heavy military and financial backing of Armenia since the war, when Armenian-backed forces seized control of the enclave and seven surrounding Azeri districts.
Azerbaijan has threatened to take back the region by force if peace talks do not yield results, while Armenia has vowed massive retaliation against any military action.
Russia, France and the United States have led years of mediation efforts under the auspices of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe.
Baku and Yerevan failed to agree at talks in June last year and the angry rhetoric between them has worsened since then.