The Safarov Case – Ethics versus International Law

Manifestation in remembrance of Gurgen Margaryan, the murdered Armenian soldier. Photo: 517design on flickrOn August 31, 2012, Hungary transferred “the Azeri killer” Ramil Safarov to Azerbaijan. He had been sentenced to life imprisonment for killing an Armenian soldier in Budapest in 2004. On returning home, Safarov was immediately pardoned by the president and welcomed as a national hero. Why would Hungary let him go?

In 2004, lieutenant Ramil Sahib Safarov arrived in Hungary to participate in a course of NATO’s Partnership for Peace program. Officers of other nationalities, including Armenians, were also invited. One night, Safarov brutally killed an Armenian participant in his sleep with an axe. The Hungarian court sentenced him to life imprisonment in 2006 and the following year a court of appeal upheld the ruling.

Safarov comes from the Nagorno-Karabakh region. This territory is the cause of the tense relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan. There the majority of the population is Armenian, but the territory has belonged to Azerbaijan since 1920. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the ethnic conflict expanded. The war in the 1990s ended with a cease-fire, and to this day a peace treaty has not been signed. Now Nagorno-Karabakh de facto belongs to Armenia. Safarov justified himself by referring to Armenian atrocities against Azerbaijan in the conflict of 1988-94.

Five and a half years after Safarov’s sentence, Hungary transferred him to Azerbaijan. The case was handled by the Hungarian Ministry of Public Administration and Justice (not by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs). As is the practice in international law, Hungary asked for formal assurance that Safarov would not be freed. The answer would not be enough guarantee for all experts of international law, as it referred only to general practice concerning the treatment of transferred persons. Still, the Ministry was satisfied with the response and proceeded with the case.

When Safarov arrived to Azerbaijan, Azeri President Ilham Aliyev immediately pardoned him, promoted him, provided him with accommodation and paid his salary for the time he had to spend in prison in Hungary. He was celebrated by Azeris as a national hero.

The Hungarian Ministry of Public Administration and Justice seemed to be caught off guard. The option of a presidential pardon was not mentioned in the Azeri “guarantee”. The Ministry stated that it had not thought that Azerbaijan, now a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council, would act in such a fashion. Apparently, the Ministry is alone, as Azerbaijan never hid its opinion about seeing Safarov as a national hero.

Was Hungary really so naïve? Or was the transfer a part of an agreement between the two countries? There are arguments for the latter. As part of the Hungarian government’s “opening to the East” policy since 2010, Azerbaijan has become all the more important for Hungary during the past years, for various reasons. The most significant of them may be energy diversification: Hungary aims to become less dependent on natural gas imports from Russia. Other possible reasons include Azerbaijan buying Hungarian sovereign bonds.

Armenia suspended diplomatic ties with Hungary following Safarov’s pardoning in Azerbaijan and imposed the moral responsibility on Hungary. Hungary protested against the pardoning of the murderer, and claimed that the regulations of the Strasbourg Convention of 1983 and the revealed assurance from Baku providedguarantees that this would not take place.

Map of the Nagorno-Karabakh region.

What else could Hungary have done? First, not transfer Safarov at all. States are generally free to decide about extradition, transfer of persons and judgments. There is no legal binding to do so, it depends only on the agreement of the two respective states. Thus, a transfer like this makes sense in a lot of cases: it is cheaper for the imprisoning country, and the re-integration of the person into society while and after serving his sentence is more effective in his home country.

Why not then? If there is a risk that he would not serve his sentence, the transferring country can ask for legal assurance. This is what happened in our case, although this assurance seemingly was not completely satisfying, as it did not mention the option of the presidential pardon.

Azerbaijan has made a reservation to the Strasbourg convention saying, among other things, that in the case of a person transferred by Azerbaijan, a presidential pardon in the receiving country can be carried out only with the agreement of Azerbaijan. According to the way international treaties work, reciprocity exists here. In our case this means that a pardon for Safarov in Azerbaijan could have been carried out legally only with the approval of Hungary.

To sum up, Azerbaijan seems to have acted against international law. Hungary did not, however, act based on common sense, it could have guessed what would happen. How big was the chance for what happened, and therefore how big is Hungary’s ethical responsibility? These questions are difficult to answer but it is clear that in such cases it is possible that shadowy backroom dealings between states can impact upon the carriage of justice.


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