Anger, shock and tomato pelting erupted this week after Hungary coordinated the extradition of Ramil Safarov, who was serving a life sentence after beheading an Armenian soldier while both attended NATO’s “Partnership for Peace” program in Budapest, to his native Azerbaijan. Safarov was given a hero’s welcome, promotion and was pardoned. Armenia responded by severing diplomatic ties with Hungary.
Safarov beheaded 26-year-old Gurgen Margaryan in his sleep with an axe, according to court testimony, in an act of revenge stemming from the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict over the Nagorno-Karabakh region. Safarov’s release has seen international press coverage, protests as well as international social media activism. Here is the first part of a handy primer into the initially 2004 incident, a timeline of recent developments and commentary that gives the release heard around most of the world some context.
A Murder in the Night
On Thursday, February 19, 2004, at the Hungarian University of National Defense, during a NATO Partnership for Peace program, Lt. Ramil Safarov of Azerbaijan hacked to death Lt. Gurgern Margaryan of Armenia as he slept, using an ax and knife. Thanks to a series of posts highlighting media coverage after the incident made possible by Katy Pearce, he was detained without any resistance after the murder that Budapest Police described as unusually cruel. “We say ‘unusual cruelty because beside the number of knife wounds on his chest, the victim’s head was practically severed from his body,” said Budapest Police Maj. Valter Fulop.
The Armenian Defense Ministry called it a “direct consequence of the policy of aggression, hatred and animosity towards the people of Armenia,” citing another recent incident where Azerbaijani authorities refused to allow Armenian officers to attend a NATO conference in Baku.
The Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry called on Armenia to “refrain from accusative statements and judgement,” and noted that Safarov “comes from a family of refugees in the Cebrayil district of Azerbajain, which was occupied by Armenia.” The ministry goes on its statement to say that “the family was robbed of all its property and several of their relatives were killed,” which would have impacted Safarov’s current emotional state during which he committed the murder.
More Details Emerge
Details about the motivation behind the murder begin to emerge soon after. According to Safarov’s first interrogation, posted and translated by Armenian sources, Safarov does not deny what he will later be convicted of, though the posting does preface the transcript by saying that Safarov later rejected this testimony, claiming a communication error.
“I would like to say that whole thing goes back to 1988 Armenian-Karabahi War,” says Safarov in the opening lines of his confession, outlining that his close relatives died in the war.
This motivates him to join the Azerbaijani army, where he does not kill anyone from the Armenian opposition, but just helps injured soldiers gets to the hospital. With no casualties under his belt, his animosity grows, boiling over at the NATO training, where he has to face Margaryan and another Armenian officer.
Despite claims that Margaryan insulted Safarov and the Azerbaijani flag, Safarov says the trio were friendly to each other.
“In the beginning we were greeting each other, rather to say they said hi to me, but I didn’t accept it and curiosity in the whole thing was that when they walked close to me they were mumbled something in Armenian and laughed at me. That was the time when I decided that I will kill these two persons, the Armenians, I will cut their head off.”
Safarov buys an axe in Budapest, in addition to the knife he already has. “If I hit their head by the axe,” he reasons, “they loose [sic] their consciousness and will not be able to shout for help.”
He took care of some English homework, had a cigarette and a bath and decided to leave his room at 5 a.m. with the intent of killing both Armenian participants. He makes his way to Margaryan’s room first, striking him three times on the neck with the axe, hitting him in the face with the axe’s flat side and also puncturing his arm and legs.
“When I went out then the plaintiff was still alive, but I know what I caused him is a death injury, because I almost separated his head from his body,” says Safarov.
He then goes looking for the second Armenian participant, Hayk Makuchyan, shouting “Come out, wherever you hid, I find you,” in Russian.
Makuchyan, later says in an interview with local Armenian media that neither him nor Gurgen had any contact with the Azerbaijani officers. “They were not of a communicative type. Usually, after classes, they went straight to their rooms”, said Hayk.
Other students who find him in the hall try to calm him down, while Safarov says another Azerbaijani participant wakes up and upon seeing the axe and blood on it, begins to cry in shock.
He is eventually arrested by police.
In the Caucasus, Revenge Runs Deep
After his arrest, media reports site that Safarov’s mother, Nubar Safarova, does not believe her son committed the murder, commenting that he wanted to “wreak vengeance on enemies at the front.”
The Nagorno-Karabakh war, which took place between Armenia and Azerbaijan during and after the collapse of the Soviet Union saw upwards of 35,00o dead and over 80,000 wounded. Armenian forces eventually captured and retained control of the mountains Caucasus region. The conflict however, which has roots go all the way back to the 1900s over boundaries, still simmers today with deaths on the front lines every year.
The national rhetoric both countries have been engaged in over the years since the 1994 cease fire has bred animosity and hatred on both sides.
In one of his closing statements in his first testimony, Safarov outlines his mentality in one succinct statement:
“My job is to kill all, because until they live, we suffer.”
Kuti Balazs, Margaryan’s roommate, said that Safarov left the room after killing Margaryan with an expression that he had “completed something important well enough.”
Balazs, who was a Hungarian citizen, said he did not notice any strain in their relationship before the events took place.
Ramil Safarov was sentenced to life imprisonment in Hungary in 2006, with a 30-year minimum sentence.
Stay tuned for more current details and commentary roundup in Part II