This article was originally published in Russian on
A serious international scandal is unfolding around the figure of traveler and blogger Alexander Lapshin, who was arrested in Minsk in mid-December at the request of Azerbaijan. Diplomats and civil servants of five countries – Russia, Israel, Belarus and Azerbaijan themselves, and also Armenia – have already been pulled into this story.
Alexander Lapshin, who holds 51
place in the ranking of LiveJournal users and has around 30,000 followers on Facebook, Twitter and LiveJournal, was arrested on December 15, 2016 in Minsk. The arrest was made at the request of Azerbaijan’s prosecutor general’s office, which accuses Lapshin of illegally visiting Nagorno-Karabakh and illegally entering Azerbaijan.
Lapshin visited Nagorno-Karabakh in 2011 and 2012, after which Azerbaijan placed him on the black list of individuals who are forbidden entry to the country (the up-to-date version of the list can be found
). Nevertheless, Alexander Lapshin managed to visit Baku in June, 2016, entering Azerbaijan using his Ukrainian passport: it gives the Ukrainian version of his name, ‘Oleksandr’ [rather than the Russian ‘Aleksandr’ –
.], as a result of which the Azerbaijani border guards couldn’t recognize Lapshin as a person from the black list.
Alexander Lapshin is a citizen of three countries: Russia, Israel and Ukraine. The first two are now actively taking part in deciding his fate, trying not to allow the blogger’s extradition to Azerbaijan, where he is threatened with eight years in prison. Ukraine has thus far remained on the sidelines, possibly because of the fact that, after the annexation of Crimea, it is complicated for the Ukrainian authorities to publicly defend visiting an unrecognized territory by sidestepping the country that is declaring its right to that territory.
A campaign in support of Lapshin has unfolded in Armenia (Armenian internet users even launched a flash mob across social networks using the hashtag #blogerlapshin), fierce debates are taking place in Belarus between those who support and oppose handing Lapshin over, his story is actively being commented on in the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh itself, and even
, representative of the US State Department, commented on Lapshin’s case (this was before the handover of power in the US to Donald Trump).
On January 20, Alexander Lapshin’s lawyers found out that the General Prosecutor’s Office of Belarus had agreed to meet Azerbaijan’s demands that the blogger be handed over. Earlier, Russia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs,
, had spoken out against his extradition, and, at the recommendation of Israeli parliamentary deputy Ksenia Svetlova, Israel’s consul in Belarus persuaded Lapshin to present Azerbaijan with a written apology and personally authenticated the apology. So far Baku has not in any way officially reacted to the pronouncements and actions of Russian and Israeli diplomats and politicians.
How did the blogger so enrage the Azerbaijani government and why is Belarus’s government so unwavering in its desire to turn him over?
Those who have closely followed this story from the very beginning have several versions regarding this. According to one of them, some Azerbaijani civil servant or member of Azerbaijan’s security apparatus was angered not so much by the fact that Lapshin visited Nagorno-Karabakh (there are many such people in Azerbaijan’s black list, including fairly well-known people, however Baku has not previously demanded that they be imprisoned in another country), so much as by the fact that in his blog he referred to Karabakh as ‘independent’ and afterwards bragged about the fact that he was able to enter Azerbaijan using his Ukrainian passport. As regards the Belarussian authorities’ determination to turn the blogger over to Azerbaijan, many have directed attention to Alexander Lukashenko’s recent visit to Baku at the end of November, during which Ilham Aliyev presented the Belarussian president with the Heydar Aliyev Order, named after his father, which is the highest decoration in the country and kissed him.
Several observers believe that Lukashenko and Aliyev have set up a political game, trying to show their independence from Moscow and receive in return some sort of advantage. If we go by this version, a run-of-the-mill travel blogger has become a pawn in this game, having happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The complexity of the story with Lapshin is added to by the fact that Israel and Azerbaijan have for many years now successfully cooperated in the military-industrial sector, and contracts for provisioning Israeli arms to Azerbaijan run into the billions of dollars.
Alexander Lapshin was born in Sverdlovsk (now Ekaterinburg) in 1976. He repatriated to Israel more than 20 years ago, served in the Israeli army (in the Gaza sector), travelled dozens of countries, and recently has chosen to make Batumi, in Georgia, his more-or-less-constant ‘base’ – he owns several apartments there and rents them out. In his livejournal entries, Lapshin often doesn’t mince words or put a lot of effort into choosing his words carefully, especially when speaking of civil servants, border guards and the governments of countries that inhibit people’s freedom of movement. Perhaps this is why, in addition to an army of followers and fans, Lapshin has his own group of ‘haters’, who take joy in any problem he encounters and are now actively supporting Belarus’s plans to turn the blogger over to Azerbaijan.
Instances of arrest in one country at the request of another because of a visit to a third (admittedly unrecognized) are extremely rare in practice throughout the world. Ukraine doesn’t send third countries requests that they hand over citizens who visited the annexed Crimea without its permission, and, for example, Israel doesn’t rush to punish its citizens who have visited ‘banned’ countries like Iran (though Israeli laws would permit it to do so).
According to Alexander Lapshin’s friend and business partner,
(she asked that her surname not be mentioned, “for Alexander’s sake”), who is coordinating efforts to free him and maintaining his Facebook and LiveJournal blogs for him, Lapshin’s extradition to Azerbaijan could set a dangerous precedent, after which it will be easier to persecute tourists who have visited this or that disputed territory:
– How did you find out he had been detained? How did this happen?
This took place on the night of December 14-15. He called me and said, “I’m being summoned to the militsiya station”. I didn’t even understand what had happened, what ‘militsiya’. I know that he is in no way a confrontational person. Additionally, he doesn’t drink, that is he couldn’t have gotten into some ordeal of that sort. I naturally phoned the district office of internal affairs to which he’d been taken, and suddenly I heard a very strange thing, they told me, “Well, you should call Azerbaijan”. I said, “What’s this? What Azerbaijan? What are you talking about?” And they explained to me that he had been detained as part of an intergovernmental manhunt, at the request of Azerbaijan. There was a request for extradition. He told me the number of the article. And, broadly speaking, our struggle began from that moment.
– From that moment, how have your interactions gone with the law-enforcement agencies in Belarus?
We talked with the district office of internal affairs and later with the General Prosecutor’s Office. In the beginning, the district office of internal affairs technically observed all the norms of detainment. But already on the morning of December 15 I phoned the district office of internal affairs and asked whether Alexander had been provided with a lawyer. For some reason they gave me a strange answer: “Well, he didn’t ask for one”. This made me very angry, because if you detain a person, you are first and foremost obliged to provide him with a lawyer. Naturally, I found a lawyer myself. And on that same day, after lunch, the lawyer and I went there. And thereafter the lawyers started to handle Alexander’s case, to provide him with defense. And right away on the 16
, at the recommendation of the Deputy Prosecutor General of the Pyershamayski District of the city of Minsk, Alexander was transferred to the pretrial detention center, that is to say, the pretrial restrictions, in the form of his arrest and detention, were chosen before the question of his extradition had been reviewed. Well, and consequently he’s spent all this time in the detention center.
– During this intervening time, slightly over a month, have you managed to see him?
I got to see him just once. This was on December 26. I put in a request for visitation. The prosecutor general’s office gave me this opportunity after reviewing my request over the course of three days. I had an hour to talk. But if, in December, the general prosecutor’s office and other authorities were still behaving more or less normally, within the law, then beginning in January the situation sharply, dramatically changed. First of all, during the holidays Alexander was paid a visit by some people, from the power ministries. Which, they spoke with him off the record, without a lawyer, and came outside of social hours. The lawyer found out about this accidentally, when he came to Alexander after the New Year holidays, on January 4. Alexander said that his visitors had insisted that there was an agreement between Belarus, Azerbaijan and Israel saying that if he would agree to voluntary extradition, would sign an agreement to fly to Azerbaijan, he would supposedly be immediately released there. Naturally he refused, he was surprised, perplexed, taken aback, frightened by who it was that came to him, who these people were, why all this was done in such an unofficial manner.
Naturally, the moment I found out about this I went to the Russian embassy and Israel’s embassy (first and foremost to the Israeli embassy), to confirm whether or not such an agreement exists. The Israeli consul did not confirm this for me. She said that she knew nothing about this. I gave the exact same question in the Russian embassy. He is a citizen of Russia and Israel. Both embassies are working closely with one another in terms of trying to free him, and they would know if such agreements existed. But nobody confirmed that some sort of official agreements exist. This visit really scared and perplexed us. For practically a month the consulates couldn’t get permission from the Belarussian side to visit Alexander in the detention center. They could visit him only after the holidays. In the second week of January they gave permission, first to the Israeli consulate, then to the Russian, that they could visit Alexander.
– What sort of news is there at present regarding Alexander’s case? Has a decision already been made regarding his extradition to Azerbaijan and can it be contested in Belarus?
The situation is like this. We, naturally, have now reached out to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia, and to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Israel, both via the consulates, and on our own. On the morning of January 17, there was a press conference in which Mr. Lavrov took part. And at the press conference, one of the journalists presented the question, what about the Lapshin question, what actions have been taken or decisions made? And Lavrov said clearly and concisely, this can be seen on YouTube, that Russia’s and Israel’s position is against extradition.
And on that same day, on the evening of the 17
, the General Prosecutor’s Office of Belarus renders a decision in support of extradition. Since that morning there had been discussions with Mr. Lavrov, and in the evening, this sort of a line of action. What’s more, our lawyer found out completely by accident that such a decision had been made. The thing is that we decided to bring in a second lawyer as well for Alexander’s defense, and he wrote the corresponding application. For a very long time this application couldn’t be delivered from the detention center to the General Prosecutor’s Office. It was reviewed for a very long time. In the end our lawyer got permission all the same. And in the moment when she received permission, she found out that, as it turns out, the decision has been made to extradite. What’s more, the decision was made on the evening of the 17
, and it was sent by fax to Alexander in the detention center on the 18
, during the day. The lawyer wasn’t provided with a copy of the decision, though in article 509 of the local criminal procedure code it’s written that a lawyer has the right to look over decrees and decisions concerning the individual that he or she is defending. Alexander was sent the decision regarding extraction in the detention center, but they explained the appeals procedure.
– And it will be appealed?
Yes, of course. When lawyers and I saw the decision in favor of extraction, when Alexander saw it, our hair stood on end because of what’s written there. First of all, in the section on charges there had suddenly appeared something on “creation of a criminal group for the purpose of illegally crossing the border into Azerbaijan”. In the article on the basis of which they demanded he be extradited (article 318), there is no such point on “creation of a criminal group”. They are truly just fabricating the creation of a criminal group for him – this is mind-boggling. I can’t understand how such a thing can happen in the civilized world. Moreover, it’s written in the decision that the request for extradition was provided in accordance with the decision of the Nasimi district court of the city of Baku. Well, this Nasimin court reviewed the charges against Alexander according to articles 318 and 281 of the Criminal Code of Azerbaijan (
“Illegally crossing the state border” and “Public pronunciations directed against the government”
). And the court made this decision. But, you see, here’s the thing. When, back in December, the request for extradition was made, it wasn’t by decision of the Nasimin court, but the Nariman court. That is to say, two courts in one day in different parts of the city of Baku made one decision? Excuse me, but this isn’t a little mistake, this is powerful, such incongruity, and it alone should have lead the gentlemen from the General Prosecutor’s Office of Belarus to understand that this should not be approved.
– How much time would Alexander have to serve in Azerbaijan?
According to the articles that were in the request, up to eight years. But if “creating a criminal group” shows up there, I don’t even know. Truth be told, I won’t be surprised if yet another new charge of some sort shows up there. Anything you can think of might be there.
– What do you think, why is Azerbaijan so insistent that a run-of-the-mill blogger be turned over? Why not put the brakes on, considering that Russia, Israel, and even the USA have already intervened?
Truth be told, this is a mystery to me. I can’t understand why such a situation came about. In the beginning, this shouldn’t have been some sort of high-profile case. I would understand if he was a terrorist, if he killed someone there. No! A person is travelling, a person writes about something in his blog. That’s it! A traveler and blogger; nothing more. He didn’t call for anyone to do anything.
– Many criticize Alexander for his sharp statements addressed at civil servants, including Azerbaijan’s. Could this whole story be someone’s personal vengeance?
I don’t know, but I wouldn’t be surprised.
– The Israeli parliamentary deputy
proposed that Alexander write an apology to the Azerbaijani government, and Israel’s consul in Minsk agreed to authenticate these apologies. All this was done. And what has he said to you or the lawyer? Is he truly remorseful about something?
You know, he signed the apologies. I think that if he wasn’t sincere, he wouldn’t have done this. I’m sorry, this isn’t that sort of situation. This was an attempt to give all sides an opportunity to leave the conflict in a normal fashion. Yes, if he was sharp-tongued in some places, perhaps his statements were somehow interpreted to be suggestive of something, and of course, he signed these apologies. He wrote about this.
– Most of Alexander’s posts in which he describes his trip to Nagorno-Karabakh, or which contained harsh statements, have already been deleted. Why?
I’ll tell you honestly, there are too many insinuations concerning the posts. This is why, in principle, anything that could cause harm, anything that could be seen as suggestive, anything that might be used against Alexander, of course, this shouldn’t be.
– Have you received some sort of official answer from Azerbaijan regarding the offer of written apologies?
No. At least I don’t know about it. Naturally this business is, first and foremost, under the control of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Israel. And if something comes forwards from that side, naturally this will be communicated to me as well. First of all this will be communicated to Alexander. Because the consul now has access to him, thank God. Because of this, he will find out first. Unfortunately I don’t think that I can’t find out about this in the near future. The thing is, my repeated application for visitation with Alexander has essentially been refused. It so happens that I was at the prosecutor’s office today finding out what the deal is with my applications. This time it had already been under review not for three days, like previously, but for fifteen days. I don’t know why this term was increased. Today they told me, “Well, your documents are insufficient for us to grant your request”. I asked, “Well alright, were the documents sufficient for the first visitation?” I was told, “Now the documents must be signed and stamped.” I said, “How can that be!? The first time I was permitted a visitation based on these same documents, and everything was fine”. But I didn’t receive an answer to this question. I was told, “Now things are like this, and that’s it”. Because of this, this situation really scares me, truth be told. I don’t understand why this is happening. I don’t understand why they need to make Alexander out to be a monster. Why in the Azerbaijani media… I’ve already seen more than one media report. There the topic is present in such a way that he’s practically a terrorist. Why they’re doing this, I can’t understand.
– The diplomatic missions of several countries have immediately wound up involved in what would at first glance appear to be a silly little story. How would you assess their actions in this situation?
In this case, I would give the highest ranking to the diplomats and Ministries of Foreign Affairs of Russia and Israel. Because they truly have gotten very seriously involved in this conflict. They are doing serious work to resolve this conflict in a peaceful way. Truly, rather than resolving it peacefully from the start, within the law, everything has passed over into some sort of wild abstraction. I have the impression that we are in some sort of horror film. Because of this, Russia and the consulate and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, an enormous thank you to them for the fact that they are providing such broad support. I am very grateful to them. Additionally, just recently there appeared an assessment of this situation even on the site of the US State Department, where John Kirby also made the judgement that the blogger should be given up and extradition should not take place. The conflict has gone so far. I really hope that the efforts of the countries will help to somehow resolve this conflict after all. Because the alternative is that some sort of sinister precedent will be set. I don’t know where else in the world such a situation might be possible, where one country detains a person at the request of a second country because that person entered a third country. Imagine if Israel suddenly began to call for searches in all countries to find people that have been in Gaza, or people who have been to the Levant. This is not possible! This is nonsense, really! This precedent opens very bad possibilities. There are many such territorial conflicts in the world. If such insinuations start up on a constant basis, people will stop going anywhere. They will just be afraid. People will even begin to be afraid to go to Crimea. And suddenly!? After all, the precedent is already set,” says Ekaterian, friend of the blogger Alexander Lapshin.
On Monday, Israel’s consul to Belarus,
stated to the Armenian news agency news.am that Israel “will not abandon attempts to prevent the extradition to Azerbaijan of the blogger Alexander Lapshin, who was arrested earlier in Minsk at the request of Baku”. “The official position of the government of Israel is that we are opposed to the extradition of the citizen of Israel, Alexander Lapshin, from Belarus to Azerbaijan”, she said. Thereupon she reminded her audience that Israel’s consulate in Belarus “does not have the authority to interfere in the judicial process and can only provide Lapshin with consular services”. Meanwhile, Lapshin has found new supporters in Belarus: a large interview with him was published in the most recent issue of the on-board magazine of the airline Belavia. The question is, how will he read this article, when flying out of Minsk: as a free man or as a deportee at the request of the Azerbaijani prosecutor general’s office, facing eight years in prison for some posts on a blog?