How did one shepherd and his flock get tangled in an investigation in which hundreds of Azerbaijanis were interrogated and in some cases charged with treason? A soldier who was interrogated explains.
This government statement published on May 7 confused the entire country.
“Based on the collected material, the Military Prosecutor’s Office of the Republic of Azerbaijan launched a criminal case on treason and other facts under Article 274 of the Criminal Code. An investigative-operative group consisting of employees of the Prosecutor Office, Ministry of Defense, Ministry of Internal Affairs and State Security Service has been set up, and an initial investigation is underway.”
— a joint statement by the Prosecutor General’s Office, Ministry of Defense, Ministry of Internal Affairs and State Security Service.
According to a soldier who spoke with iFact.ge, about 400 Azerbaijan soldiers and civilians were interrogated and/or arrested for allegedly conspiring with Armenian intelligence services. They were accused of accepting money for passing confidential military information that put state security at risk.
After initial media reports that 42 had been arrested, the Presidential Administration ordered all news of the incident beyond the government statement be removed from websites.
The incident with the shepherd happened in Aghdam district, located on the border of the firing lines as the war over the Nagorno-Karabakh region continues into its third decade.
The soldier describes what happened: “Early in the morning we suddenly heard someone was captured at the watch post. But it wasn’t a soldier. Instead it was a shepherd who told us he was grazing his sheep. We reported it to our commander.”
According to the soldier, the commander took one sheep, and then told the soldiers to leave the shepherd and the rest of the sheep alone.
The soldiers argued with the commander. They said the Armenian border watchers could see where the sheep traveled, and they would know there were no land mines in those spots. They told the commander he was endangering all his soldiers.
“The other side (Armenian soldiers) watch us just like we do. It’s simple: if there is a mine, either the sheep or the shepherd himself will be blown up. The Armenians are not going to shoot the shepherd. He and the sheep are giving them good information.
“On the border everything is intelligence information. It always was like this, and will continue.”
Accusations of cooperating with the enemy were reported to a commander in a nearby military unit, and quickly an investigation began. It expanded from the original incident as hundreds of soldiers and citizens were held and interrogated. Some have been released; others are still awaiting trial on treason charges.
“All soldiers stationed at the border were interrogated,” the soldier said. “They even humiliated us by having doctors give us rape tests.
“Everyone suspected each other, commanders and soldiers, because no one knew what was going on. People in black masks were yelling questions at us. There was one division commander and everyone knew that there was a gay soldier in his division. After the doctor examinations, everyone was asking (the commander) what he was thinking about when his soldier was raped by Armenians. But everyone really knew that guy is gay.”
The volunteer soldiers were told by their officers that they would be transferred to units more than 100 kilometers from the border. But instead many were dismissed from the army. The reason given was that they couldn’t pass the physical exam — even though they were already serving as soldiers.
Volunteers are signed to three-year contracts. According to Article 77 of the Law on Military Service, if the contract is terminated, the soldier is entitled to two months pay.
But the volunteers received no pay. Most returned home with the stigma of being fired from the army, made worse by the rumors surrounding the rape tests.
“Everyone knows each other in the regions,” this soldier said. “After expulsion from the army, no one wants to hire you. The reason why I’m talking about all of this is that people don’t trust us (soldiers) anymore. After April of 2016 (the latest serious flare-up in the fighting), people cared about us a lot. Now they even don’t want to see us.”
A local government official says rumors of treason spread quickly. “Imagine that you wake up in the morning, and you start hearing that a lot of your neighbors are working for Armenians,” the official said. “You start to suspect everyone. The local people were horrified by these stories. People that you used to know for a long time, the people that you see everyday, accused of working for Armenia.”
The official said that in addition to soldiers, shepherds, taxi drivers and even prostitutes were arrested. Some of these civilians remain in jail along with some of the soldiers, awaiting trial on treason charges.
The official said a shepherd from Chamanli village was arrested for allegedly helping the Armenians gain access to Azerbaijan military communication networks. Investigators claim $10,000 was found in his house. A medical worker from the same village was reportedly arrested, along with his daughter and his brother. The girlfriend of a soldier was reportedly arrested and accused of working for Armenian intelligence.
According to the official, investigators say they found money, maps of the frontline, drawings of administrative and strategic facilities, and precise information on where civilians lived.
“A lot of people were arrested,” the official said. One person who was accused, Mehman Huseynov, was beaten to death by interrogators. His relatives wanted to bury him next to his father. But villagers protested, so he was buried outside the cemetery.
“People are confused. We thought we knew where the enemy was. But it appeared that they were among us.”
All owners of small businesses have been interrogated. People who came to the region to work have been ordered to return to their hometowns. Even the prostitutes were sent away.
The soldier who was transferred talks to the soldiers who are now stationed at the front. “Nothing has changed,” he said. “Shepherds are still grazing their herds there.”
On December 8, the Azerbaijan Press Agency reported increased firing of machine guns by Armenian forces at an Azerbaijani village near where this incident occurred. Nobody was injured, but roofs and windows of homes were damaged.