NEW YORK, NY/ WASHINGTON, DC – On January 29, 2017, the Armenian National Committees of Greater Washington (ANC of GW) and New York (ANC of New York) held simultaneous protests in front of Belarus’ diplomatic missions in Washington, DC and New York City demanding the immediate and unconditional release of the Russian-Israeli blogger Alexandr Lapshin. Mr. Lapshin currently faces extradition from Belarus to Azerbaijan for traveling and reporting from Republic of Artsakh (Nagorno Karabakh) and speaking critically of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev’s dictatorial regime. The gathered voiced their discontent and outrage over Azerbaijan’s continuous assault against free media and journalists over the past several years, with Mr. Lapshin being the latest victim.
“We condemn in the strongest terms any attempt to silence or intimidate journalists and individuals who travel to the free and independent Republic of Artsakh,” said ANCA-ER Chairman Steve Mesrobian. “Azerbaijan and Belarus are two of Europe’s last remaining dictatorships and for us it is absolutely unacceptable to silence journalists for speaking up about human rights offenses or for expressing their support for the free and democratic Republic of Artsakh. We also call upon the United States government to take a strong stance on this issue in solidarity with the people of Nagorno Karabakh Republic, our democratic and reliable ally in the region.”
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) called on Belorussian authorities to unconditionally release Aleksandr Lapshin. “We call on Belarussian authorities to release the travel blogger without condition and allow him to return home,” stated CPJ Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator Nina Ognianova.
The Washington DC protest was organized in coordination with the ARF Sebouh Committee and the AYF Ani Chapter. Similar protests have taken place at Belarus Embassies around the world.
“We have gathered here today in solidarity with Mr. Lapshin and with hundreds of other journalists who have been silenced by President Aliyev’s dictatorial regime,” said AYF Ani Chapter Chairman Aram Tramblian. “Media freedom is one of the cornerstones of any democracy. With Mr. Lapshin’s extradition, the Azerbaijani government hopes to quash future free and unfettered reporting about Artsakh – a dangerous precedent which we simply cannot allow.”
On December 15, 2016, police in Belarus detained Mr. Lapshin, a popular travel blogger based in Moscow, for his prior visits to the Republic of Artsakh (Nagorno Karabakh) and for his criticism of the Aliyev regime. In his postings, Mr. Lapshin had expressed support for the right to self-determination of the people of Artsakh. In 2016, he had also visited Baku and subsequently wrote blogs criticizing the poverty in certain areas of the oil-rich capital Baku, as well as the dictatorial rule of Aliyev. On 20 January 2017, at President Aliyev’s request, the General Prosecutor’s Office of Belarus decided to have Mr. Lapshin extradited to Azerbaijan. An appeal to the ruling was recently denied.
Both Israeli and Russian diplomatic missions have made representations calling for Lapshin’s release and opposing the extradition. An Israeli consular official met with the blogger on January 12. The blogger’s wife, Yekaterina Kopilova, told Ha’aretz that the diplomat told her that Lapshin was “in poor mental health,” “depressed,” and under pressure from Belarussian officials to agree to voluntary extradition. “There is no good news,” the newspaper quoted Kopilova as saying.
Azerbaijan is ranked 160th out of 180 countries in the Reporters Without Borders ‘Press Freedom Index’, and President Aliyev listed as one of the top ‘Predators of Press Freedom’, who has eliminated almost all pluralism in his country.
Azerbaijan has declared 180 journalists personae non grata – meaning they cannot enter the country – because of prior visits to the Republic of Artsakh.