Blogger jailed in Belarus faces extradition to Azerbaijan

New York, January 13, 2017–Belarussian authorities should unconditionally release Aleksandr Lapshin, a Russian-Israeli blogger detained in the capital Minsk on an extradition request from Azerbaijan, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

Police in Minsk on December 15, 2016, detained Lapshin, who lives in Moscow and writes a popular Russian-language travel blog, He is wanted in Azerbaijan for visiting the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh in April 2011, October 2012, and June 2016, and for criticizing Azerbaijani policies on his blog, according to news reports. Both Azerbaijan and Armenia claim Nagorno-Karabakh as their territory. The region is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan, but is now under Armenian control.

Lapshin’s detention soon after he entered Belarus stems from his inclusion in 2011 on the Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry’s list of people wanted on charges of making “anti-state calls to the public” and illegally crossing Azerbaijan’s state borders, according to regional press reports. Belarus and Azerbaijan have close diplomatic relations.

The Russian state news agency RIA Novosti reported today that a representative of Belarus’s prosecutor-general’s office said it was studying Azerbaijan’s extradition request.

“Aleksandr Lapshin should not be jailed for expressing his opinions or traveling to a disputed region,” CPJ Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator Nina Ognianova said. “We call on Belarussian authorities to release the travel blogger without condition and allow him to return home.”

Azerbaijani state media reported that Lapshin called for Nagorno-Karabakh’s independence from Azerbaijan. According to the Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz, Lapshin also made several remarks criticizing Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliev on his blog. Blog posts CPJ reviewed at the time of Lapshin’s detention appeared to have been subsequently removed from the site.

An Israeli consular official met with the blogger on January 12. The blogger’s wife, Yekaterina Kopilova, told Haaretz 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 has declared 180 journalists personae non grata–meaning they cannot enter the country–for visiting the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, according to Russia’s state-run Interfax news agency. The Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry’s full list, last updated on December 7, 2016, includes 623 names in total, including French Interior Minister Bruno Le Roux and opera singer Montserrat Caballe.

On January 11, 2017, Russia’s state-run Interfax news agency reported that the Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry was investigating an October 2016 visit to Nagorno-Karabakh and a subsequent report by Indonesian journalist Famega Putri, a reporter for the Indonesian magazine Tempo.