BUDAPEST, Hungary — Armenia says it is cutting all ties with Hungary for allowing an Azerbaijani soldier who killed an Armenian officer to return home. On Friday, Hungary sent the soldier back to Azerbaijan, where he was immediately pardoned and freed by his country's president.
Azerbaijani Lieutenant Ramil Safarov was warmly welcomed in the capital, Baku, after arriving from Hungary, where he was imprisoned for murder.
Safarov was given a life sentence in 2006 by the Budapest City Court after he confessed to hacking to death Lieutenant Gurgen Markarian of Armenia in his sleep.
The incident happened while both were in Hungary for a 2004 language course of the NATO military alliance.
Yet, as soon as Safarov arrived at the Baku airport, he received an official pardon from Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev.
In a short statement, the president said he decreed Friday that Safarov “should be freed from the term of his punishment.”
Safarov told reporters that he regards his freedom as a "restoration of justice." He explained that he is "very happy" and that "it is difficult to find words" to express his feelings. Safarov said he wants to "express gratitude to the Supreme Commander-in-Chief [President] Ilham Aliyev and everyone who supports him."
Armenian President Serzh Sarkisyan said in published remarks that "Hungarian authorities should understand that they have made a grave mistake." He added that as of Friday, his nation would "cease all diplomatic relations and all ties with Hungary."
The State Department issued a statement saying the United States is "extremely troubled" by the news of the soldier's pardon and that it is expressing its "deep concern" to Azerbaijan regarding the action. The State Department also said it is seeking further details from Hungary regarding the decision to transfer Safarov to Azerbaijan.
The press chief of Hungary's Foreign Ministry, Gabor Kaleta, said that it was too early to comment on his country's future relationship with Armenia or Azerbaijan.
And at Hungary's Ministry of Public Administration and Justice, press officer Veronika Szucs made clear that this was not the time to ask the hard questions.
"We don't have anyone who can give you an interview, or read the statement," said Szucs. "Just a written statement exists. The title is 'Ramil Sahib Safarov's sentence will continue to be' [enforced by Azerbaijan]."
In the statement, seen by VOA, the ministry said Safarov was extradited under the '1983 Strasbourg Convention on the Transfer of Sentenced Persons,' which Hungary and Azerbaijan have signed.
Hungary, however, said Azerbaijan promised that it would respect Budapest's judgment, meaning that "Persons sentenced to life imprisonment may, at the earliest, be conditionally released after serving a period of 25 years."
The killing has underscored tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh.
The territory lies within Azerbaijan, but has remained under the control of Armenian troops and ethnic Armenian forces since the end of a six-year separatist war in 1994, which killed 30,000 people and left about 1 million homeless.
During his trial in Budapest, Safarov claimed that the conflict was at the root of his actions after the victim allegedly provoked him.
The decision to extradite Safarov comes shortly after Hungarian media reported that oil-rich Azerbaijan may lend Hungary up to $3.8 billion by buying special bonds to help it pay off its debt. Hungarian officials later played down the reports, saying they first want to conclude talks with the International Monetary Fund and the European Union.
Hungarian radio reported Friday that Azerbaijan's president has canceled an upcoming visit to Hungary, following the controversy over the released soldier.