A leading human rights group has said that the recent shelling of a church in the contested Nagorno-Karabakh region may constitute a possible war crime. Human Rights Watch (HRW) said that the Azerbaijani army's deliberate targeting of the Ghazanchetsots Cathedral in Shushi on 8th October was a violation of the laws of war due to the church's status as a civilian object with cultural significance.
Despite no evidence that the church site was used for military purposes, forces struck the historic building with brutal force, causing serious damage to the structure and injuring bystanders. Remnants taken from the site by HRW indicate the employment of guided munitions, which, in turn, shows that the church was picked out as a specific target.
"The two strikes on the church, the second one while journalists and other civilians had gathered at the site, appear to be deliberate,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at HRW. “These attacks should be impartially investigated and those responsible held to account.”
The Azerbaijani President, Ilham Aliyev, disputes this, insisting that the church was hit by mistake and was “not among military targets".
The cathedral came under attack twice on 8th October, with the second strike injuring three Russian journalists. HRW visited the site after the bombardment and spoke to a number of witnesses.
Nune Shahramanyan, 46, who lives just across the street from the site, said she had been sheltering with her family in the church basement since 27th September.
She recounted the attack.
"I had just gone to buy bread for my family … [who] were in the [church] basement,” she said. “And when I heard that sound [of the explosion] I saw … the debris and [heard] sirens starting. And I saw [three] planes. Then I ran back….I saw that my children were safe and I was relieved…. There was so much debris and stones falling.”
Another witness, Vova Zakaryan, recalled having just entered the basement when the church was struck. “I just hugged the… children and told them that they don't need to panic," he said.
One of the journalists, Vahram, who attended the scene following the first strike, remembers the chaos of the second attack.
“At that moment there was a blast, a powerful one, we all were scattered... [T]here was total darkness… then the dust started to settle," he said. "I got out to the street…[M]y hand was torn, and I had injuries on my back and on my head."
A fellow journalist, Kotenok, added: “I heard an awful crack and then it was hell and my friend was knocked down and flew. There was shouting and blood and he was trying to ask if I'm alive and I was trying to articulate that I was, but I was under stones and wood.”
Human Rights Watch discovered several munition remnants, including a circuit board, data plate and allen bolts, which lend evidence to claims that the Azerbaijani forces were using precision-guided weaponry.
"The remnants found indicate that the weapons used were capable of being directed at a specific target," the group noted. "The two strikes struck the same part of the church roof, with no more than two meters difference between the point of impact. This substantially reduces the possibility that less precise weapons were used, given their inability to achieve such a high degree of accuracy over two strikes."
HRW added that the attack may constitute a war crime because international humanitarian law "requires warring parties to distinguish between civilian objects and military objectives at all times".
"Attacks directed at civilian objects that are not used to commit hostile acts or are otherwise not military objectives are prohibited and may constitute a war crime," they said. "Warring parties are also required to respect cultural property and special care must be taken to avoid damage to buildings dedicated to religion and historic monuments. They must not be attacked unless imperatively required by military necessity."
HRW added that governments "have a duty to investigate allegations of war crimes by members of their armed forces or forces on their territory and to fairly prosecute those found responsible".
Shortly after the incident, President Aliyev said he would commit resources to investigating the alleged war crime. However, in a later BBC interview, when asked about the outcome of the investigation, the president simply replied: "In order to investigate it, we have to be there to investigate.”
With over a month having elapsed since Azerbaijan retook control of Shushi, Williamson said that the government "needs to waste no time in investigating the attacks and holding those responsible to account".
“Attacks such as these serve no military purpose," he said, "and all parties should ensure these kinds of attacks are punished and otherwise prevented".