The reopening of the Artsakh issue became one of the manifestations of Gorbachev’s policy of restructuring (перестройка) and publicity (гласность). A special session of the Nagorno-Karabakh Regional Council decided, on February 20, 1988, to request the withdrawal of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic from the Azerbaijan SSR, and for its unification with Soviet Armenia. It also requested that the Supreme Soviets of Azerbaijani SSR and the Armenian SSR mediate before the Supreme Soviet of the USSR for a positive solution of the issue.
In response to the just legal decision of the Armenians of Artsakh to exercise their right to self-determination, massacres and mass deportations of the Armenian population began in the Armenian-populated regions of Azerbaijan in February 1988. The first victim of Azerbaijan's policy of forcibly suppressing the free will of the people of Artsakh became the city of Sumgait’s Armenian population. It was there that, on February 27-29, the Armenian population of the city was annihilated exclusively for being Armenian. This was despite the city being considered a symbol of internationalism.
The tools and methods of carrying out the massacre became typical for subsequent anti-Armenian violence throughout Azerbaijan. The massacres were preceded by targeted provocations using anti-Armenian sentiments, provocations, rallies and calls to annihilate and expel the Armenians. Then Azeri mobs of 10 to 50 persons, with pre-made maps, systematically “cleansed” the city of Armenians, with Soviet and local law enforcement and power structures being completely inactive.
Numerous testimonies of exceptionally brutal murders, torture, and various forms of violence have been preserved. Thousands of Armenians were deprived of their property and were expelled from the city. By their very nature, the methods of execution (murder, physical injury, torture, massacre, cremation and gang rape), were some of the most heinous crimes against humanity of the late 20th century.
On the evening of February 28, two days after the beginning of the massacres, army units entered Sumgait. These forces, however, had no right to use weapons against the people massacring Armenians. The inaction and indulgence shown by the army led to the attacks by the killers on the troops themselves. It was only on the evening of February 29 that units of the Soviet army took decisive action and the massacre of the Armenian population stopped.
The USSR Prosecutor's Office opened criminal cases in connection with the Sumgait incidents. These cases were divided into 80 parts and the trials were conducted mainly in Azerbaijan. The division of the whole case into separate episodes and an incomplete investigation precluded the discovery of the real organisers of the crimes committed by the prosecution. In all the cases, “hooliganism” was cited as the motive for the crimes in the indictments and verdicts.
According to official data, 26 Armenians were killed in the Sumgait massacre, more than 400 people were injured, about 200 apartments were attacked and looted, with more than 50 cultural buildings and over 100 vehicles being damaged. The organisation of the Sumgait massacre trial and its "impartiality" left a number of unanswered questions, one of which was the issue of the accuracy of the number of victims and wounded. The true extent of the tragedy is still unknown. There is much evidence that the number of victims and injured is several times higher than declared in the official data.
The Sumgait massacres did not receive an adequate political and legal assessment, contributing to further escalation of anti-Armenian violence in Azerbaijan and the implementation of new massacres. The continuous and similar nature of the massacres of the Armenian population in the Armenian-populated regions of Azerbaijan in 1988-1990 (Sumgait, Kirovabad, Shamakhi, Shamkhor and Baku) testify to the state policy pursued by Azerbaijan.
AGMI researcher, Department of the study of the repression of the Armenians in Artsakh, Nakhichevan and Azerbaijan