Ex-Karabakh official held by Azerbaijan is on hunger strike

TBILISI (Reuters) - Ruben Vardanyan, a former top official in the ethnic Armenian administration of Nagorno-Karabakh, has been on hunger strike for the past two weeks in Azerbaijan, where he is imprisoned and awaiting trial, his family said on Friday.

Vardanyan, an Armenian-born billionaire banker who made his fortune in Russia, was head of the Karabakh Armenian government from November 2022 to February 2023.

He was arrested by Azerbaijani forces in September 2023, along with several other senior Karabakh officials while attempting to cross into Armenia. About 100,000 ethnic Armenian refugees fled Karabakh in a mass exodus after Azerbaijan overran the region in a rapid military offensive.

In a post on Vardanyan's account on Telegram, which has been mostly dormant since his arrest, his family said he had begun a hunger strike on April 5 "to demand the immediate and unconditional release of himself and the other Armenian prisoners" held by Azerbaijan.

The detainees include three former presidents of the breakaway region, a general in its army, the speaker of its parliament and its foreign minister.

Vardanyan's family said they had had no contact with him since the start of the hunger strike. "I seriously fear for my father's health," his son David said.

He has been charged with offences including financing terrorism and illegal border crossing. His family says he has been falsely accused and demands that his trial, when it happens, should be open to international observers and the media.

(Reporting by Felix Light; Editing by Mark Trevelyan and Alex Richardson)