Azerbaijan under strongman Ilham Aliyev is one of the world's more unpleasant dictatorships. Peaceful protesters are beaten and arrested. Homes are bulldozed to make room for television events. Journalists' sex lives are streamed on the internet.
But the government in Baku set a new record for creepiness this month when it very publicly welcomed home an axe murderer who had served eight years in a Hungarian prison – and gave him the rock star treatment.
'Ramil Safarov took an axe ...'
In 2004 Ramil Safarov, a lieutenant in the Azerbaijani army, butchered an Armenian officer as he slept. Both men were in Hungary attending a Nato-sponsored English-language course. Saferov said the Armenian had insulted Azerbaijan. He was sentenced to life in prison.
The Azerbaijani regime pressured Hungary to allow Safarov to serve out his prison sentence in his own country. But when he stepped off the plane in Baku, the axe murderer found himself greeted by a cheering crowd of thousands..
Safarov was pardoned, given eight years back pay, handed the keys to a new apartment and promoted to major in the army. A government official said Safarov had "defended his country's honour and dignity" by killing his victim.
Mortified Hungarian officials insisted the Azerbaijanis had promised Safarov would serve at least 25 years of his sentence. But enraged Armenians pelted the Hungarian embassy with eggs, and the Armenian government severed diplomatic ties with Hungary.
Push coming to shove?
This is more than just injustice and bad melodrama. The incident pours salt on the festering sores between Armenia and Azerbaijan over a bloody war two decades ago. Ethnic Armenians in the mountainous Azerbaijani border region of Nagorno-Karabakh fought government troops in a three-year war for independence in the early 1990s that left as many as 30,000 dead. The conflict was never resolved, and both sides are still shooting at each other, with occasionally deadly results.
Add to the volatile mix the fact that although the US, EU and Russia criticised the grotesque welcome home for an axe murderer, none are willing to stick their necks out too far. Azerbaijan is gas and oil rich, and the country, which borders Iran and Russia, has been an important logistical ally in the Nato war in Afghanistan.
Time and again, the US and EU have failed to act decisively on the numerous reports of government abuse, impunity, corruption and torture emerging from Azerbaijan.
Now, some fear the "Safarov Affair" could be the spark that reignites new violence in the troubled region.
Learn more: The New York Times has a vivid, on the ground report on the "frozen conflict" in Nagorno-Karabakh.
Sources: Avaaz, BBC, Al Jazeera, EU Observer, New York Times