BAKU, AZERBAIJAN -- IN THE grinding conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed territory of Nagorno Karabakh, a war which has claimed some 20,000 lives in six years, the violation of basic human rights has become a regular feature of warfare.

Civilian areas are bombed by indiscriminate artillery fire or even aircraft, and ethnic groups are driven from their homes creating waves of internal refugees that each side hopes will destabilize the government of its foe. Noncombatants unfortunate enough to be taken hostage often work as virtual slaves in private homes until exchanged for hostages from the other side, or sometimes just for food and fuel -- or even corpses.

On a military level, few combatants are taken as captives. Summary execution of prisoners in the heat of battle is common, although both Azerbaijan and Armenia have signed the Geneva Conventions. Also, there is on-going mutilation of corpses -- ranging from the severing of ears for tokens to the severing of heads out of spite.

On an economic level, meanwhile, the war has destroyed the economies of both Armenia and Azerbaijan, isolating and making both increasingly dependent on their former master, Moscow, and opening the door for greater influence in both states of their main other suitor, Iran.

These are some of the subjects that Armenian President Levon Ter-Petrossian will probably discuss with President Clinton in his summit meeting on Tuesday. . Other matters may include the level of aid to Armenia -- set at $70 million for fiscal 1995, the largest per capita amount the United States gives to any former Soviet republic. Other subjects will no doubt include ways to put pressure on Turkey and Azerbaijan to lift their embargoes against Armenia, so that the smallest of the former Soviet republics of the Caucasus will not have to experience yet another winter of power cuts and cold.

But there are also subjects that will not be discussed -- or at least subjects that Ter-Petrossian will not want brought up, because of the rather different light they cast on the image of Armenia as a poor, suffering nation.

One of these is why the Armenian president has not responded to a request by international human rights monitors about specific charges of Armenia's violation of the Geneva Conventions in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in which it is "officially" not involved -- despite much evidence of its covert support for the separatists fighting to wrest control of the territory from Azerbaijan. Specifically, the case involves the deaths earlier this year of eight Azeri prisoners of war in Armenia's capital, Yerevan.

The eight prisoners were part of a group of Azeri "clients" of the International Committee of the Red Cross -- i.e., they were officially registered as POWs, and could reasonably expect to be exchanged in the future. The men were last seen alive during the course of a visit by the Red Cross in late November 1993. A Red Cross request to visit the prisoners again at the end of January was repeatedly put off by the Armenian authorities until Feb. 8, when the Red Cross was told that the eight had been killed during the course of "an escape attempt" on Jan. 29. For reasons that are not entirely clear -- the repatriation of bodies is "desirable" but not "mandatory" for signers of the conventions -- the Armenian authorities then sent the eight cadavers back to Azerbaijan along with much older remains of two other Azeri soldiers who had died of unknown causes sometime before. One was a skeleton.

The grisly load reached Baku on March 23 -- and created shock and dismay in a society already inured to the cruelties of war. Post mortems revealed that of the eight "fresher" corpses -- the POWs who died on Jan. 29 -- seven were shot at point-blank range, six in the head and one in the chest, while an eighth had his throat slashed. Four ears had been severed and one body had been eviscerated -- inducing the authorities in Baku to charge Armenia with selling the body parts on the international transplant market.

Enter Derrick Pounder of the Department of Forensic Medicine at the University of Dundee in Scotland and a member of the U.K. chapter of Physicians for Human Rights. Brought to Baku to participate as an independent expert on the post mortems, Pounder dismissed the more extreme Azeri claims. The fact that ears had been severed from the corpses "reflected poorly on the professionalism of those who performed the post mortems in Armenia," he said. Likewise, he said it was "medically impossible" to use the organs from the eviscerated corpse for transplants; their removal was more likely the result of "shoddy forensic work."

But Pounder had much more to say about the bodies he had been invited to inspect -- and his report cast such grave doubt on the official Armenian version of the men's deaths "on the run" that Armenian authorities thought it best to change it.

"It is the six shot in the head who are the most important," the exacting doctor told me and a few other Western correspondents in Baku at the time. "There is absolute medical proof in three cases that the gun muzzle was in contact with the head when the shot was fired." In the other three cases, he said, the removal of skin tissue and bone fragments around the point of penetration of the slug made it impossible for him to verify that the muzzle was in contact with the head, although it would appear to be the case. "The wounds were typical of those made by a pistol and not a rifle," he said. "The facts speak for themselves about the circumstances of death: The injuries have all the hallmarks of execution."

Despite an almost ghoulish detachment -- perhaps this is a trait of forensic experts and undertakers everywhere -- it was clear that Pounder was disturbed by his findings. He said that while he has been involved in similar forensic studies in areas of civil unrest elsewhere in the world, the case of the six men was the first time he had personally examined "something in such clear violation of the Geneva Conventions."

The prisoners' suspicious deaths drew no attention in the press, but they did engage the concern of the New York-based Human Rights Watch/Helsinki (formerly Helsinki Watch) which contacted Pounder independently to confirm his findings. The group happened to be working on a report about the war in Karabakh. The report, due to be published this fall, meticulously exposes the involvement -- despite denials -- of the Armenian National Army in fighting on the territory of Azerbaijan well outside of Karabakh, as well as the use of American-trained Afghan mercenaries by the Azeris and of Russian and other "free-booters" (hired guns) by both sides.

When confronted with the forensic evidence contradicting their first official version of events, the authorities in Yerevan simply changed their story to accommodate the facts: According to the military prosecutor of Armenia, Vagarshak Vardanian, the eight Azeri prisoners had not been killed during an escape attempt but had committed mass suicide with a pistol taken from a guard when they realized their escape was doomed. If any one doubted this, other Azerbaijani POWs -- several of whom are standing trial for capital crimes committed against Armenian civilians -- were willing to corroborate this version of the deaths of the eight men.

The Helsinki human rights group recontacted Pounder to determine if this new version was credible. Pounder replied that "the pattern of injuries of the six individuals who died of gunshot wounds to the head suggest mass execution, but the possibility of a mass suicide cannot be absolutely excluded."

The two other victims -- the man shot through the chest and the other whose throat was slit -- were apparently in a different category of possibility altogether.

On May 2, the Helsinki group issued a press release to major news organizations, entitled "Doubts Grow Concerning Deaths of Eight Azeri Prisoners," detailing the case. The release also noted that the executive director of the human rights group, Jeri Laber, had sent two letters to Ter-Petrossian urging him to "open up the investigation to include competent international organizations" in order to get to the bottom of it.

According to sources at Human Rights Watch/Helsinki, neither Ter-Petrossian nor anyone else in the government of Armenia has responded to Laber's request. Ter-Petrossian also turned down a request for an interview with the head of the Red Cross when he was in Yerevan in late spring.

Almost as disturbing as Armenia's non-response to the charge of executing Azeri prisoners under Red Cross protection is the fact that the men were killed in a Yerevan military prison. They died even as Armenian officials continue to deny that Armenia has any direct role in the war over Karabakh and to claim that any Armenian citizens in the conflict are volunteers, over whom the government has less than perfect control.

Azerbaijan, however, has supplied international observers with much evidence to contradict Armenia's claim, ranging from serial numbers on captured tanks and APCs that match the numbers on equipment issued, to the Armenian national army by Russia, to the testimony of regular Armenian army POWs currently held by Azerbaijan.

Several of these men, all registered and visited by the Red Cross, recently agreed to be interviewed by Western correspondents in a low-security "model" prison south of Baku with no Azeri wardens present. One Armenian supply captain told of being ordered to an Armenian frontier town to evacuate women and children threatened by an alleged Azeri bombardment. When no such threat was found, he was ordered to deliver 240 regular army soldiers to a destination inside the occupied Azerbaijani province of Kelbajar, where he was taken prisoner in an ambush.

Another 23-year-old man named Aram described himself as an "obligatory mercenary." Released from jail in July 1993 after serving a sentence for burglary, he was detained by the police who sent him to the military command where he was obliged to sign up as a freebooting soldier. On Aug. 23, 1993 he was sent to Karabakh and a week later taken prisoner by the Azeris during a skirmish on the southwestern front, well inside Azerbaijan. He had been held for nine months when I met him and doubted he would be released soon because, as a petty thief-cum-mercenary, he had little trading value. "That is my sour story," he said with a wistful smile.

Official Armenian involvement in the Karabakh war was even more dramatically underlined for me during a visit to the "military martyrs" cemetery in the heights above Yerevan. In mid-March, I encountered a company of Armenian National Army soldiers burying two comrades killed outside of the Azerbaijan city of Fizuli. At the time, there were some 500 graves in the cemetery, about 90 dating to early 1994.

When I told officials in the U.S. embassy in Yerevan about the twin funerals, with full military honors, they professed shock and disbelief. Although they knew of the cemetery, at that point none of the embassy staff had ever visited it or drawn the obvious conclusion of regular Armenian army involvement.

If this might be described as willful ignorance, there is also such a thing as willful indifference.

Recently, during a telephone conversation with an old friend on the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, the body assigned to look into human rights abuses for the U.S. Congress, I asked if that organization had even heard about the matter of the eight Azeri POWs.

"Yes, we received the Helsinki Watch report," he said, "But this sort of stuff happens all the time."

"All the time?"

I could feel my old friend blushing down the 2,000 miles of telephone line separating us.

"You're right," he said at last. "But making a fuss about dead Azeris is not right for the politics of this town."

Ironically, he was even then preparing a letter for the commission's co-chairmen, Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and Sen. Dennis DeConcini (D-Ariz.), to send to Azerbaijan President Heydar Aliyev expressing "concern" about recent crackdowns on opposition groups. Continued repression of human rights of free expression and dissent in war-torn Azerbaijan would not be met with official indifference by the United States, the letter suggested.

Sadly, American concern about Armenian behavior -- including how Yerevan applies the Geneva Conventions -- appears to be met with just that -- indifference. Does this reflect an unspoken policy of selective enforcement of human rights, including the right to live? For the eight, lowly Azeri POWs who "killed themselves" in a Yerevan jail, it would appear to be so.

Thomas Goltz is an American journalist and lecturer who specializes in the Caucusus and Turkey.