BY JASMINE SEYMOUR
Special to Asbarez
As the old proverb says, “silence is golden,’’ which can be lifesaving in certain threatening or awkward situations. Meanwhile, in other circumstances, silence could entail tacit approval of someone else’s hostile plans or ideology, therefore, it can have the complete opposite impact.
The ongoing crisis of the Armenian prisoners of war, among other things, has divided the Armenian political, legal and public opinion on the issue of whether to go public about the crisis of individual POWs or not.
According to Siranush Sahakyan, founding member of Yerevan-based firm Path of Law, highlighting individual cases by official statements as well as by humanitarian, charitable and diaspora organizations, can only support the legal and official work carried out at the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR).
Following an announcement by the Azerbaijani Security Service on May 5, it seems more critical than ever to challenge unfounded, ridiculous accusations put forward by Azerbaijani despot Ilham Aliyev’s government.
A video recording was published by the official Azerbaijani site showing a portion of a statement made by Lebanese-Armenian Vicken Euljekjian, who has been held captive in Azerbaijan since November 9. In the portion of a longer video that was made public, Vicken is clearly speaking in Armenian, saying he was Lebanese national and a resident of Beirut.
While the recording does not contain any obvious sign of torture, evidently Vicken was not allowed to mention that he was Armenian, had Armenian citizenship and in fact was a resident of Armenia for several years before the war started.
‘’Vicken Euljekjian and other persons fighting as mercenaries in exchange for material rewards also took part in terrorist activities against the citizens and the Army of the Republic of Azerbaijan, using firearms, ammunition and spare parts illegally acquired by taking part in illegal armed formations,’’ the Azerbaijani Security Service claimed.
“Vicken Euljekjian was charged under Article 114.3 (participation of a mercenary in a military conflict or military operation), Article 214.2.1 (terrorism committed by a group of persons, an organized group or a criminal organization) and Article 318.2 (illegal crossing of the state border of the Republic of Azerbaijan) and other articles of the Criminal Code of the Republic of Azerbaijan and was remanded in custody by a court decision,’’ the Azerbaijan’s statement said. ‘’On 05.05.2021, the indictment on the criminal case was approved and sent to court for consideration.’’
These fake accusations are not grounded on any evidence whatsoever, as Vicken’s family and friends attested during several interviews on record.
Due to the ongoing economic and social crisis in Lebanon, hundreds of Lebanese-Armenian families moved to Armenia, their ancestral homeland, where several of them obtained government assistance to settle in Artsakh. Vicken Euljekjian was one of them.
Vicken Euljekjian is the youngest of four brothers, born in Beirut in 1979, where, like his siblings, he attended Armenian boarding school in Ainjar. He worked with his brother, Sarkis as a silversmith before emigrating to Armenia. Marrying in his early twenties, now he has two children, an 18-year-old daughter and a 20-year-old son in Beirut.
‘’Four years ago Vicken decided to move from Beirut to hayrenik (the homeland), and applied for Armenian citizenship through the Armenian Embassy in Beirut. When the notification arrived that his passport was ready, he took his annual leave and travelled to Armenia for a month. Vicken received his Armenian passport four years ago,’’ his brother, Sarkis, said.
According to the family, Vicken permanently settled in Yerevan in November 2019, where he purchased a 7-seater Honda, working as a driver and taking visitors on sightseeing tours. Through a special government program, he was offered an apartment in Shushi in the summer of 2020, and moved to a hotel in Shushi few weeks before the start of the war, waiting for renovation of his apartment. Due to the outbreak of the war, Vicken did not have time to enter his newly refurbished home, so he left his luggage in his hotel, moved back to Yerevan with sisters Annie and Maral Najarian.
According to Annie Najarian, who currently lives in Yerevan, Vicken stayed with her and Maral from October 10 until the signing of the November 9 agreement that ended military actions in Karabakh but stipulated the surrender of territories in Artsakh. They rented a house near Yerevan, and Vicken was refurbishing it, so they could rebuild their shattered lives once again. According to the sisters, like thousands of Armenian citizens, Vicken was called to serve in the army. However, he returned four or five days later. ‘’Because he left Artsakh very quickly returning to Armenia, Vicken couldn’t have been paid $2,500 for taking part in the war, he served only few days in Artsakh,’’ the sisters confirmed.
After the November 9 agreement, Vicken called the hotel in Shushi asking whether it was safe to pick up his three suitcases and after being told it was fine, Maral and Vicken travelled to Artsakh to collect their belongings. Maral collected her luggage from a hotel in Berdzor (Lachin) and headed to Shushi. On their way to Shushi they did not encounter any signposts indicating not to enter Shushi. ‘’Many Armenians like us thought it was ok to go to Shushi on November 10, because there were no Armenian posts or warning signs,’’ Maral said, feeling let down by the Armenian authorities. They were soon stopped by two Azerbaijani officers near Shushi.
For three months after their capture near Shushi, absolutely no official information was released on the couple’s condition or whereabouts. The first visit by the International Committee of the Red Cross occurred on February 12, when Vicken was allowed to send a note to his mother. Since the release of Maral Najarian on March 10, the International Red Cross visited Vicken in March and April.
In mid-April the Armenian POW was even allowed to make a call to his daughter and had a video call with his son. During these conversations, Vicken assured his family he was treated well, and they were completing his paperwork, so he might be released after three months. In reality, both Vicken and his anxious family were deceived when the Azerbaijani State Security Service labeled him a terrorist in the May 5 statement. Vicken’s family, once again feels defenseless and robbed of their human rights. The Red Cross has not contacted the family since this distressing announcement.
“I am particularly close to my father and have been rather cross with him when he left for Armenia,” Vicken’s daughter, Christine said. ‘’But the idea was that he would settle there, build a home, start a business, then my brother and I would join him in Armenia. He moved to Armenia to give us a better future.’’
During the 44-day military aggression by Turko-Azeri coalition to cleanse Artsakh from its indigenous Armenian population, thousands of Armenian servicemen and women have gone missing and hundreds have been taken hostage. While taking POWs is not uncommon during armed conflicts, the exchange of POWs is compulsory after a ceasefire, according the III Geneva Convention on Prisoners of War of 12 April 1949.
Following the November 9 agreement, at least 230 Armenian POWs are being held illegally by Azerbaijan. However, the Armenian side, fulfilling the obligation of article 8 of the Ceasefire, has returned all Azerbaijani POWs, including two convicted murderers. Since the exchange of 44 POWs on December 14, Azerbaijani authorities, including President Ilham Aliyev, have repeatedly declared that all remaining Armenian captives were “terrorists” and “saboteurs.” Very few have been released since then; the number of Armenian POWs released by Azerbaijan has not exceeded 68.
The Aliyev-led dictatorship does not respond to the demands of the Council of Europe to provide the real number of Armenian POWs, both men and women in captivity. Moreover, new ethnic Armenians have been captured since the ceasefire, thus keeping native Armenians in constant state of terror.
Last week human rights lawyers Siranush Sahakyan and Artak Zeynalyan published a list of 19 Armenian prisoners of war (POWs), who were brutally tortured and murdered in Azerbaijani detention camps. Among those killed were twelve civilians including four women. Sahakyan and Zeynalyan, representing families of over 100 Armenian POWs and captives, are taking the new evidence to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR).
‘’In my view the Diaspora structures should be engaged more intensively with international organizations, political and diplomatic structures, as well as politicians in their respective countries, so that rather than expressing their vague concerns, they condemn the Azerbaijani regime,” Sahakyan told me when I asked about how Diaspora organizations could support the efforts to release. “That could lead to the adoption of sanctions similar to those which have been enforced elsewhere in the name of human rights.”
“I think that while certain prominent individuals have become the focus of superpowers, human lives have equal value. We are dealing with the fate of two or three hundred human beings, and behind them are hundreds of families, who are experiencing the ongoing mental and emotional distress, therefore human rights of these families are equally jeopardized. To prevent this humanitarian catastrophe, progressive countries should adopt appropriate sanctions against Azerbaijan. This could be enforced on various levels: from individual punishments to general economic embargoes against Azerbaijan,’’ said Sahakyan.
The British-Armenian organization, which focuses on human rights issues, had launched a petition calling on world leaders to stakeholders to act quickly and ensure the release of all Armenian POWs. Sign the petition.