BY JASMINE H. SEYMOUR
Special to Asbarez
Exactly two years ago on March 10, Lebanese-Armenian civilian hostage Maral Najarian was released from the notorious Gobustan prison in Azerbaijan after four months in captivity.
It took three months for the International Committee of the Red Cross to get access to Armenian POWs and hostages on February 10, 2021, after which their conditions improved exponentially.
For Maral and everyone else, there was a glimpse of hope that their release was close. One month after the Red Cross visit, Maral Najarian was woken up by prison guards, ordered to dress and was told she was free.
“I did not believe it was happening, that I was going to see the sky,” Maral said afterward from Beirut. She was escorted by two agents to the Baku airport with a handbag and no money, put on a flight to Istanbul, and another flight to Beirut, where her children and family reside.
On that unforgettable morning on March 10, 2021, I was woken up by a call from Maral’s sister Annie from Yerevan. “Wake up, I have good news!” she screamed on the phone. The family was informed only that morning about her liberation, only when Maral was on the plane from Baku to Istanbul and then a connecting flight to Beirut.
The rest of the day was a long and joyful anticipation until she landed in Beirut airport, where her son whisked her away to avoid the press that had been tipped by a family friend from France to everyone’s disappointment. And the rest, as they say, is history.
The second Lebanese-Armenian hostage, Vicken Euljekjian, moved to Armenia in April 2018, when he received his Armenian passport.
“My father wanted to take us to Armenia afterward,” said Vicken’s daughter, Christine on the phone from her Beirut apartment. “He wanted to start a business and get a house for all of us, and then the war started.”
Vicken went back to Armenia in 2019, trying to start a new life with Maral, now his fiancée. He joined the program of relocation of Lebanese and Syrian Armenians in Artsakh. Maral and her sister Annie were in a hotel in Berdzor in September 2020, where they were promised accommodation from the Diaspora Ministry.
On September 27, 2020 when the war broke, Vicken was in the hotel across the street from the Ghazanchetsots Cathedral, waiting for an apartment. In a hurry, leaving three suitcases behind, he left Shushi and went back to Yerevan with the two sisters. Days later he volunteered to go back to Artsakh to defend his country but returned three days later without joining the front line. During his trial in Baku, he said the Armenian forces were dis-organized and he felt he was not needed. Vicken was in his hotel room, when Azerbaijanis began bombing the Ghazachetsots Cathedral, an act Human Rights Watch characterized as a “possible war crime.”
Following the ceasefire, on November 9, 2020, Maral and Vicken were traveling in their car from Goris to Shushi in Vichen’s 7-seater Honda to fetch the suitcases he had left in the Shushi hotel. Before they reached Shushi, they were captured by two Azerbaijani soldiers, and after being interrogated, they were transferred to a Baku prison with other Armenian hostages.
“Many Armenian civilians were captured on November 10 and 11, as there were no signs and no soldiers on the Armenian side of the Lachin corridor,” Maral said with slight anger in her tone.
Four months later Maral was released on March 10, 2021, whereas Vicken was sentenced to 20 years to prison following sham trials without adequate legal assistance in Baku.
Currently Vicken Euljekjian is spending his illegal sentence in solitary confinement in one of the world’s most infamous prison. His physical and mental health are causing much concern to his elderly mother, grown-up children and Lebanese wife Linda.
“I am not sure why my father was not released with Maral,” Vicken’s 18-year-old daughter, Christine said during our first telephone call. “They were arrested together, they should have been released together. If Maral is innocent, so is my dad, he has not done anything against Azerbaijan.”
Like other hostages, Vicken was hopeful he would be freed soon after Maral. Even though they were kept apart, the news reached him through his family in Beirut. He even told his brother, that they have gathered paperwork, and he would be released within three months.
However, three months after Maral’s release, Vicken was in a Baku Court for Grave Crimes, with an Azerbaijani lawyer and interpreter, who could not understand him properly.
His long sentence has brought the family closer together with his Lebanese wife Linda fighting for his release.
“He is the love of my life,” Linda said from Beirut, “I forgive him for leaving us and going with Maral to Armenia, but he is the kindest man I know, and I have forgiven him. All I want now is that he comes back to our family soon.”
Linda and the family are allowed to communicate with Vicken almost every month, via Red Cross officials who visit them in their remote flat in the outskirts of Beirut and deliver written messages from prison and sometimes video recordings, which are particularly painful.
“Vicken has lost half of his weight. He is 41 but he looks 80,” Linda said, sobbing on the phone. “It is heartbreaking to watch him, we try to cheer him and give him hope, but it is very hard for him and for us.”
To the family and to anyone who knows Vicken, he is an innocent person who was at the wrong place at the wrong time. There has been no evidence supporting the Baku court order, except some photos of Vicken in uniform holding a gun, found in his mobile phone confiscated on the day of his capture.
“Dad, you are a hero, you are the bravest person I know. You will be released soon, as you have not done anything wrong, there is nothing in your phone. I miss you so much, just remember there is a family waiting for you here”, Vicken’s son, Serj said in an emotional video message to his dad.
Vicken Euljekjian is currently serving his sentence near Baku, in one of the most notorious prisons in the world, nobody visits him except the Red Cross representative once a month. Vicken’s physical and mental health are of serious concern, as is the case with many others currently in illegal captivity. He is not the only one who has changed in the past two years. Photos of his family members then and now say it all, but the fight of this incredibly brave family for his release continues…
Azerbaijan continues to illegally hold Armenian civilian hostages and POWs captured during the 44-day war, in gross violation of The Third Geneva Convention on the Treatment of POWs. More hostages were taken in 2021 and 2022 after the military aggressions on the sovereign territory of the Republic of Armenia. Azerbaijan claims there are 33 Armenian captives in its prisons, but human rights lawyers working with families believe the number is close to 113, unless the 80 Armenian hostages have been murdered in captivity.
Around 68 Armenian civilian hostages and POWs were sentenced to prison terms during sham Baku trials. Meanwhile, in the course of 2021 and 2022, half of the Armenian hostages sentenced in Baku trials, were returned to Armenia, following high-level interventions from the United States, France and the European Union.
Three important deductions can be made:
- the verdicts of the Baku courts are not even observed by the Azerbaijani authorities themselves, therefore, are not worth the paper they are written on;
- the release of other Armenian hostages and POWs is achievable;
- it seems that the only path for the release of remaining Armenian hostages is via diplomatic negotiations, political and economic pressure on the Azerbaijani government.
While the International Court of Justice announced a decision on the re-opening of the Lachin corridor, very few have paid attention on other points of the Court’s Order published on February 22, 2023.
The Court did not instruct the release of Armenian hostages and Prisoners of War held illegally after the Ceasefire of November 2020, instead, it announced:
“Protect from violence and bodily harm all persons captured in relation to the 2020 Conflict who remain in detention, and ensure their security and equality before the law”(p.2, 3 a).
The ICJ Order did not mention the brutal cases of torture and murder of several Armenian hostages were tortured to death after being captured and disarmed, perhaps these grave cases were not raised by the Armenian side. Among the tortured were five Armenian females, who were brutally abused, raped, and beheaded by Azerbaijani soldiers on camera last September during the military invasion, that was widely covered by the Armenian press and social media.
The British Armenian humanitarian group launched a petition on change.org in January 2021 with Maral Najarian’s case. The campaign is still ongoing so many years later. Continue sharing the Petition to raise awareness on Armenian POWs and hostages held illegally in Azerbaijan.
Let’s hope that other families will be able to welcome their brave sons, brothers and husbands in coming days and months, and that there will be merely tears of happiness in the future.
Jasmine H. Seymour is an activist based in Britain who started and runs the advocacy organization British Armenian, which has been spearheading efforts to release Armenian POWs who are illegally being held in Azerbaijan.