BY J.H. SEYMOUR
Special to Asbarez
“Mama, it is me, Vicken, say hello to everyone, to Serj, Tina, my brothers, tell everyone I am fine.” This heart-wrenching message, written by Vicken Euljekjian, a Lebanese-Armenian currently being held prisoner in Azerbaijan, was delivered by the Red Cross weeks later to his distraught mother, digin (Madam in Armenian) Beatrice in Beirut, after being meticulously checked and translated by the Azerbaijani authorities. In fact, there was not much to translate. Nevertheless, this short note meant a lot to Vicken’s distressed family hoping for some good news yet fearing the worst since his capture in November 2020.
To imagine what detention in the Azerbaijani jail could be, the closest reference could be the prison ordeal dramatized in “The Midnight Express” in Turkey, Azerbaijan’s big Brother. The late great Alan Parker – whom the world lost in 2020 – should have uncovered some new shocking material for the sequel of his Oscar-winning motion picture on the Caspian coastline. Videos of torture and barbaric executions of captured civilians and soldiers during and after the recent war in Artsakh are difficult to watch. These videos, as Alan Parker’s masterpiece are not for weak-hearted individuals like myself.
Witness reports of mistreatment, humiliation, mental and physical abuse of Armenian prisoners of war (POWs) have been recorded since December 2020, when the first group of 44 prisoners was released on 14 December. Until now only 69 Armenian POWs have been released. Although the Armenian side has returned all POWs to Azerbaijan, over 230 Armenian POWs are still held unlawfully by Azerbaijan, which is gross violation of article 8 of the Ceasefire Agreement of 9 November 2020, the III Geneva Convention on POWs of 12 August 1949 as well as international human rights obligations adopted by all United Nations member states, including Azerbaijan and Armenia.
When campaigning for Maral Najarian’s release with her sister Annie, Vicken’s eldest brother, Sarkis from Beirut got in touch with me via the Petition link. Vicken, inadvertently, has become the bond connecting me with his modest and hard-working Lebanese-Armenian family, whom I would have not known otherwise. I feel so humbled by the courage and determination of this family, like hundreds of other Armenian families awaiting so bravely and unwearyingly for the return of their loved ones from captivity.
Vicken is one of four brothers born on July 12, 1979 in Beirut to an Armenian family of Genocide survivors. As the Lebanese economy has been deteriorating year by year, Vicken decided to relocate to Armenia to start a small business and subsequently bring his children from Beirut. Obtaining Armenian citizenship in 2015, he permanently moved to Yerevan in November 2019, and purchased a 7-seater vehicle running sightseeing tours for visitors. Accepting the Armenian government’s relocation offer, Vicken moved to Shushi waiting for his new flat promised by the Artsakh government.
When the war against Artsakh was launched by Azerbaijan on September 27, 2020, Vicken was in his Shushi hotel overlooking The Ghazanchetsots cathedral. Like many patriots of Armenian nationality, he volunteered to join the Armenian Defense Army. Merely five days in uniform, Vicken (apparently, he was not deployed) returned to Yerevan at the beginning of October, where he stayed with Maral Najarian and her sister till the end of the war. He was not involved in any military action thereafter, anticipating to resume work in Yerevan after the war.
Following the November 9 announcement, Vicken and Maral drove to Shushi to pick up Vicken’s three suitcases that he had left behind in the Shushi hotel. Unaware that Shushi was handed over (there was no warning sign or Armenian border control), they took the road leading to Shushi but were soon stopped by two Azeri soldiers at the outskirts of the town. Vicken’s car, money, passport, and all personal items were confiscated. With several other ethnic Armenians captured that day, they were driven to a military camp, among whom was an elderly civilian.
While Maral was released on March 10, following four months of captivity, Vicken still remains in a Baku prison. He could be charged with a string of criminal offenses after few photos in military uniform were accessed by Azerbaijani forces via his Facebook account.
“During the search, no weapons and or sharp objects were found in his car,” Maral testified. “How could he be a terrorist if he is not carrying anything? Vicken’s only crime was that he wanted to collect his personal belongings from Shushi.”
President Aliyev has repeatedly announced that remaining Armenian hostages, who were captured after the November 9 agreement, were terrorists, and were illegally on the territory of Azerbaijan. As the Armenian Prime Minister never seems to challenge Aliyev’s statements, Armenia’s Human Rights Defender Arman Tatoyan has taken on that responsibility on the Armenian side, therefore becoming Aliyev’s sworn enemy. “Calling Armenian POWs ‘terrorists’ or ‘saboteurs’ is a gross violation of international humanitarian law,” Tatoyan said in response.
The leader of the opposition Bright Armenia Party, attorney Edmon Marukyan, told Radio Free Europe on April 13: “This is the most absurd statement by Azerbaijan. The conflict is still ongoing, and Nagorno-Karabakh crisis is an ongoing conflict, and even if they capture a civilian or soldier today, that person will still be considered a prisoner of war!”
In my recent conversation with Vicken’s daughter, the stunningly beautiful and extremely shy Christine revealed tearfully that “today is my 18th birthday. It is the first time my father is not with me. We have been particularly close to each other, I have always been daddy’s girl. All I want is that my father returns home safe and sound, that is my only wish.”
Christine’s uncle, Sarkis Euljekjian, who has been actively engaged in the campaign for his brother’s release, is doing his utmost to fill the void during Vicken’s detention.
After a four-week delay, the second set of letters from Vicken finally arrived via the Red Cross, this time with slightly longer messages and more promising than the first one. One of Vicken’s messages was addressed to his mother, and the other two were for his children.
In April Vicken was transferred, once again, to a different cell with other Armenian POWs, who are allegedly treated well. He was authorized to call his family and spoke to his son three times in the past week. “He sounded OK, but could not talk freely, and was unsure how long he would remain in prison. We are quite concerned about the situation,” Vicken’s son, Serj told me.
This week the Red Cross representative visited Christine in Beirut with a video recording of her dad from the Baku prison. Although excited by the opportunity to see her dad, she confessed, “my dad has aged and has lost lots of weight, he never used to have long hair, my dad. But I was so delighted to see him finally.”
Undeniably, activities of the International Red Cross (ICRC) have intensified lately, as their officials have been authorized to visit some of the prisoners, some were allowed to call their families. Nonetheless, not all Armenian POWs have been assessed by the Red Cross and some could be in critical condition, as the number of overall POWs will probably never be known. Meanwhile, several Armenian POWs have been tortured to death in captivity, one of them was 18-year-old Eric Mkhitaryan, missing since October. Video recording of Eric captured and abused by Azerbaijani soldiers was circulating on social media back in November. After six months of ordeal and identification process, Eric’s remains were returned to his family on April 8.
There is no legal ground to detain Vicken by Azerbaijani authorities, and he should have never been captured in the first place on 10 November 2020. Vicken’s teenage daughter Christine – currently on the verge of health breakdown – is appealing for her father’s safe return home. She is convinced of her father’s innocence, as everyone else with whom I have spoken in Yerevan and Beirut who know him. Christine’s father, Vicken Euljekjian just happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. Is that a crime?