The 44-day Azeri-Turkish war against the Armenian people of Nagorno-Karabakh (Artsakh) was supposed to have been halted in November 2020 by a trilateral ceasefire agreement between Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia. Nonetheless, Azeri aggression and violations against the Armenian people have not subsided.
While systematically refusing to comply with international law, Azerbaijan has continued to violate the borders of the Republic of Armenia by killing or kidnapping Armenian soldiers. On March 22, Armenian soldier Arshak Sargsyan was killed by Azerbaijani fire near the Yeraskh village on the Armenia-Azerbaijan (Nakhichevan) border.
Azerbaijan is also illegally blocking the only access road to the people of Artsakh. Furthermore, the torturing and murdering of Armenian prisoners of war (POWs) continue. One such Armenian hostage is Vicken Euljekjian, a 44-year-old Armenian-Lebanese man who has been jailed by Azerbaijan since November 2020.
Vicken and his friend, Maral Najarian, are both ethnic Armenians with dual citizenships of Armenia and Lebanon. They were arrested on November 10, 2020, near the Armenian city of Shushi in Artsakh, currently occupied by Azerbaijan. The arrests reportedly happened 10 hours after the ceasefire agreement. Soon after, they were transferred along with other Armenian hostages to a prison in Baku, Azerbaijan’s capital. Although Maral was released after four months, Vicken was sentenced to 20 years imprisonment following sham trials without adequate legal representation.
Currently, Vicken is spending his sentence in solitary confinement in one of the world’s most notorious prisons. Given the risk to his physical and mental health, his family is highly concerned. According to a news report from June 1, 2021, Vicken was transferred from the prison to a hospital.
Vicken had worked as a taxi driver before the war. Azerbaijan accused him of “being a terrorist and a mercenary, as well as having illegally entered Azerbaijan”. Najarian risked similar accusations before being released and repatriated in March 2021.
Vicken was found guilty after a short trial that was condemned by Armenia’s government and human rights groups as a travesty of justice. Liparit Drmeyan, an aide to Armenia’s representative to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), said Vicken did not have access to lawyers that were chosen by him. Two years after Maral’s release, the number of Armenian POWs held in Azerbaijan remains unclear. What is clear, though, is that Vicken and other POWs continue to be abused by Azeri authorities.
Garo Ghazarian, an attorney and Chairman of the “Center for Law and Justice — Tatoyan Foundation USA” which is based in Los Angeles, has been monitoring the situation of the Armenian POWs in Azerbaijan. Ghazarian told this author that there are at least 33 prisoners in Azeri jails. “There is no question that Azerbaijan is violating the ‘Trilateral Statement’ of 2020; their mistreatment of the Armenian POWs violates the Geneva Convention,” he added. This author spoke with Linda Iman Ahmad Arous, Vicken’s wife, who lives in Lebanon and is anxiously waiting for her husband’s return.
Vicken and Linda have 2 children: Serge (23) and Christine (20). Linda said her husband owned a restaurant in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia. He also owned a house in Shushi, a historically Armenian city in Artsakh that was captured by Azerbaijan during the 44-day Azeri war. Linda told this author: “On November 10, 2020, he was going to Shushi with a friend of ours, Maral, who also owns a house there. He was arrested at a checkpoint by the Azerbaijani army.”
Linda has very limited communication with her imprisoned husband:
“Vicken calls me once a month when the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) visits him. Azeri authorities do not allow us to speak Arabic, and this makes it difficult for us to communicate because I do not speak Armenian. And Vicken can’t speak at ease on the phone. All he says to me is ‘get me out of here quickly, I can’t take it anymore.’ I only see a 50 second video of him. He looks so different, tired, and scared. I don’t know anything about his current health, but he suffers from a heart condition and a disc in his back.
“Maral, who was detained with him, told me that he was tortured to say that he was receiving money [from Armenia], and they forced Maral to testify about him under pressure to say that he is a terrorist suspect. I have a full legal confession that Maral made here in Lebanon.”
Linda shared with this author the legal document which included a summary of a witness interview that Sheila Paylan, an international human rights lawyer and former legal advisor to the United Nations, made with Maral on June 18, 2021. In the interview, Maral said that when she and Vicken were arrested by Azeri forces, they took their telephones, wallets, passports, IDs and everything else they had. They also beat Vicken:
“We were then separated, and in the first eight days of our detention I was interrogated twice… I saw Vicken three times. The last day I saw Vicken was on November 18, my birthday. They called him, we sat together for a little bit, fifteen minutes, and on the next day they sent us to jail. I never saw him again.
“During my third interrogation, which must have been sometime in February 2021, the interrogator told me that ‘Vicken has confessed to everything and has said that he had gone to fight for money as a mercenary, and if you do not confess the same thing, then you will be just as guilty and accused as Vicken.'”
In Maral’s testimony in Lebanon, she said she had been forced to say that Vicken was “a mercenary and had been hired to fight for Armenia for 2500 dollars”. They recorded her saying this, and every time she said something they disapproved of, they stopped the recording and made her say the exact things she was compelled to say.
“This went on for hours,” Maral said. “I asked them ‘why are you doing this?’ and they said ‘we want the tape in which you speak to be uniform and uncut, for there to be no interruptions.’
“Then they forced me to sign a declaration that everything I said in the video was true and that I said entirely what I wanted to say willingly. But what I said in the video, which they used against Vicken in his trial, was not really true. I just said whatever they wanted me to say because I felt like I had no other option. I was terrified, alone and helpless. I felt intimidated. I absolutely had to do what they told me to do. The few times that I tried to explain or testify the way I wanted to, they would shout ‘no’! This is the way you must say it!’ So I did.
“Neither Vicken nor I were terrorists. They are saying that he is a terrorist, a murderer, a criminal, but he is none of those things at all. He does not deserve to be punished like this. Please help him.”
The British Armenian Humanitarian Group, who started an online petition to help release the Armenian POWs, reports:
“Azerbaijan continues to hold unlawfully 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 only 33 Armenian captives, but human rights lawyers working with families of captives reckon the number is close to 118 unless all other Armenian hostages have been murdered in captivity…
“In summer 2021, 68 of those hostages were sentenced unlawfully to long imprisonments under false accusations and without access to fair legal representation.
“In May 2021, further two Armenian POWs – Ishkhan Sargsyan and Vladimir Rafaelyan – were captured by Azerbaijani forces near the lake Sev following the Azerbaijani aggression on the Republic of Armenia. One year ago, in March 2022, these two young servicemen, Ishkhan and Vladimir, were sentenced to 19- and 18-years imprisonment by the Baku courts.
“Meanwhile, in the course of 2021 and 2022 half of those Armenian hostages sentenced during Baku sham trials, were returned to Armenia following high-level interventions from the USA, France and the EU.”
Armenian hostages illegally held by Azerbaijan are being ill-treated and even tortured by Azerbaijan whilst the “civilized world” remains silent, watching idly as they give Azerbaijan further military aid, and establish new oil deals and commercial agreements.
Meanwhile, Linda and her children are counting the days before they are reunited with Vicken.
“I love Vicken with all my heart,” Linda said. “I will not be silent until he comes back home. The world has forgotten these prisoners for the past three years. Prisons in Baku are notorious places of torment for Armenians. I can hear Vicken’s screams ever since Maral told me what she saw. Maral said the last time she saw Vicken in Baku, his hands were deformed, and the bones of his hands were visible. This shows how he was tortured. I and our whole family wait every day for the news of his return. Every day, I see him in my dreams entering the door of our home.”