Fiancée of Vicken Euljekjian Reacts to His Prison Sentence
UPDATE ON ARMENIAN POWS:
On the heel of Vicken Euljekjian’s wrongful conviction, Azerbaijan plans to initiate court proceedings against 54 Armenian POWs on unsubstantiated charges, including terrorism. Such court proceedings violate international law.
The illegal court proceedings are set to take place on June 16.
Maral Najarian had been holding onto the hope that her fiancé would someday be set free from Azerbaijan captivity and the two would finally be reunited to start their lives together.
Sadly, that hope was shattered when the Azerbaijan government announced that Vicken Euljekjian, a dual citizen of Lebanon and Armenia falsely accused of “terrorism and illegal border crossing”, was sentenced to 20 years in prison on June 14. According to reports published in Azerbaijan media, Euljekjian will be serving five years in prison and the remainder of his sentence in a maximum security correctional facility.
In her first interview since learning about the verdict, a distraught Najarian condemned the harsh sentencing and strongly stated that her fiancé is not a terrorist but was a volunteer who fought in the 2020 Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh) war for two weeks.
“To us, Vicken is a hero who wanted to defend his country. I ask the whole world to stand up against Azerbaijan and fight for his freedom because I know all too well what he is enduring. This is a fight for human rights and I will not accept at all that this is his final fate,” a tearful Najarian said in an emotional plea to the worldwide Armenian and international communities.
The Lebanese-Armenian who was also unjustly imprisoned in Azerbaijan in November but was later released and repatriated to Lebanon in March, said that while she was still in captivity and before any trial date for Euljekjian was set, Azerbaijan officials told her the government was planning on sending him to prison for fighting against Azerbaijan. She had hoped international officials would intervene before that happened. Since her release, she has been in contact with Euljekjian’s family to discuss efforts to bring him home.
“This sentencing is a very wrong decision. Neither of us is a terrorist. Just because Vicken held a gun, doesn’t mean he is a terrorist. He didn’t kill anyone and he did not take any money to fight. He hasn’t done anything wrong. He fought for his country as a soldier and that does not make him or any soldier a terrorist,” a frustrated Najarian said.
Azerbaijan prison authorities had repeatedly interrogated the couple separately. Najarian was even forced to make a video confession and revealed the interrogators would often stop recording to instruct her on what to say, setting a dangerous precedent used as a scare tactic against Armenians still held captive and opens the door for wrongful convictions.
“I didn’t have to have a gun pointed to my head. My hands were tied and I was surrounded by Azeri guards who were very intimidating. Their uniforms alone instilled fear. I was scared for my life and I said what they told me to say. They did the same to Vicken,” admitting she was too afraid to discuss the video on record out of concern for their safety until she saw a clip of the video published on an Azerbaijani news report about the sentencing.
A video released months ago by Azerbaijan officials shows a visibly distressed Euljekjian allegedly admitting to accepting money to fight in the Artaskh war, however the Azerbaijan government is yet to produce any actual evidence to support these accusations other than a forced confession.
Azerbaijan media outlets such as the Azerdaily, published the verdict from the Yasamal District Court in Baku, which states: “The investigation established that on September 29, 2020, Euljekjian Vicken Abraham, born in 1979, a citizen of the Lebanese Republic, a resident of Beirut, initially accepted Hovak Kikia’s offer, a citizen of the Republic of Lebanon, to participate in military operations in the occupied territories of the Republic of Azerbaijan as a mercenary in exchange for a material reward of $ 2,500. For this purpose, on the same day, with other persons as a member of an organized group, he deliberately crossed the protected state border of the Republic of Azerbaijan from the territory of Armenia outside the checkpoints and arrived in the territories where other mercenaries were also present.”
“The conviction and sentencing are very concerning because they lack the hallmarks of a fair trial,” Sheila Paylan, international human rights lawyer and former legal/SGBV advisor for the United Nations stated.
In addition, Azerbaijan law does not allow for foreigners to represent non- Azeri citizens, which means that Euljekjian would have been represented by a court appointed Azerbaijani defense attorney, if one was provided to him at all.
Photos released by Azerbaijan media show signs of physical torture on Euljekjian’s face, which appeared to be very swollen and partly bruised. It was also reported that during his imprisonment, he was taken to a hospital twice for undisclosed health conditions.
With the sentencing of Euljekjian and denying him a fair trial, Azerbaijan is in violation of the III Geneva Convention of August 12, 1949 referring to the Treatment of Prisoners of War (POWs), which states that “POWs cannot be prosecuted for taking part in hostilities and must be released and repatriated without any delay after the end of hostilities.”
On November 9, 2020 a trilateral peace statement was signed ending the Artsakh war. On the afternoon of November 10, 2020, the day the agreement went into effect, Najarian and Euljekjian returned to Artsakh to retrieve their belongings when the couple was stopped and taken captive by Azerbaijan forces upon reaching Shushi. They were not carrying any weapons. Neither knew at the time that the city had been captured by enemy forces due to conflicting reports and assumed it was safe since they were no blocks set up at the border. Their Armenian passports were confiscated by Azerbaijan authorities. When Najarian was released from prison, her Armenian passport was not returned.
The worldwide Armenian community and many foreign officials, condemn Azerbaijan’s refusal to release the hundreds or perhaps thousands of Armenian POWs seven months after the Arstakh (Nagorno-Karabakh) war ended.
15 Armenian POWs were released on June 1 in exchange for maps of minefields in the Aghdam region. In the meantime, the Azerbaijan government continues to conceal the exact number of Armenians held in captivity and could be using POWs as leverage to gain more concessions from Armenia.
In an announcement on April 22, 2021, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) called on Azerbaijan to release all Armenian POWs and other captives without further delay.
Note: Interview with Maral Najarian was conducted in the Armenian language and translated by author.