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Catholic Armenian prisoner sends open letter to Pope Francis

A man prays in Ghazanchetsots Cathedral in Shusha, Azerbaijan after it was partly destroyed by shelling in October 2020.
A man prays in Ghazanchetsots Cathedral in Shusha, Azerbaijan after it was partly destroyed by shelling in October 2020. | Christian Solidarity International

Armenian prisoners of war (POWs) have been illegally detained and tortured in Azerbaijan’s jails for the past three years in violation of international humanitarian and human rights laws.

These prisoners were arrested by Azeri forces during Azerbaijan's war against the Armenian Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh/Artsakh in 2020 as well as its aftermath.

The military of Azerbaijan — with the help of Turkey — attacked Artsakh between 27 September 2020 and 10 November 2020. The war was suspended through an agreement mediated by Russia and signed by Azerbaijan and Armenia.

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According to the agreement, all prisoners of war should have been returned and none other arrested after the agreement’s enactment. Azerbaijan, however, refuses to honor this and continues to illegally hold and abuse Armenian POWs.

One is a Catholic Armenian prisoner of war who through an open letter has called on Pope Francis and the Vatican to help him.

Gevorg Sujyan is the founding president of the “New Armenia Homeland-Diaspora Charitable NGO.” Along with another humanitarian worker, Davit Davtyan, Sujyan was arrested by Azeri forces in Artsakh after the November 2020 ceasefire agreement.

Both were part of the non-governmental organization that was providing humanitarian aid near the Shushi region of Arsakh, which was under attack by Azerbaijan.

Sujyan and Davtyan faced an unjust trial in 2021, resulting in a 15-year imprisonment sentence at a Baku detention center. The charges against them, including accusations of “espionage,” were based on a series of articles from the Azerbaijani criminal code. The Baku Court on Grave Crimes orchestrated these trials, which were marked by illegal, illegitimate, and improper proceedings.

Through his family, Sujyan sent an open letter to Pope Francis, asking for help to secure his release:

The Reverend Father,

I offer you the bitter sorrow and the tragic plea of my heart. Please receive these concise and sincere words with kindness, and not with anger. May my heartfelt appeal reach you now, and may the prisoner’s wish be granted in the name of God.

I repent of my sin. I am not a murderer. I have not cheated, yet I am condemned as a criminal. I am misunderstood. I am left with no hope of survival, I am trapped in endless despair...

And now I humbly beg you, merciful Father, to release me from the prison of sins for I have repented for my wrongdoings. Grant me, the undeserving, salvation and freedom. Alleviate my sadness with your mercy. I implore you, take me out of the profound abyss.

I have a family, a son who awaits my return, shedding endless tears. My pleas are filled with anguish, and they resonate from the very depths of my soul. Where will I find my salvation?

Please help me, be the mediator who will save my soul ...

Gevorg Ruben Sujyan

The first Armenian genocide in modern history occurred in Ottoman Turkey in 1915. Approximately 1.5 million Armenians perished.

Over 100 years later, from 2020 to 2023, Armenians faced Turkish and Azeri military assaults, illegal blockades, and forced displacements. Azerbaijan and Turkey carried out an ethnic cleansing campaign against Armenians in Artsakh. This included methods such as starving, indiscriminately bombing and forcibly displacing around 120,000 Armenians. Azeri forces beheaded and mutilated Armenians — both civilians and soldiers — and posted videos of these beheadings on social media.

The subsequent mistreatment of Armenian captives is deeply concerning. Accused of violating various articles of Azerbaijan's Penal Code, Sujyan and Davtyan underwent sham trials in Baku's Serious Crimes Court. These trials were shaped by unlawfulness, arbitrariness, and a lack of due process. Armenian detainees faced false accusations and were denied basic guarantees, including the right to a defense lawyer from the moment of their arrest. This contravenes fundamental principles of justice and human rights.

Under the Geneva Convention, these individuals, classified as prisoners of war, should have been promptly repatriated after their arrest. The deliberate disregard for these international norms by Azerbaijan is a blatant violation of humanitarian principles.

report by the University Network for Human Rights entitled “How Three Years of Atrocities Against Ethnic Armenians Led to Ethnic Cleansing” details the types of torture that the Armenian POWs are routinely exposed to in Azeri jails:

“Armenians captured by Azerbaijan during and after the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War, as well as in the course of fighting on the Armenia-Azerbaijan border in September 2022, have been subjected to torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment while in Azerbaijani custody.

Forms of torture and mistreatment have included prolonged and repeated beatings with batons, skewers, brooms, and firearms; laceration of wrists with zip-ties; employment of electro-shock and stress positions; sleep deprivation; confiscation of warm clothing during extreme cold; deprivation of food, water, and hygiene products; and infliction of mental suffering and humiliation.”

The actual number of Armenian POWs in Azerbaijan is unknown because Azerbaijan refuses to be transparent about the number. It is also unknown how many POWs were executed after their capture.

According to the Center for Truth and Justice,

“Twenty-three Armenians are being illegally detained in Azerbaijan … However, it is suspected that many more POWs and civilian hostages are lingering in Azerbaijani prisons. Now that both wars have ended, all detainees must be freed immediately under the Geneva Conventions. However, Azerbaijan refuses to comply.”

Sujyan, Davtyan and other Armenian prisoners in Azerbaijan are tortured for being Christian and Armenian. Governments across the world and international human rights organizations appear to abandon them and ignore their plight. Will Pope Francis and the Vatican hear their call and help liberate them from the captivity and torture they have been suffering for the past three years?

Uzay Bulut is a Turkish journalist formerly based in Ankara.

Luciana Minassian is a human rights lawyer based in Argentina.

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