By Harut Sassounian, In Letter to Biden Signed by Celebrities
Publisher, The California Courier
We are all following the heartbreaking events that are taking place in Israel and Gaza where thousands of innocent people are killed, and hundreds have been taken hostage by Hamas. I condemn all loss of life and hostage-taking regardless of nationality, race or religion.
Throughout history, as victims of mass murders and Genocide, Armenians understand well the tragic effects of large-scale killings. Before, during and after the 2020 Artsakh war, the most gruesome crimes were committed against thousands of Armenian soldiers and civilians by Azeris.
At the end of the war, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia signed an agreement that called for the exchange of all Prisoners of War. Armenia kept its end of the bargain by freeing all Azeri prisoners immediately, while Azerbaijan is still holding dozens of Armenians in captivity three years later. No one knows their exact number. These detainees have been wrongly tried and sentenced to long prison terms not only in violation of the 2020 agreement, but also the Geneva Convention. Armenian prisoners have been tortured while in Azeri custody and an unknown number have been killed.
To make matters worse, after occupying Artsakh last month, Azerbaijan captured eight high-ranking Artsakh government officials, including three former presidents, the former State, Defense, and Foreign ministers, deputy army commander, and Chairman of the Artsakh Parliament. They are all held as hostages with no hope that they will be released anytime soon.
Turning to the tragic predicament of the over 200 hostages captured by Hamas in Israel on October 7, 2023, I support all efforts to have these hostages released as soon as possible. Several hundred Hollywood celebrities, including Madonna, Chris Rock, Justin Timberlake, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jerry Seinfeld, and Tyler Perry, signed a joint letter to Pres. Joe Biden urging him to “not rest until all hostages are released.”
Last week, an article appeared in various entertainment magazines and websites that publicized the letter signed by the celebrities to Biden. The press release about the letter was distributed to the media by Melissa Zukerman, the Managing Partner at Principal Communications Group, a PR agency in in Los Angeles. Despite the good intentions of the initiators of the campaign, a regrettable mistake detracted from the commendable effort.
The letter included a paragraph that said: “We urge everyone to not rest until all hostages are released. No hostage can be left behind. Whether American, Argentinian, Australian, Azerbaijani, Brazilian, British, Canadian, Chilean, Chinese, Danish, Dutch, Eritrean, Filipino, French, German, Indian, Israeli, Italian, Kazakh, Mexican, Panamanian, Paraguayan, Peruvian, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Russian, South African, Spanish, Sri Lankan, Thai, Ukrainian, Uzbekistani or otherwise, we need to bring them home.”
I commend the celebrities, Ms. Zukerman and everyone else who had a hand in preparing the letter to Pres. Biden. However, I was surprised to see in the list of captured nationalities a reference to ‘Azerbaijani’ hostages. As I had not heard that any Azerbaijani was kidnapped by Hamas from Israel, I wondered if that information was accurate. So, I sent Ms. Zukerman an email asking about the veracity of the reference to an Azerbaijani hostage. She did not reply to my email. She also ignored my follow-up email as well as a phone message I left for her.
Having done further research, I discovered that there were no reports about an Azerbaijani hostage, except for eight Azerbaijanis, of which two were dual Azerbaijani-Israeli citizens, who were regrettably killed by Hamas during the attack.
I then contacted the agent of one of the celebrities who had signed the letter and asked her if she knew anything about an Azerbaijani who was taken hostage by Hamas. The celebrity’s agent told me that in the version of the letter that her client had signed there was no mention of Azerbaijan or any other nationality. When I sent her the copy of the letter publicized in the media, she was shocked to learn that Ms. Zukerman’s office had asked the celebrities to sign a version of the letter that did not include the names of the 33 nationalities; Ms. Zukerman’s office must have then sent the altered version of the letter to Pres. Biden without informing the celebrities that what they had signed is not what was sent to the White House. Appallingly, these celebrities were not informed of the change in the letter either before or after signing it. This is highly unprofessional and unethical.
So, this is how Azerbaijan was included wrongly in a letter to Pres. Biden, making one its citizens a victim of hostage-taking, while in reality, Azerbaijan is the one that is guilty of taking Armenian hostages. Regrettably, Ms. Zukerman ignored all of my attempts to find out from her how such a mistake could have happened, and why no effort was made to correct it or at least provide a proper explanation? As far as I know, there are no Azerbaijani hostages in Gaza or anywhere else in the world. If I am wrong, Ms. Zukerman had plenty of chances to correct my information but refused to do so.
Lastly, the letter stated, “No hostage can be left behind” (www.NoHostageLeftBehind.com), which implies that all hostages in the world, no matter who had captured them and wherever they are, should be released. Such an all-inclusive plea should have also referred to the dozens of Armenian hostages held in Azerbaijan.
Only when we care about all hostages without any distinction, we can claim that we are true humanitarians.