Azerbaijani Gaza hostage wrongly added in letter to Biden signed by celebrities

Damage in the Gaza Strip following the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war (Photo: Wikimedia Commons).jpg

We are all following the heartbreaking events that are taking place in Israel and Gaza, where thousands of innocent people have been killed and hundreds have been taken hostage by Hamas. I condemn all loss of life and hostage-taking regardless of nationality, race or religion.

As victims of mass murders and genocide throughout history, Armenians understand well the tragic effects of large-scale killings. Before, during and after the 2020 Artsakh War, 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; the deputy army commander; and chairman of the Artsakh parliament. They are all held hostage 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 U.S. President 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. 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 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, 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 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 who were regrettably killed by Hamas during the attack, of whom two were dual Azerbaijani-Israeli citizens.

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 relayed that Zukerman’s office had asked the celebrities to sign a version of the letter that did not include the names of the 33 nationalities. She was shocked to realize that Zukerman’s office must have then sent an altered version of the letter to Pres. Biden, without informing the celebrities that the list of nationalities had been added to the letter. 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, claiming that one of its citizens is a victim of hostage-taking, while in reality, Azerbaijan is guilty of taking Armenian hostages. Regrettably, Zukerman ignored all of my attempts to learn 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, Zukerman had plenty of chances to correct my information but refused to do so.

Lastly, the letter was launched on the website No Hostage Left Behind, which implies that all hostages in the world, no matter who captured them or where they are held, 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 can we claim that we are true humanitarians.

Harut Sassounian

Harut Sassounian

California Courier Editor
Harut Sassounian is the publisher of The California Courier, a weekly newspaper based in Glendale, Calif. He is the president of the Armenia Artsakh Fund, a non-profit organization that has donated to Armenia and Artsakh one billion dollars of humanitarian aid, mostly medicines, since 1989 (including its predecessor, the United Armenian Fund). He has been decorated by the presidents of Armenia and Artsakh and the heads of the Armenian Apostolic and Catholic churches. He is also the recipient of the Ellis Island Medal of Honor.

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