L'Orient-le-Jour, Friday, June 10, 2022.
"The bloodiest crime in the history of Lebanon": it is in these terms that "L'Orient-Le Jour" had qualified, in 1985, the massacre of Bourj Hammoud. A few years later, the perpetrators of the crime had managed to escape from Roumié. The families of the victims have found their traces in Europe...
In a cell in Roumié prison where they have languished for three years, Panos, Raffi and Hratch Nahabédian hatch a plan. How to get out of this mess, leave Lebanon and afford a "virgin" life in Europe? There, their names will be forgotten. Or, at worst, they will change them. They will be able to live, and even live very well, from their booty. We are in 1988 and the three jeweler brothers are accused of being the authors of a massacre committed three years earlier in Bourj Hammoud, which had cost the lives of five people. But they don't care. So, on the night of March 5, 1988, after having obtained a hacksaw thanks to accomplices to remove the window bars, they fled from their jail by means of tied sheets and blankets. A spectacular escape in the style of the "Daltons", which does not convince the families of the victims. Did part of the loot allow them to bribe the guards and their superiors to slip away incognito? Relatives of the deceased favor this hypothesis. For nearly 30 years, the assassins, convicted in absentia in 1994, will be forgotten in Europe. Until karma knocks on their door.
On September 21, 2013, Annie Kurkdjian, painter, was awakened in the early morning by a phone call from her friend Armen*. Grégoire*, a foreign painter, is passing through Beirut, so why not have lunch together? Appointment is made. In the morning, Armen plays tourist guide in the crowded streets of Bourj Hammoud district. "Annie's father was murdered there," he told Grégoire, pointing to the building that housed Hrant Kurkdjian's workshop. A businessman from Damascus, Hrant moved to Beirut in 1966 and founded the Middle East Diamond Company, with the jeweler Raphaël (Robert) Boghossian. The Kurkdjian family was preparing to leave Lebanon at war to take refuge in France, when everything changed suddenly. On Thursday March 28, 1985, at 2:30 p.m., Hratch, Raffi and Panos Nahabédian perpetrated one of the biggest robberies in the history of Lebanon. The three brothers, aged 20, 25 and 27 respectively, are familiar with the place. Artisan jewellers, they frequently visit the workshop of Hrant Kurkdjian, who entrusts them with metal shaping work or the crimping and polishing of precious stones. The owner has known them for three years and has blind faith in them.
That Thursday, Hani Zammar, a 28-year-old workshop employee and father of three children under five, opened the door to them, as usual. But in a few seconds, the atmosphere changes completely. The three brothers drag Zammar and his colleague Avedik Boyadjian, 60, into the office of Hrant Kurkdjian, who they order to open the safe. " Why ? What do you want ?" asks the jeweler, petrified. “I have debts and you have money, give me a little and everything will be fine”, replies – according to the police – one of the three brothers, putting his gun to the head of the jeweler. Precious stones, gold, diamonds and banknotes, worth twenty million pounds (the equivalent at the time of almost 2 million dollars), are thrown into a bag.
Getting their hands on that loot isn't enough for them. To avoid being traced, the burglars cold-bloodedly kill the witnesses one by one. Hani Zammar, Avedik Boyadjian and their boss, Hrant Kurkdjian, father of two teenagers (Arto, 16, and Annie, 12), fall under the bullets of a silencer. It is unknown which of the brothers fired. With the same savagery, Maria Mikhael, 32, cashier, and Khatoun Tekeyan, 27, accountant, were also shot dead, while they were sitting behind their desks, in an adjacent room. The police discover that the electricity and the telephone lines had been previously cut, which confirms the premeditation. The aged photos of the crime scene and the yellowed newspaper clippings from L'Orient-Le Jour that relate the case are carefully stored in our archives. The "bloodiest crime in the history of the country" will make headlines for days, weeks, months in all the press. The Lebanese will follow each of the stages of the investigation and the manhunt.
The first run of the three brothers lasts only fifteen days. Panos' father-in-law reports them to the police who immediately raid a house in Zokak el-Blat, where he is arrested along with Raffi. They were preparing to leave the country for Europe with their booty. The hoard found on the spot, valued at 15 million pounds, is given to the owners of the jewelry store. A part remains untraceable. Gold was melted down to facilitate its transportation and sale. Investigators also failed to find 400 carats of diamonds (80 grams). They will never reappear. Hratch, the youngest, is missing. But five days later, on April 18, 1985, he was spotted in Cyprus and immediately extradited to Beirut. The confession session follows. In front of the Attorney General of Mount Lebanon at the time, Maurice Khawam, the interrogations were cacophonous. The older brother claims that it was the younger, Hratch, who shot the five people present in the workshop, which the latter confirms. To cover their tracks, they point the finger at Raphaël (Robert) Boghossian, claiming that it was he who incited them to kill his partner. Boghossian denies everything. He was arrested in August 1985, then cleared and released after 40 days, after being defended by two tenors of the bar, Nasri Maalouf and Khatchig Babikian.
The three brothers are supposed to remain in detention until their trial. But in 1988, they escaped. An Interpol red notice would have been issued, but the trace of the fugitives is lost. Lebanon is not yet out of the war, the authorities have other emergencies to deal with. Did the three brothers benefit from support or from the chaotic context to get away? We ignore it.
Nine years after the crime, on December 10, 1994, the sentence was finally declared. The military court, declared competent because Hratch was a soldier of the army (yet a deserter), condemned them to death in absentia, sentence commuted to life imprisonment, under the terms of the law of amnesty of 1991. This judgment does not appease the families of the victims. Especially since another drama has come to be added to the initial one. The son of Avedik Boyadjian, one of the murdered employees, who was 15 at the time, suffered from violent depression before dying of a stroke six months later.
During all these years, the three fugitives lived in one of the most beautiful European capitals, that of Queen Marie-Antoinette, Vienna, 3,000 kilometers from their popular Armenian district.
"Your father's murderers, I know them!" Grégoire says to Annie, during lunch in 2013. Passing through Vienna eight years earlier, a friend had taken him to a goldsmith's where they had met two jewelers with whom they drank coffee. While leaving, the friend had confided this to Grégoire: in Armenian circles, it is rumored that these two have blood on their hands. They would have murdered a jeweler and his employees in Beirut, and would have rebuilt their lives in Austria thanks to false papers. The story is crazy, but within the community, no one dares to investigate more. Even less denounce one of their own. “Members of the Armenian diaspora prefer discretion,” he is told. With this story, Annie Kurkdjian holds for the first time since the drama a credible track. The same evening, she tries to corroborate Grégoire's version by sending him by email the archive photos cut from newspapers. Despite the years, the features are identical, and the young painter confirms that they are indeed the same men he met in Vienna.
Annie does not close her eyes all night. Her demons resurface. She recreates the film of her father's last moments. The fear he may have felt in the face of the weapon pointed at him. His feeling of having been betrayed by these people in the neighborhood whom he trusted. "But also, his thoughts for my mother, for my brother and I who were going to be orphans, and finally... the sound of that bullet being dampened by the silencer," she whispers. "From then on, every evening, when it was time to sleep, a little voice urged me not to neglect the link of which I had just been informed."
With this new element, finding her father's murderers is now possible, but she quickly becomes disillusioned. After months spent going through the profiles of Armenians in Vienna on Facebook, she found traces, in 2014, of Raffi Nahabédian, by finding his photo. Through the comments of the Internet, she understands that he died of cancer in December 2012. But the hunt is not over. It's only just begun. There are two others to be found. Annie alerts the Lebanese embassy in Vienna and approaches a good thirty lawyers on the spot, but none wants to embark on such a difficult file. And then one day, at the end of 2016, Norbert Haslhofer, a former prosecutor and judge, now a lawyer, agrees to defend her and begins to unwind the ball of thread. The false identities of the three brothers – they had each chosen a different surname – are revealed. The lawyer also finds Raffi's grave in the Margaretenstrasse cemetery in Vienna. “On the funeral stele, his assumed name is engraved, Harout Dayan, followed by his real family name (Nahabédian), probably added out of sentimentality,” he confided to L’OLJ. His year of birth, 1962, engraved on the marble, also corresponds.
The three Lebanese criminals, thinking of themselves clean because of their false identities, have done everything to integrate into Austrian society, while remaining loyal to the local Armenian community, participating in events every year. Raffi, alias Haroutian Dayan, had obtained Austrian nationality in 1992, and, according to the survey published in 2019 by the Spanish newspaper El Mundo, he had opened his jewelry store in 2006 a hundred meters from the Habsburg Palace, in the beautiful districts of Vienna. Panos, the eldest, who became George Mazbanian, had opened his own shop, eight years earlier, in 1998, two streets away, the "Mazbani" jewelry store, now run by his daughter. On her Instagram profile, we discover a group of Austrian celebrities, but also international stars wearing her creations, like the American actress Melanie Griffith, invited to the Vienna Opera in 2018. In a section dedicated to their Celebrity clients on their website, which was removed in 2019, the Mazbanians boasted of counting among them the singer Beyoncé, photographed with an overpriced ring. Prince Albert of Monaco was also photographed at a jewelry show in Monte-Carlo, alongside George Mazbanian on his stand.
Hratch, the youngest, alias Hamayak Sermakanian, is far from having had the same bling-bling life as his two brothers. He has failed to integrate into Austrian society, speaks German very badly after thirty years, according to local police, and lives in extremely modest conditions.
Their secret now exposed, it is time for justice to get involved. According to the Profil magazine dating from 2020, the Viennese police took the fingerprints of the youngest of the brothers for the first time in 2016, but the identification failed. The case could have stopped here. A year later, while a criminal complaint was filed, the fingerprints obtained via the Lebanese prosecutor's office finally match those collected by the Viennese police on the suspects. For five years now, the local authorities have known that the two surviving brothers, sentenced in Lebanon in 1994, are indeed those who live in Vienna under a false name.
In 2019, the case was first revealed by the Spanish press (El-Mundo), then completed by the Austrian magazine Profil. Antoine Fayad, the Lebanese lawyer for the families of the victims at the time of the massacre, is asked by the Lebanese justice to forward the files. “A thousand pages were sent in 2021 to the (Lebanese) judicial police, who then handed them over to the Supreme Court, then to the Austrian ambassador, who sent them by diplomatic bag to the Austrian Minister of Justice”, indicates Mr. Fayad to the OLJ. The sworn translations of the documents which were due to be completed by the end of May, according to the Austrian lawyer of the families of the victims, have unfortunately been delayed and are expected to be delivered in September. One of the two translators has failed and should be replaced as soon as possible. The main translator, who had been entrusted with the task in June 2021, had undertaken to deliver it in September of the same year. But in the meantime, he told the Viennese prosecutor's office that he "lost his computer in public transport".
The bureaucratic heaviness and the back and forth between the justice of the two countries make the Austrian legal procedure endless. In an attempt to move things forward, the families of the victims launched a petition on May 15 urging the Austrian Ministers of Justice and the Interior to comply with their call to hand over the two murderers to the Lebanese authorities.
In the present case, since there is no extradition agreement between Lebanon and Austria, the two criminals cannot be expelled, especially since they are now of Austrian nationality. Second problem, in the case of a new trial, the prescription of the crime can be applied for Hratch, the youngest, who was under 21 at the time of the facts, on the condition that he did not commit another crime during the 20 years , according to the lawyer of the latter, the Austrian Astrid Wagner interviewed by the magazine Profil. Since the case has never been examined by the Austrian courts, a new trial could take years.
So, to avoid this, a second legal route is launched by the relatives of the victims. Without abandoning their criminal complaint, in 2020 they presented an administrative appeal to Municipal Department 35, an Austrian administration, against the two brothers, aimed at stripping them of their Austrian citizenship. Justice decided against Panos Nahabedian, alias George Mazbanian, in favor of the plaintiffs. The latter appealed. No decision has yet been made public regarding Hratch Nahabédian, alias Hamayak Sermakanian. Families are clinging to this branch which could finally speed things up. Because, if justice decides to strip the two brothers of their Austrian nationality, they can finally be extradited to Lebanon. Once back in their homeland, they will be arrested and interrogated, and then presumably convicted in a new trial. More than 13,588 days after the Bourj Hammoud massacre.
*The names have been changed at the request of the people.