Ar­me­nian Amer­i­cans file suit against Turkey, 2 banks there

Austin American-Statesman - - WORLD & NATION - By Linda Deutsch

LOS AN­GE­LES — Ar­me­nian Amer­i­can lawyers filed a fed­eral law­suit Thurs­day against the Turk­ish govern­ment and two banks seek­ing com­pen­sa­tion for the heirs of Ar­me­ni­ans whose prop­erty was al­legedly seized nearly a cen­tury ago as they were driven from the Turk­ish Ot­toman Em­pire.

Lawyers were seek­ing clas­s­ac­tion sta­tus for the suit, a process that at­tor­ney Brian Ka­batek said could take as long as three years.

“We are rolling up our sleeves and are go­ing for­ward,” he said.

The suit was filed on be­half of plain­tiffs Gar­bis Davouyan of Los An­ge­les and Hrayr Tura­bian of Queens, N.Y. It al­leges breach of statu­tory trust, un­just en­rich­ment, hu­man rights vi­o­la­tions and vi­o­la­tions of in­ter­na­tional law.

It seeks com­pen­sa­tion for land, build­ings and busi­nesses al­legedly seized from Ar­me­ni­ans along with bank de­posits and prop­erty, in­clud­ing price­less re­li­gious and other ar­ti­facts, some of which are now housed in mu­se­ums in the Re­pub­lic of Turkey.

At­tor­ney Mark Ger­a­gos said it was the first such law­suit di­rectly nam­ing the govern­ment of the Re­pub­lic of Turkey as a de­fen­dant.

“All of the lawyers in­volved have relatives who per­ished or fled the Ar­me­nian geno­cide, which gives it a spe­cial poi- gnancy for us,” he said.

The law­suit claims more than a mil­lion Ar­me­ni­ans were killed in forced marches, con­cen­tra­tion camps and mas­sacres “per­pe­trated, as­sisted and con­doned” by Turk­ish of­fi­cials and armed forces.

Also named in the law­suit were the Cen­tral Bank of Turkey and T.C., Zi­raat Bankasi, the largest and old­est Turk­ish bank with ori­gins dat­ing back to the 1860s.

The law­suit claims the govern­ment of Turkey agreed to ad­min­is­ter the prop­erty, col­lect rents and sale pro­ceeds from the seized as­sets and de­posit the re­ceipts in trust ac­counts un­til the prop­erty could be re­stored to own­ers.

In­stead, the govern­ment has “with­held the prop­erty and any in­come de­rived from such prop­erty,” the law­suit said.

A mes­sage left with the Turk­ish Con­sul Gen­eral’s of­fice in Los An­ge­les was not im­me­di­ately re­turned. Af­ter­hours e-mails seek­ing com­ment from both banks were not im­me­di­ately re­turned.

Lawyers for the plain­tiffs be­lieve records of the prop­er­ties and prof­its still ex­ist, and they are seek­ing an ac­count­ing that could reach bil­lions of dol­lars.

Ger­a­gos said the biggest is­sue in Ar­me­nian com­mu­ni­ties is seek­ing recog­ni­tion for the eth­nic blood­shed that al­legedly claimed the lives of as many as 1.5 mil­lion Ar­me­ni­ans be­tween 1915 and 1919.

In 2000, the Cal­i­for­nia Leg­is­la­ture rec­og­nized the deaths as geno­cide when it al­lowed heirs to seek pay­ment on life in­surance poli­cies of dead relatives.

The 9th U.S. Cir­cuit Court of Ap­peals later in­val­i­dated the law. Ger­a­gos has ap­pealed that rul­ing.

Still, the heirs were paid nearly $40 mil­lion by New York Life In­surance Co. and French in­surer AXA.

In Oc­to­ber, Ar­me­nia and Turkey signed a land­mark agree­ment to es­tab­lish diplo­matic ties. The ac­cord was aimed at end­ing a cen­tury of hos­til­ity stem­ming from the Ot­toman-era mas­sacres.

Many his­to­ri­ans call the killings geno­cide, but Turkey strongly re­jects that la­bel, say­ing peo­ple died in forced re­lo­ca­tions and fight­ing.

The pro­to­cols do not ex­plic­itly men­tion the geno­cide con­tro­versy, which would go to a com­mit­tee of his­tor­i­cal ex­perts for study.

The U.S. govern­ment does not rec­og­nize the mass killings of Ar­me­ni­ans dur­ing World War I as geno­cide.

In April 2009, mark­ing the an­niver­sary of the start of the killings in 1915, Pres­i­dent Barack Obama re­ferred to them as “one of the great atroc­i­ties of the 20th cen­tury.”

At the time, Ar­me­nia Amer­i­can groups said they felt letdown be­cause Obama shied away from re­fer­ring to the killings as geno­cide. Had he done so, he could have hin­dered a closer part­ner­ship with Turkey, a vi­tal U.S. ally.

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