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Descendants of Armenian genocide victims seek $65 million from Turkey for seized land

December 15, 2010 |  2:27 pm

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Three Armenian American descendants of victims of the Armenian genocide nearly a century ago filed suit Wednesday against the government of Turkey and two Turkish banks, claiming they are owed at least $65 million for property seized from their relatives and untold millions more for the profits their lands generated.

The lawsuit filed by two Los Angeles-area residents and a Washington, D.C. man could be the start of a flood of litigation spurred by last week's ruling by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upholding a California law recognizing the crimes committed against Armenians after 1915 as genocide.

The appeals court reversed its earlier opinion that the state law was unconstitutional because it interfered with the federal government's power to decide foreign policy matters.

"Now that that obstacle is gone, it definitely opens up the possibility of many more lawsuits being filed" in pursuit of compensation for expropriated property, said Michael J. Bazyler, a Chapman University law professor and an expert on litigation stemming from the Holocaust and other crimes against humanity.

Anais Haroutunian, a 68-year-old Pasadena resident whose grandparents were killed when Ottoman Turks drove Armenians out of ancestral lands, said she has retained her family's deeds to the 40 acres seized after their expulsion. She joined the lawsuit in hopes of recovering some of the family wealth lost in the genocide.

"I want to do this for our children. It is our civil right to have all these things they took from our family," the retired tailor's assistant said, noting there are at least nine living descendants of the family whose seized property is now part of Incirlik Air Base, rented by the U.S. government.

The suit estimates that the three plaintiffs' share of the base land to be worth $65 million. It also seeks compensation for the profits accrued by the Turkish government and the two banks that inherited the confiscated land, Ziraat Bank and the Turkish Central Bank.

The Turkish government is likely to contest the jurisdiction of U.S. courts in the matter by invoking the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act. But Bazyler said the law doesn't protect foreign states from suits over illegal property seizures.

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-- Carol J. Williams

Photo: Credit Los Angeles Times

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