Armenians Seek Reparations from Turk Government, Banks


LOS ANGELES — Descendants of victims of the Armenian Genocide recently filed a lawsuit in US Federal Court against the Turkish government and two leading Turkish banks seeking hundreds of millions of dollars in potential damages, citing the illegal seizure of their homes, business and farmland, a portion of which now houses a key US airbase used to support military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The lawsuit accuses the Republic of Turkey, the Central Bank of the Republic of Turkey and TC Ziraat Bankasi, one of Turkey’s largest and oldest banks, of stealing and then profiting from land that was illegally seized during the Armenian Genocide of 1915-23, when the Ottoman Turks drove them from the Adana region, a center of Armenian culture and religion.

The three Armenian Americans who are plaintiffs in the lawsuit are seeking hundreds of millions of dollars as compensation for their families’ seized property and repayment of rent and other illegal proceeds collected over the past century.

This is the first lawsuit filed in a US court against the Turkish government in which the plaintiffs are seeking reimbursement for specific parcels of property illegally seized during the Armenian Genocide, said their attorney Vartkes Yeghiayan, whose wife, Rita Mahdessian, is one of three Armenian American plaintiffs in the lawsuit. Mahdessian’s ancestor was a wealthy Armenian landowner who was forced to flee Turkey with his family in 1915, leaving behind his home, some farmland, a dry goods store and an insurance business.

Their lawsuit seeks “fair market rents and other relief for Plaintiffs, the rightful owners and their heirs, of approximately 122.5 acres of property located in the Adana region of Turkey,” according to the filing.

The Inçirlik Air Base, which is located at the crossroads of Europe, the Middle East and Central Asia, is considered strategically vital to US interests in the region. During the Cold War, the base was used for US spy plane missions over the Soviet Union. Today, the base is a vital transportation hub supporting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and humanitarian missions throughout the region. Fast food giants Baskin-Robbins, Taco Bell and Pizza Hut are among the US companies operating on the base, according to the lawsuit.

The Turkish government has repeatedly threatened to deny Americans access to the base if the US Congress recognizes the Armenian Genocide, despite the fact that the base is built on land illegally confiscated from Armenians.

“I was upset when I learned that the Turkish government was renting my family’s property to the US government for an airbase,” said Anais Haroutunian, another plaintiff in the case. “I cannot believe that the brave Americans who have served at Inçirlik, some of whom are of Armenian descent themselves, would condone such abhorrent behavior by a government claiming to be our ally.”

The filing comes on the heels of the US Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling which allowed descendants of Armenian Genocide victims to pursue legal action against insurance firms that failed to honor the policies of Armenian Genocide victims, re-opening the door for legal claims in California stemming from the Turkish atrocities. California, home of the nation’s largest Armenian community, is one of 42 states that have passed laws recognizing the massacre of more than 1 million Armenians nearly a century ago by the Ottoman Turks.

“Until Turkey acknowledges and makes amends for this genocide, the injustice continues unabated,” said Yeghiayan, a Glendale attorney who has championed the Armenian Genocide litigation movement. “There can be no healing until Turkey does what is right.”

Joining Yeghiayan in this litigation are Los Angeles attorneys Kathryn Lee Boyd and David Schwarcz of Todd, Ferentz, Schwarcz & Rimberg. Prof. Michael Bazyler of Chapman University, one of the nation’s leading experts on genocide law and restitution, has been brought in as an international legal expert.

Yeghiayan has filed more than half a dozen lawsuits related to the Armenian Genocide issue and has negotiated successful multi-million dollar settlements against two major life insurance companies. In June, Yeghiayan and Boyd filed litigation against the J. Paul Getty Museum in what is believed to be the first case in the US seeking the return of cultural or religious objects stolen during the Armenian Genocide.

Haroutunian, Mahdessian and Alex Bakalian, the third plaintiff in the filing, have deeds proving ownership to the property stolen from their grandparents, some of which lies directly beneath the runways, warehouses and commercial buildings that have served the US military since the 1950s, according to their lawsuit. The town of Inçirlik, where the base was built, was also home for a large Armenian church. The lawsuit estimates the current value of the stolen Armenian land in and around Inçirlik Air Base at approximately $63.9 million based on US Department of Defense data.