US Court to Rule on Turkish Banks' Motion to Dismiss Armenian Lawsuits

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By Harut Sassounian
Publisher, The California Courier
December 8, 2011

Two separate lawsuits were filed last year in US Federal Court in Los Angeles against the Republic of Turkey and two of its major banks demanding compensation for properties confiscated from Armenians after the 1915 Genocide.

The first is a class action lawsuit seeking what could amount to billions of dollars from the Turkish Republic, T.C. Ziraat Bankasi, and the Central Bank of Turkey for unjust enrichment from liquidation of properties belonging to Armenians deported and exterminated during the Genocide.

The second lawsuit, filed by three Armenian-Americans, seeks $64 million for their confiscated properties in Adana, Turkey, and millions more for accrued rent and interest paid by the U.S. government in the past 60 years for use of the strategic Incirlik Air Base, built on land taken from families of the Armenian plaintiffs.

When these lawsuits were initiated, the Turkish government and its two banks ridiculed the charges, claiming that US courts have no authority to judge the actions of other governments. In order to block the lawsuits, the Turkish entities refused to be served with the legal documents, which is the first step in filing a lawsuit. After lengthy cat and mouse games, Turkish officials finally received the court documents transmitted to them by the US Embassy in Ankara at the request of the State Department.

After grudgingly accepting the court papers, the Republic of Turkey refused to appear in US Federal Court, despite warnings from the State Department that it risked a default judgment. The Turkish banks, however, fearing a similar fate, rushed to the court and filed a motion to dismiss the pending lawsuits.

In their filings, the banks objected to the lawsuits, claiming that American courts lacked jurisdiction due to sovereign immunity. They argued that the lawsuits should not go forward because of the Ankara Agreement of 1934, the "political question doctrine," potential harm to U.S.-Turkish relations, lack of evidence that the plaintiffs are heirs of the owners of the confiscated properties, and the expiry of the statute of limitations.

Surprisingly, the Turkish banks conceded that even if the Republic of Turkey did confiscate Armenian properties, international law precluded the filing of such lawsuits, since Turkey had taken "the property of its own nationals."

The banks’ lawyers made the outrageous suggestion that the wills of Armenian Genocide victims be reviewed to determine the legal heirs of the confiscated properties. In case these victims did not have a will, the lawyers proposed that the relevant laws be examined to see who was really entitled to their properties!

The attorneys for the Armenian plaintiffs countered the Turkish objections and asked the court to deny the motion to dismiss. The plaintiffs asserted that the Ziraat bank branch in the United States is a private commercial bank and has no reason to enjoy sovereign immunity. Moreover, "genocide and the associated plunder of property is never deemed a legitimate act of the state. There is no application of a political question, as this case focuses on the return of unjust gains from the sale and/or rental of property held in trust. Finally, the statute of limitations does not apply because the properties were held in trust, and the failure to return them is a continuing injury." The attorneys further asserted that there are no statutes of limitations for War Crimes and Crimes against Humanity.

Contradicting the Banks’ claims, the lawyers for the class action lawsuit maintained that the Foreign Sovereign Immunity Act does not preclude the prosecution of foreign entities engaged in commercial activity in the United States which both the Republic of Turkey and the two banks have done for many years. The lawyers also asserted that the defendants falsely claimed that international law does not apply to foreign countries "for wrongs perpetrated against their own nationals." On the contrary, "international law prohibits states from expropriating property of nationals conducted during genocide and human rights abuses."

A hearing is scheduled in Federal Court on December 19 to determine the validity of the Turkish banks’ motion to dismiss the two lawsuits. Should the court reject the Turkish motion, and the Armenian plaintiffs end up winning their lawsuits during a subsequent trial, the court may order that the US assets of both Turkish banks be seized, up to the value of the claims, and turned over to the heirs of dispossessed Armenian victims as fair compensation.