Activists pursue genocide payment

SOUTH GLENDALE — Armenian activists insisted Wednesday that a recent federal appeals court ruling would not stop them from seeking payments from life insurance companies on the policies of those killed in the Armenian Genocide.

Representatives from the Armenian National Committee and Armenian Youth Federation, among other groups, assured attendees during a town hall meeting at St. Mary’s Apostolic Church that the lawsuit’s plaintiffs, which number in the thousands, would win a favorable decision from the court as the group fights a recent legal hurdle.

The group’s goal is to sway a split three-judge appellate panel, attorney Mark Geragos said.

“We’re hoping it just takes one vote,” he said of plans for an appeal.

The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Aug. 20 that descendants of Armenian Genocide victims could not request payment from insurance companies, despite a state law that allowed them to do so, because it would interfere with U.S. foreign policy.

“The federal government has made a conscious decision not to apply the politically charged label of ‘genocide’ to the deaths of these Armenians during World War I,” said Judge David R. Thompson, who wrote the majority opinion in the ruling. “Whether or not California agrees with this decision, it may not contradict it.”

That logic, agreed to by two of the three judges on the appellate panel, drew harsh criticism not only from town hall attendees, but also from Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff, who has written legislation to push for national acknowledgment of the genocide and, as an state senator, co-wrote California’s law allowing the descendants of genocide victims to claim insurance benefits.

“The problem with that is that there is no federal policy against genocide recognition and there has never been,” said Schiff, who petitioned the court this week to reconsider its ruling.

Congress has considered three resolutions in the last decade that would have paved the way for official recognition of the Armenian Genocide.

But the White House has worked to kill each effort, fearing they would damage relations with Turkey, which denies a genocide took place.

The U.S. government currently has no official position on the mass killings of 1.5 million Armenians that occurred between 1915 and 1923 in Ottoman Turkey.

“I think when they examine the record more closely, they’ll realize that the court made a poor judgment, not based on the facts or the law,” Schiff said.

Lawsuits from genocide victims have yielded a combined total of $37 million in settlements from two firms, New York Life Insurance Co. in 2004 and AXA S.A. in 2005.

Glendale priest Vazken Movsesian, of St. Peter Armenian Church, filed a case six years ago seeking a settlement of claims under policies issued by German insurers Victoria Versicherung and Ergo Versicherungsgruppe, as well as parent company Munchener Ruckversicherungs-Gesellschaft AG.

Thousands of Armenians whose relatives were genocide victims also joined in the lawsuit.

The plaintiffs scored a partial victory two years ago when U.S. District Judge Christina A. Snyder said the law passed in 2000 by the California Legislature gave the descendants standing to sue. But that ruling was overturned by the appellate court.

Town hall organizers hoped their forum would give stakeholders confidence despite the recent court ruling, said Zanku Armenian, chairman of the Armenian National Committee Glendale chapter.

“It’s a legal matter that often times [includes] complicated matters and so it’s important to get the community to understand both what transpired, what the implications of the court decisions are, as well as what the potential avenues for them are, in terms of appeals,” Armenian said.

Representatives for Shant Student Assn. and the Armenian Bar Assn. participated in the town hall discussion, bringing more than 100 people, including many students and attorneys.

An overwhelming majority of those in the audience had no direct ties to the outcome of the case, but were interested nonetheless, they said.

The court’s ruling to block the push for a settlement on insurance claims was unfair because a law was in place to allow similar suits, La Crescenta resident Caroline Tashejian said.

“Taking it back, it pushes us further back, in terms of progressing our cause,” she said.

Sylvia Natalie Manoogian, of Los Angeles, had benefited from the New York Life settlement and came to learn more about what she said was an unfortunate appellate court ruling.

Her family, which received $20,000 in the New York Life settlement, claims to own property within modern Turkey’s borders, but has not been able to secure it.

She saw the battle for life insurance claims and genocide recognition first hand, she said.

“The more information I have, the more it gives me tools and means [for moving forward],” she said.

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