Court rules against Armenian genocide survivor suits

Politicians and members of the local community Friday expressed disappointment with a federal appellate court ruling this week that survivors of Armenian genocide victims cannot sue German insurance companies for not paying claims on policies purchased by their ancestors.

In its 11-0 ruling, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals on Thursday dismissed a lawsuit brought by Vazken Movsesian, a priest at St. Peter Armenian Church in Glendale, on behalf of a group of Southern Californian Armenian Americans about 10 years ago.

A few years before the lawsuit was filed, the state Legislature passed a law that allowed courts in California to consider claims from those unpaid insurance policies.

But the court on Thursday ruled that only the federal government has jurisdiction over foreign entities, preempting state law.

The appellate panel’s decision effectively blocks survivors of genocide victims from suing German insurers to make good on unpaid policies sold to victims from 1875 to 1923.

Movsesian on Friday declined to comment on the decision.

Assemblyman Mike Gatto (D-Silver Lake) introduced legislation signed into law last year that extended the deadline for victims’ families seeking insurance compensation in California courts to Dec. 31, 2016.

“I'm disappointed in the ruling, of course,” Gatto said in a statement. “This now highlights the importance of the federal government to act. We'll continue in that effort.”

Glendale Councilman Ara Najarian said there are other ways to obtain compensation for the families of Armenian genocide victims.

“We need to focus our efforts on the true perpetrators,” he said, referring to the Ottoman Empire, which killed 1.5 million Armenians from 1915 to 1923.

In 1923, the empire collapsed and was replaced by the Republic of Turkey. Turkish officials have denied that what occurred was genocide.

Najarian said the case should be heard in an international court and the compensation should come from assets passed along to Turkey.

Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank) said he will be studying the decision and working with members of the Armenian American community to determine the next steps to take.

“I was proud to submit an amicus brief on behalf of the genocide victims and their families, and I am more than willing to do so again with the U.S. Supreme Court,” he said in a statement.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs have said they will look for some kind of appeal, but admitted it doesn’t look likely because of the unanimous appellate court decision. The U.S. Supreme Court doesn’t typically review other cases that were struck down when they tried to enforce state law over foreign entities, they added.

Still, Armond Aghakhanian, a member of the Burbank chapter of the Armenian National Committee, said he thinks the matter should be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“It’s a violation of human rights,” he said, adding that the case became politicized due to the fact that Turkey is an ally of the U.S., which needs its support as tensions mount in the Middle East.

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