Saturday, February 9, 2008


Agence France Presse
Feb 05 2008

LOS ANGELES (AFP) - Lawyer Vartkes Yeghiayan has been waging a long
and hard battle against US and French giants for million-dollar claims
from Armenians dating back to the waning days of the Ottoman Empire.

Thousands of unpaid insurance policy claims have flowed in from the
Armenian diaspora across the globe to Yeghiayan's small legal firm
in Glendale, a Los Angeles suburb with the largest concentration of
Armenians in the US.

In his two-decade crusade, Yeghiayan and a small team of lawyers have
won 37.5 million dollars for clients after settling two cases with
New York Life in 2004 and later in 2005 with French insurers AXA in
California courts.

But the silver-haired, 71-year-old lawyer is pragmatic about his
quest to seek a financial settlement for the heirs of Armenian
account-holders, who lost their lives or assets in the mayhem of
World War I and before the birth of modern Turkey in 1923.

Armenians say at least 1.5 million were killed from 1915 to 1917 in
what they call a campaign of deportation and murder by the Ottoman
Empire. The claims are denied by Turkey, which says hundreds of
thousands died on both sides after Armenians took up arms for

Several of Yeghiayan's own family members perished, including a
grandfather whose name, however, does not appear on his lists of life
insurance policies which were never honored.

"These are not genocide lawsuits. What we are talking about is
companies making an immoral profit," said the former Peace Corps
assistant director.

"It's not for the money. It's the concept that your grandfather felt
there was a danger and wanted future protection for his family. As one
of the beneficiaries said, 'That's a sentiment I will always cherish.'"

The heirs of 9,500 Ottoman Armenians who had bought policies are
eligible to benefit from the New York Life and AXA deals, which also
have to cover more than seven million dollars in legal expenses and
fees. Any unclaimed funds have been earmarked for Armenian charities
and the church.

Yeghiayan's odyssey started back in 1986 when he was reading the
memoirs of the US ambassador to Ottoman Turkey, Henry Morgenthau.

In a meeting with then interior minister Mehmed Talaat Pasha,
Morgenthau was asked for a list of Armenians who had taken out
insurance policies with American companies. The Turkish minister
argued the Ottoman government was the rightful beneficiary since
there were no heirs.

Morgenthau, who had reported back to Washington on the horrors which
his consuls were witnessing, stormed out of the meeting.

For Yeghiayan, that passage was a moment of revelation.

"That's when I jumped out of bed," says Yeghiayan.

With the enthusiasm of a detective, he launched a massive paper-trail
hunt which took him from the State Department to the National Archives
and finally into the insurers' annual reports and aging archives.

Taking gambles, such as turning down an initial settlement offer, he
courted the help of influential Armenians in California's political
hierarchy to help clear legal hurdles.

In the November 2005 AXA settlement, the largest number of some
9,000 claims came from Armenia, where a poster campaign gave details
about the case and sought claimants, followed by the United States,
and France.

As in the earlier New York Life case, for which the funds have already
been disbursed, claimants from far apart as Brazil, Bulgaria and
Lebanon were also represented.

Under the terms of the settlement, New York Life denied any wrongdoing,
but "concluded that it is in its best interests to settle this action
... in order to avoid the expense, inconvenience and interference
with its ongoing business operations that would result from further

But treasure-hunters will be disappointed -- the average award per
policy amounts to a modest 6,000-7,000 dollars in the so-called Class
Action cases.

Undeterred by recent setbacks in court, Yeghiayan now has his sights
set on Deutsche Bank and Dresdner Bank of Germany.

Deutsche Bank told AFP they "do not comment on pending legal
procedures," but both banks, through their lawyers, have denied any
liability, arguing the suit amounted to "unconstitutional" meddling
in Germany's foreign affairs.

Despite emergency heart surgery in 1999, Yeghiayan has no plans to step
down. "I realize the other side may have 3,000 lawyers and that Vartkes
will not be around forever, but what am I going to do if I retire?"

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