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Armenia/U.S.: Tensions Rising Over Unpaid Ottoman Policies

By Emil Danielyan and Harry Tamrazian

The Armenian community in the United States is stepping up pressure on a major U.S. insurance company that is facing a multimillion-dollar lawsuit over the unpaid life insurance policies of thousands of Armenians massacred in the Ottoman Empire between 1915 and 1922. Some of the victims' relatives or beneficiaries accuse the company of unlawful enrichment. The case is regarded by Armenian diaspora organizations as a potential milestone in their campaign for international recognition of what many historians say was the first genocide of the 20th century.

Yerevan/Prague, 12 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Armenian-American groups say they now see a better chance of winning a hefty compensation settlement from the New York Life insurance company after it was placed under investigation by authorities in the U.S. state of New York.

They want the company -- which sold thousands of life insurance policies to mostly Armenian subjects of the Ottoman Empire before the 1915 mass killings -- to pay much more than the $10 million it reportedly offered in an out-of-court settlement.

New York Life conducted business in the Ottoman Empire from the late 19th century. By 1914, it had at least 8,000 local contracts for life insurance policies worth more than $10 million. The majority of the policies were held by Armenians. Many of them lost their lives in the subsequent mass killings and deportations.

New York Life has acknowledged it has at least 2,200 policies that are still what it classifies as "unresolved." The company claims that it was for decades unable to locate the policyholders. Last April, it made a settlement offer to 12 heirs or beneficiaries of its deceased Armenian clients who had filed a class-action suit in California in 1999.

The offer was rejected. The plaintiffs argue that what was worth $10 million 90 years ago is worth much more these days and are demanding $3 billion in compensatory damages.

Armenian advocacy groups, which have thrown their weight behind the plaintiffs, recently opened a new front against New York Life. New York's Office of State Comptroller (OSC) has agreed to their request to investigate the insurance firm's records to determine whether it violated a state law on abandoned property.

The law stipulates that unclaimed or unpaid life insurance funds must be deemed abandoned property if unclaimed after three to seven years. Life insurance companies are then required to turn over all abandoned property to the state comptroller.

Ross Vartian of the Armenian Assembly of America says New York Life failed to comply with these requirements.

"We believe that there appears to be a case of unjust enrichment by New York Life. They had the responsibility of turning over the abandoned property -- in this case, life insurance policies of genocide victims -- to the state of New York, and they did not do so."

The Washington-based Armenian National Institute (ANI), which was instrumental in the launch of the New York inquiry, says it has collected credible evidence to substantiate the charge. ANI director Ruben Adalian says, "The documents which we have found had been written by the New York Life company and submitted to the American government."

Vartian believes the inquiry will be "very helpful" to the case of the Armenian plaintiffs. But he and other Armenian-American activists have so far refrained from specifying the minimum amount of financial compensation that will satisfy them.

"As to what the number could be in the future, it's really impossible to tell at this early date. But we expect it to be substantially higher than $10 million."

The ANI, meanwhile, says its extensive research on the subject has brought to light more facts that will make it harder for modern-day Turkey to deny the Armenian genocide. The institute says it has found that as early as 1922, New York Life's vice president wrote to then-U.S. Secretary of State Robert Lansing to inform him that its Armenian policyholders were "subjected to massacre and illegal killing and fatal exposure by or with the acquiescence of the Turkish authorities." He asked Lansing to help recover losses New York Life sustained in the Ottoman Empire.

The ANI also says New York Life's top executives at the time confirmed that Mehmet Talaat Pasha, one of the leaders of the Young Turks regime, demanded from the U.S. ambassador in Constantinople that the Ottoman government be recognized as the heir of the slaughtered Armenian policyholders. The envoy, Henry Morgenthau, later called Talaat's demand "the most astonishing request" he had ever heard.

According to Vartian, the New York Life documents add to the credibility of Morgenthau's bloody accounts of the crumbling empire. Successive Turkish governments have dismissed them as untrue and groundless.

Morgenthau's memoirs figure prominently in a collection of Western documents that purport to show that some 1.5 million people were massacred and starved to death by the Ottoman Empire in a systematic campaign to exterminate the Armenian population.

Turkey denies the massacres were genocide and puts the Armenian death toll at 300,000. Ankara maintains that Ottoman Armenians were killed by what they describe as domestic unrest during the final years of the Ottoman Empire.