By Emil Danielyan and Harry Tamrazian in Prague
Armenian-American advocacy groups see a better chance of clinching a hefty compensation from a major US insurance company after it was placed under investigation by authorities in the US state of New York over unpaid life insurance policies of Armenian genocide victims.
They want the New York Life company, which had sold thousands of life insurance policies to mostly Armenian subjects of the Ottoman Empire before the 1915 genocide, to pay much more than $10 million it offered last year for an out-of-court settlement.
The offer came after a $3 billion class action lawsuit filed in 1999 by 12 heirs or beneficiaries of some of those Ottoman Armenians who had bought New York Life insurance policies and lost their lives in the subsequent orgy of mass killings and deportations. The company has acknowledged that it has at least 2,200 policies that are still "unresolved" and claims that it was for decades unable to locate its holders.
But according to the Washington-based Armenian National Institute (ANI), it has violated a New York state law which stipulates that unclaimed or unpaid life insurance funds must be deemed abandoned property if unclaimed after three to seven years. Life insurance companies are required to submit a written report to the state authorities and then to turn over all abandoned property to the state comptroller.
New York's Office of State Comptroller (OSC) has recently agreed to the ANI’s official request to investigate New York Life’s records to determine whether it violated the law.
“We believe that there appears to be a case of unjust enrichment by New York Life,” said Ross Vartian of the Armenian Assembly of America, which is closely linked to the ANI. “They had the responsibility of turning over the abandoned property -- in this case, life insurance of genocide victims -- to the state of New York and they did not do so.”
Vartian said the $10 million offered by the company is “far too low a sum.” “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,” he told RFE/RL in an interview.
The ANI’s board of governors chairman, Robert Kaloosdian, said the Armenian community in the US hopes that the New York authorities will force the insurance firm to pay a compensation “in the order of many millions of dollars.” “More than 86 years have passed and still New York Life has not made amends to the heirs and beneficiaries of their Armenian policyholders,” Kaloosdian said in a statement last week.
The ANI says its extensive research on the subject has revealed that as early as in 1922 New York Life's vice-president wrote to the then US Secretary of State Robert Lansing to inform him that its Armenian policy holders 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 says New York Life's then top executives confirmed that Talaat Pasha, the leader of the regime of the Young Turks, demanded from the then US ambassador in Constantinople that the Ottoman government be recognized as the heir of the slaughtered Armenian policyholders. The envoy, Henri Morgenthau, later called Talaat's demand "the most astonishing request" he had ever heard.
Vartian said the New York Life documents add to the credibility of Morgenthau’s harrowing accounts of the genocidal policies pursued by the rulers of the crumbling empire. Successive governments of modern-day Turkey have dismissed them as untrue and groundless.