By Haro Chakmakjian, 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 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 independence. 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 litigation." But treasure-hunters will be disappointed -- the average award per policy amounts to a modest $6,000-7,000 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?"