By Harut Sassounian
Publisher, The California Courier
While there is frequent talk about the pursuit of Armenian claims against Turkey in the International Court of Justice (World Court), the possibility of taking legal action in the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) is rarely mentioned, despite its distinct advantages.
The key difference between the two courts is that only governments can file lawsuits in the World Court, while any individual, group or state can take legal action in the ECHR, giving Armenians countless possibilities for lawsuits against the Turkish state. Litigants before ECHR must first exhaust all domestic remedies and be from one of the 47 member states of the Council of Europe, which includes Armenia and Turkey.
It is not a coincidence that Turkey leads the list of countries being sued in ECHR, as in the last two and half years alone, over 20,000 cases have been filed against that country. Contrary to popular belief, Turkey has no choice but to comply with all ECHR judgments if it wants to maintain its membership in the Council of Europe. This explains why the Ankara government has diligently paid tens of millions of dollars to litigants after losing hundreds of ECHR judgments.
A case in point is ECHR's October 1, 2013 decision against Turkey, in which the court awarded over 5 million euros (close to $7 million) to two Greek brothers, Ioannis Fokas and Evangelos Fokas, who live in Katerini, Greece. The Turkish courts had barred them from inheriting their sister Polikseni Pistika's buildings in Turkey because of their Greek nationality.
In their lawsuit, the Fokas brothers claimed that "they had been deprived of the ownership and use of three immovable properties in the Beyoglu district of Istanbul, namely three buildings and land, which they were entitled to inherit from their sister." The expropriated properties consisted of an eight-story building worth 3.3 million euros, a six-story building worth 1.4 million euros, and a four-story building worth 400,000 euros, based on the appraisal by an Istanbul real estate agency.
The ECHR found that the Turkish courts' "refusal to recognize the applicants' status as heirs constituted an interference with their right to peaceful enjoyment of their possessions and that such interference was incompatible with the principle of lawfulness…. Accordingly, recognition of the applicants as the heirs of Polikseni Pistika…would place them in the position they would have been in, had the State [Turkey] not expropriated the deceased's property.… In those circumstances, an award of compensation for the pecuniary loss seems to be the most appropriate just satisfaction (see Nacaryan and Deryan vs. Turkey, no. 19558/02 and 27904/02, <<<<16-17, January 8, 2008). The Court considers that such an award principally corresponds to the amount that the applicants could legitimately expect to have obtained as compensation for the loss of their property, had there been a mechanism to request such compensation."
Based on the above ruling, the European Court awarded the Greek brothers 5 million euros for their expropriated real estate, as well as compensating them for their "anguish and frustration which the applicants must have experienced over the years in not being able to use their properties." The Court ordered the Turkish government to pay the amount of the award to the applicants within three months.
In the referenced Nacaryan and Deryan vs. Turkey case, ECHR found that the Turkish courts had also violated the rights of Yeran-Janet Nacaryan and Armen Deryan by claiming that as Greek citizens, they could not inherit the property of their deceased relative in Turkey "on the ground that the condition of reciprocity between Greece and Turkey had not been met." ECHR declared Turkey guilty and awarded the two Greek-Armenian applicants a total of 500,000 euros.
At the international conference of Armenian lawyers held in Yerevan last July, Constitutional Court Chairman, Gagik Harutunyan, announced the formation of a committee of experts to study the legal merits of filing a lawsuit against Turkey to remedy the massive losses resulting from the Armenian Genocide.
Given the fact that ECHR provides for European Council litigants many more opportunities than the World Court, the recently-formed Armenian committee of legal experts should cast a wider net in considering the possibilities of filing lawsuits against Turkey in the European Court of Human Rights, as well as in national and international courts.