PASADENA (CN) – A Ninth Circuit panel on Thursday affirmed the dismissal of lawsuits by descendants of Armenian genocide victims, finding the statute of limitations on claims that Turkey illegally seized their ancestors’ land during the atrocities expired long ago.
Descendants of the genocide victims said in two 2010 lawsuits that the Ottoman Empire illegally claimed their ancestors’ land and unlawfully held profits from the land in two banks, the Central Bank of the Republic of Turkey and T.C. Ziraat Bankasi.
In a December 2010 lawsuit, Alex Bakalian, Anais Haroutunian and Rita Mahdessian sought roughly $65 million in damages and a judgment that Turkey could be tried in U.S. courts for actions related to their genocide of 1.5 million Armenians within the former Ottoman Empire.
The banks moved to dismiss the claims by asserting immunity under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act.
U.S District Judge Dolly Gee dismissed both cases in 2013 under the political question doctrine which says certain questions – in this case, determining whether Turkey’s actions were genocide – should be handled by the executive branch, not the courts.
Turkey has resisted calling the historical event a genocide, and the issue is considered controversial as the U.S. seeks to normalize relations with their NATO ally.
Gee declined to rule on the statute of limitations issue, which had been fully briefed by all parties for an appeal. Most of the atrocities took place between 1915 and 1923.
The Ninth Circuit affirmed Gee’s ruling Thursday, writing in a 12-page opinion that the land grab claims are time-barred since the court previously held a California law extending the period for Armenian genocide-related lawsuits to December 2016 is unconstitutional.
U.S. Circuit Judge Andrew Hurwitz, a Barack Obama appointee, wrote that even if plaintiffs believed that any lawsuit against Turkey would be futile until 1976, when Congress laid out which immunity exceptions existed under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, the current claims are still time-barred.
“Even if we assume that the plaintiffs’ claims were equitably tolled until 1976, the plaintiffs do not explain why they should be tolled a further twenty-four years,” Hurwitz wrote for the panel.
Attorneys for the parties did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Noting a U.S Supreme Court directive, Hurwitz found the panel must avoid “advisory opinions on the merits and drive-by jurisdictional rulings” and therefore cannot rule on whether there is a genocidal takings exception to sovereign immunity laws.
“In particular, answering that question would require us to decide whether to consider the state of international law at the time of the taking or at some later point, and whether at the relevant point in time either genocide or a genocidal taking was a recognized violation of international law,” he wrote for the panel. “The political question analysis also turns on a complex issue of first impression: whether the FSIA necessarily authorizes the judiciary to decide in the first instance whether a genocide has occurred even if a foreign state denies that it has.”
U.S. Circuit Judges Kim Wardlaw McLane and Marsha Berzon, both Bill Clinton appointees, joined the opinion.
The U.S. military’s Incirlik air base currently sits on the land in question, which is located in the Adana region of Turkey.