Hampig Sassounian: An Archetypal Example of Contemporary Armenian Terrorism
By Maxime Gauin
Turkish Weekly, September 6, 2011
The congress of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation of 1972, organized in Vienna, Austria, decided the return to terrorist methods and the creation of a terrorist branch, the so-called “Justice Commandos Against Armenian Terrorism,” later renamed the “Armenian Revolutionary Army.” Among the main targets of the JCAG/ARA were Turkish diplomats, with a preference for ambassadors and consul generals. Initially, the assassinations were carried out with exceptional professionalism, as if the JCAG/ARA were actively assisted by a secret service of a state, for instance the Greek KYP [Minassian 2002, pp. 22-23, 28-29, 32-34 and 44-45]. After 1979, the terrorists were more frequently amateurs, and thus arrested in several cases. . .
On January 28, 1982, Kemal Arikan, the Turkish consul general in Los Angeles, was assassinated by the JCAG. One of the two perpetrators, Hampig “Harry” Sassounian was arrested. He was sentenced to life imprisonment without parole, in first-instance (1984) and appeal (1986), for assassination motivated by the nationality of the victim, on the basis of several testimonies, a ballistic analysis, a gunshot residue test, and other material evidence [verdict 1986]. Since the day of his arrest, Hampig Sassounian received total, unconditional support from the ARF, all over North America, and beyond, in France especially, but also in Canada, Greece, Iran, Lebanon, Syria, and even in some countries where there are only small Armenian communities, like Saudi Arabia, Spain, and the UK. Thanks to the developed structure of the ARF, these campaigns were more organized, professional, and systematic than the support to GourgenYanikian, a former volunteer of Russian army during WWI, who relaunched in practice Armenian terrorism by the assassination of Kemal Arikan’s predecessor, Mehmet Baydar, and of the vice-consul Bahadir Demir (January 27, 1973). Support Committees for Hampig Sassounian were created in various cities of the U.S., of course in California, but also far beyond this state, for example in Providence, Rhode Island and Boston, Massachusetts.
The Sassounian family exemplifies to an extreme level the culture of hatred advocated by the ARF. Hampig Sassounian’s brother, Harut, had been sentenced in 1980 to six years in jail for an attempt of assassination by arson (Molotov cocktail) against the same Turkish diplomat. The first reaction of their father, after Kemal Ar?kan’s assassination, was: “I am glad that a Turk was killed.”
The defense of Hampig Sassounian, led by the Dashnak lawyer Paul Geragos (born Geragossian), assumed a denial of all guilty evidence as well as a diversionary strategy, speaking largely of the “Armenian genocide” allegation. It was not very different from the defense strategy of most of the other Armenian terrorists, for example the Dashnak terrorist Max Hrair Kilndjian, judged in Aix-en-Provence in 1982 for the attempt of murder against the Turkish ambassador in Berne; Mardiros Jamgotchian (ASALA), the assassin of Mehmet S. Yergüz, secretary of the Turkish consulate in Geneva, in 1981; Abraham Thomassian, judged in 1983 for the bombing of the Turkish Airlines office in Paris; and the four ASALA terrorists judged in Parisin 1984 for the attack on the Turkish consulate general. However, Mardiros Jamgotchian escaped life imprisonment (he received 15 years, and served barely 10 years) and the other obtained remarkably light sentences.
The “Ottawa three” were sentenced to life by a Canadian justice for the attack on the Turkish embassy in Ottawa, the murder of the security agent Claude Brunelle, and the attempted murder of the ambassador; but they eventually changed their defense strategy to a lower profile and were released after 25 years, i.e. the minimal time. The Dashnak Levon Demirian was the most careful of the arrested Armenian terrorists, choosing non-Armenian lawyers who focused on the case itself, and obtained that their client be acquitted of murder charges in appeal. Mr. Demirian was indeed indicted for a bombing which killed only the perpetrator; his counsel argued successfully that the defendant did not want to kill his accomplice. Mr. Demirian left his jail after the minimum of ten years. The case of the perpetrators of the Orly attack are special, showing both the effectiveness of a coherent, strong Turkish response, and the dangers of politicizing history through senseless bills in Parliament [Gauin 2011].
Only Gourgen Yanikian persevered in being aggressively proud of his crime, despite having been sentenced to life; as a result, he left prison only to decease at home, about three weeks following his release. So, Hampig Sassounian, the single Armenian terrorist of the 1970s and 1980s still in jail, is also the single example of a failing, and anyway ongoing defense strategy. Mr. Sassounian is now 48 years old, and could not, unlike Gourgen Yanikian, request a governor’s pardon for medical reasons.
Despite the support for Hampig Sassounian having come from—and still coming—far beyond California, it would be not an exaggeration to speak of a Californian specificity: the state concentrates half of the Armenian community in the U.S., a density which gives it maximum electoral influence, and as a result, a minimum of concern for respectability. This specificity leads to an identification of Hampig Sassounian as the ARF itself, and of the ARF as Hampig Sassounian. Mr. Sassounian tattooed on himself the emblem of his party, and since 1982, his party devotes to him its most expensive, expansive, and obsessive campaign of support to a terrorist.More than $250,000 was collected in 1982, and more than $70,000 in 2002 [Gunter 2011, p. 69; Asbarez 2002]. In the issue of November/December 2000, p. 9, Haytoug, the official publication of the Armenian Youth Federation (AYF, young Dashnaks) said: “The likes of Hampig Sassounian […] for us are not terrorists, are not killers, they are martyrs, and heroes, the souls of a forgotten past.”
The defense of Hampig Sassounian is now led by Mark Geragos, the son of his first lawyer Paul Geragos, and also one of the people in charge of the very questionable court cases filed by Armenians against German insurance companies or, more recently, against the American Federal Government itself. Paul Geragos dared to state, during a Dashnak meeting of February 2002: “The genocide continues,” referring to the refusal of a U.S. justice to release Hampig Sassounian [Asbarez 2002].
This support or the terrorist Sassounian should not be regarded as only nostalgia without practical consequences. Going to Los Angeles to argue against Hampig Sassounian’s release in 2010, David Saltzman, the lawyer of the Turkish embassy in Washington and of the main Turkish American associations, had to come to the parole board in an armored car, escorted by two police cars. Actually, the file presented by the Assembly of Turkish American Associations (ATAA) demonstrated, by firsthand evidence, that not only does the ARF still present Hampig Sassounian as a hero and an example, but also trains—in the 2000s—some of its junior members with the handling of firearms [ATAA 2010]. Similarly, the file presented by the ATAA for the Mourad Topalian trial demonstrated that the use of physical violence against Turkish and related targets remained ordinary for at least some Armenian nationalists of California until 2000 [ATAA 2000].
Armenian terrorism against Azerbaijan (1989-1994), the support for Armenia’s aggression against its neighbor, and the Armenian support for the PKK, especially the sending of the ARF’s specialists in explosives to the PKK’s training camps in 1985-1986, were a kind of substitution for the previous anti-Turkish terrorism; other nationalist Armenians were in a similar situation [Gunter 2011, pp. 63-64, 68, 80-83 and 92-93; Minassian 2002, pp. 74, 108-109, 116, 136-223, and 194].
For the moment, there is no indication that the ARF World Bureau seriously considers a reactivation of the JCAG/ARA. September 11, the following attacks of al-Qaida, or more recently, the fusillade by the far-right Norwegian terrorist Andreis Breivik—a staunch Armenophile, Greekophile, and Turkophobe—gave the darkest, or rather the truest, image of terrorism. On the other hand, one of the posters proudly displayed—including on the Web—during the ARF’s demonstration against the Turkish-Armenian protocols in Beirut (2009), in English: “If you open the border, you will see bombs.” Apparently, nobody in the ARF’s branches in the U.S., Europe, or elsewhere protested against such a threat. The accumulation of disappointments (failure of the recognition of the “genocide” claims in the U.S. and of the censorship bill in France, dismantlement of the PKK cells in France, Belgium, Italy, and the Netherlands, Roj TV trial in Denmark) can also lead to use again the most extreme and traditional methods. Vicken Hovsepian, supreme representative of the ARF in the U.S. and member of the World Bureau, could hardly be an unconditional opponent to any return to terrorism: he was himself sentenced to six years in prison in 1984, for an attempted bombing.
Regardless, the most credible danger is the use of terrorism by isolated people: factions of the youth Dashnak organizations and/or groups nostalgic for the ASALA. In addition to the concerns of LA police for Mr. Saltzman’s safety, it’s possible to cite the successful death threats of the ASALA’s veterans association against Armen Gakavian in 2008-2009, the unsuccessful death threat against the member of U.S. Congressman Stephen Cohen in 2008, and the hurling of Molotov cocktails by Armenian demonstrators at the Turkish embassy in Moscow in April 2007.
The next parole hearing of Hampig Sassounian will take place in 2013. A release would be a bad signal for the supporters of the Armenian terrorism, especially since it would happen two years before 2015.