1371) Politics Trumps Justice for Armenian Terrorist

…the formidable political power of Armenian-Americans to run roughshod over justice…"
Bruce Fein* - It astonishes. It infuriates. And it testifies to the formidable political power of Armenian Americans to run roughshod over justice.

Last month, terrorist Harry Sassounian schemed with Los Angeles District Attorney, Steve Cooley, to escape a virtually certain hate crime conviction punishable by life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. The means was a squalid plea bargain.. .

Mr. Sassounian confessed in open court on October 18, 2002, to participation in the murder of Turkish Consul General Kemal Arikan. He further professed to renounce "the use of terrorist tactics such as the assassination of diplomats to achieve political goals." Finally, the calloused murderer purported to weep over the suffering of the Arikan family, but no flowers or expressions of sorrow for the their bereavements have been forthcoming.

In exchange for his guilty plea to first degree murder and feigned contrition, terrorist Sassounian was made eligible for parole on September 28, 2007 under a sentence of 25 years to life imprisonment. To appreciate the outrageousness of the plea bargain, the horrifying prologue must be recounted.

On January 28, 1982, Mr. Arikan was traveling in a car in the Westwood area of Los Angeles. At a signal stop, two men, (including Sassounian), each armed with large calibar handguns approached the vehicle, whose "Consular Corps" license plates alerted the predators to a diplomatic passenger, i.e., the Consul General of the Republic of Turkey. (Sassounian's brother, Harout, had earlier been convicted of lobbing Molotov cocktails at Arikan's residence). A fusillade of bullets were fired at Arikan at close range. He died from multiple wounds to the head and chest. The perpetrators did not stay and boast of their avenging the claimed Armenian genocide. Instead, they displayed their moral courage by discarding their weapons under a hedge and fleeing in a grey car.

Mr. Sassounian's dastardliness, however, was witnessed by several persons in the vicinity. He was arrested that same afternoon, and charged with capital murder under California's hate crime sentencing enhancement law. It exposes an assassin to the death penalty for a killing motivate by the nationality or national origin of the victim. And there was no non-hallucinatory motive for Sassounian's assassination in the name of "the Cause" other than Arikan's Turkish nationality. The proof of Sassounian's guilt at trial was overwhelming, as was his hate motive: he had previously voiced wrath towards the Turkish people;

Arikan was traveling with diplomatic tags; Sassounian had pre-positioned himself at an intersection along Arikan's customary course of travel; his ambush bore the earmarks of assassination; Sassounian neither attempted to rob nor to kidnap, which left Arikan's Turkish nationality as the sole plausible criminal motive; and, Sassounian was a proud member of the terrorist organization, the Justice Commandos for the Armenian Genocide.

Arikan's jury thus returned a verdict of guilty; it also found Arikan had been assassinated because of his Turkish nationality; and, it imposed a sentence of with life imprisonment without the possibility of parole (declining to opt for the death penalty) because of this "special circumstance" under California law. Sassounian challenged his conviction and sentence in federal "habeas corpus" proceedings. He prevailed with regard only to his sentence in the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in Sassounian v. Roe (December 6, 2000). By a 2-1 vote, a Ninth Circuit panel concluded that the jury had been improperly exposed to incriminating evidence not presented in court that added to the proof of Sassounian's hate motive. Thus, the case returned to the State of California for a retrial on that special circumstances finding that hiked the sentence for ordinary first degree murder.

The retrial was entrusted to Steve Cooley, elected in 2000 to a four-year term as District Attorney of Los Angeles County. Mr. Cooley is thus naturally alert to the voting clout of his constituents. As the retrial approached, he stoutly avowed on September 28, 2001, in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist abominations, that "terrorism by members of one nationality or ethnic group against members of another cannot prevail in a free society."

But as time passed and Armenian Americans flexed their political muscles, Mr. Cooley apparently re-considered. In the darkness of secrecy, he cut the contemptible plea bargain described above. It speaks volumes that the District Attorney never hinted that proof of a hate motive before a jury was doubtful. In other words, a life sentence with no possibility of parole for Sassounian was a virtual certainty with a retrial. Mr. Cooley was unable to identify a single redeeming feature of Sassounian's life that might justify leniency. What Mr. Cooley did know was the following: prior to his scripted performance in the plea agreement, Sassounian for decades adamantly refused to condemn Armenian terrorism targeting Turkey or voice sympathy for its countless victims. The opportunities for voicing reproach were legion: the assassination of Turkish Honorary Consul General Orhan Gurbuz on May 4, 1982 in Boston by the JCAG; the Ankara airport bombing on August 7, 1982, killing 10 and wounding scores by the Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia; the foiled terrorist plot of JCAG to bomb Turkish facilities in Philadelphia on October 22, 1982, with would-be casualties estimated at a frightening 2000-3000; the ASALA threat to the Turkish Consulate in Los Angeles to assassinate Turkish athletes participating in the 1984 Summer Olympics; and, the conviction of Armenian American political icon Mourad Topalian in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Ohio in January 2000 for plotting terrorist bombings of Turkish targets. As further confirmation of Sassounian's impenitence, he enlisted convicted terrorists Viken Hosepian and Viken Yacoubian to raise more than $70,000 for his legal defense on February 24, 2002.

Sassounian remains as proud, exhilarated, and celebrated today for his hate crime loathsomeness as he was on he day of his cowardly deed. So what possibly could have aroused the Los Angeles District Attorney (who is beyond the control of federal athorities) to leniency? Do any of the plausible answers do credit to Mr. Cooley's obligation to see that justice is done?



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