By Robert Fisk
Incirlik is America’s forward air base in Turkey, take-off point for the US air battle against Isis. But in less than two months, a group of Armenians, all descendants of the 1915 genocide of one-and-a-half-million Christians massacred by Ottoman Turkey, will claim in a US court that the land on which America’s jets take off to bomb Syrian and Iraqi targets belongs to them, and must be returned to their families.
As an increasing number of European nations acknowledge the most appalling crime against humanity of the First World War as a genocide, which the US Government still refuses to accept for fear of upsetting Turkey, the ghosts of the dead, it seems, are returning to haunt even America’s latest Middle East war.
This is no arcane historical legal argument but a potentially deeply embarrassing political case, in which three named Armenians who are full US citizens will, in a California court, assert their rights to land under and around Incirlik, seven miles from Adana, where around 1,500 members of the 39th US Air Base Wing are based in Nato’s southern command.
The Pentagon’s own war-speak propaganda describes how Incirlik is “a strategic location… close to many of the world’s trouble spots”, where US personnel help “protect US and Nato interests in the southern region by providing a responsive [sic] staging and operation air base, ready to project integrated, forward-based air power” with “excellent facilities”.
Unfortunately for the Americans, in that other war a century ago, the very lands below these “excellent facilities”– and their two runways and aircraft shelters – belonged to the doomed Armenians of the Ottoman Empire. They included farms, houses and a village church and school, summer homes to the Armenian Christians who lived in the nearby city of Adana and grew fig tree plantations at Incirlik, whose very name in Turkish means ‘the place of figs’.
Almost all these Armenians were exterminated in the genocide by the Ottoman Turkish Government, not long after the Allied landings at Gallipoli, victims of the first industrial holocaust of the 20th century. They were slaughtered with knives and thrown into mass graves, shot down by militia firing squads, tied together and hurled into rivers, their women gang-raped and their children burned alive, hundreds of thousands dying on death marches into what is now northern Syria.
Their suffering is now acknowledged as a genocide by more than 20 nations, including Russia, France and now Germany. The US, fearful of losing the Incirlik air base and other military facilities by angering Turkey, is one of the few advanced Western nations that still refuses to acknowledge the genocide – itself accepted as a historical fact by hundreds of international and even Turkish historians, but sadly not by the Turkish Government, which provided the Nazis with the inspiration for the Jewish Holocaust of the Second World War.
The August hearing at the 9th Circuit Court of California will involve three named Armenian descendants of genocide victims and survivors – Alex Bakalian, Anais Haroutounian and Rita Mahdessian – who are formally asking for the return of 122 acres of land in and around the Incirlik air base.
Another 13 Armenians may also be added to the complaint, which would then cover the entire territory of the air base whose “sparsely populated terrain and uncongested airspace”, to use the Pentagon’s words, is now home to the 728th US Air Mobility Squadron.
Their transport aircraft carry 70 per cent of all cargo entering Afghanistan, where American troops continue training missions in their war against the Taliban.
The base is also home to Turkish fighter squadrons in their ferocious bombing campaign against Kurdish rebels. It provides housing for at least 2,000 Turkish and US service family members. Thus the American hospital, dental clinic, chapel and Starbucks and Pizza Hut outlets on the base have been erected – unknown, no doubt, to almost all the Americans who work there – on the wreckage of one of the 20th century’s most terrible war crimes, land for which the US Government has paid millions of dollars in rent since the 1950s.
The original lawsuit, referred to in court as Bakalian versus the Republic of Turkey, was filed in December 2010 in the Central District Court of California by the three named descendants of Armenian victims who claimed that the defendants confiscated and then profited from land at Incirlik illegally seized during the genocide.
The case was officially brought against the Turkish Government-owned Central Bank of Turkey and TC Ziraat Bankasi, a state-owned agricultural bank. The Turkish state never appeared before the court, although the Armenians’ lawyers say they were “validly served with the complaint”.
At first, the two banks asserted ‘sovereign immunity’ and asked the court to dismiss the lawsuit. In the First World War, the Ottomans appointed their national banks as holders of abandoned Armenian property – holders, of course, who for the most part had already been murdered.
But according to independent Armenian-American researcher Missak Kelechian, who has investigated the history of the Armenian-owned land and is helping Vartkes Yeghiayan and Kathryn Boyd, lawyers representing the three plaintiffs – he has already researched the deaths of Armenian orphans in Turkish hands in Beirut during the First World War – the case could force American courts to acknowledge the Armenian genocide in law.
For, in March 2013, the district court determined that the banks could be held to answer for the expropriation of property of Ottoman and Turkish nationals when this action was associated with human rights abuses, including genocide.
“Following long-established rules of immunity recognised by all nations, US law abrogates the immunity from legal action in US courts traditionally afforded to foreign states in a few limited and specific situations,” Mr Yeghiayan says.
“The district court found that the Foreign Service Immunities Act denies immunity to the Turkish banks in this case because the banks are doing business in the United States and therefore the lawsuit falls within one of the sovereign immunity exceptions. But the district court ruled that the case must still be dismissed because it involves a political question.”
Bakalian, Haroutounian and Mahdessian, however, appealed to the 9th Circuit Court of California and the case was transferred from the district court; the next hearing is scheduled for August this year.
Lawyers for the three Armenians have seized on US Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent remarks – that the acts committed by Isis against Christians, Yazidis and Shi’ite groups constituted genocide, which “must [still] be brought to light by an independent investigation and through formal legal determination made by a competent court or tribunal”. They say their three clients have always believed their case should be judged on its legal, not political, merits.
There can be little doubt, however, that this far distant and historically based case contains an explosive political message: if the Armenian genocide is acknowledged by a US law court, it can only be a matter of time before the government in Washington is forced to use the very same word for the mass killings of 1915.