Tuesday, April 8, 2003
Court to Decide Whether Armenians Involved in Bomb Plot Can Be U.S. Citizens
By a MetNews Staff Writer
A limited en banc panel of the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals will decide whether a district judge had the authority to grant citizenship to two local men in an effort to prevent the government from deporting them for their involvement in a terrorist plot 20 years ago, the court said yesterday.
Chief Judge Mary M. Schroeder, in a brief order, said a majority of the court’s unrecused active judges had agreed to grant en banc review of a three-judge panel’s October ruling.
The divided panel said Senior U.S. District Judge Mariana Pfaelzer abused her discretion by granting naturalization petitions by Viken Hovsepian and Viken Yacoubian without requiring them to exhaust administrative remedies. Judges Diarmuid F. O’Scannlain and Andrew Kleinfeld were in the majority, with Senior Judge Dorothy W. Nelson dissenting.
O’Scannlain, writing for the court, acknowledged that Hovsepian, who holds a USC doctoral degree in international relations and manages a hedge fund, and Yacoubian, the principal of a private Armenian school in East Hollywood, “have lived exemplary lives and have become pillars of their communities since their release from prison.” But it is not up to the courts to determine whether that outweighs the seriousness of their crimes, he said.
“Judicial sympathy only functions within prescribed parameters of the law,” he said.
Pfaelzer ordered that both men be granted citizenship in 1999, 14 years after she sentenced them to federal prison camps for plotting to blow up the Turkish consulate in Philadelphia in 1982. Efforts to remove the two Lebanese citizens from this country were described by the judge during an earlier hearing as “nothing short of lunacy.”
The FBI linked the two to the Justice Commandos for the Armenian Genocide, which the bureau blamed for the killing of 21 Turkish diplomats, including the Turkish consul killed in Los Angeles in 1982.
The group advocated violence against Turks in retaliation for the killing of 1.5 million Armenians in the early part of the last century and the refusal of modern-day Turkey to accept responsibility. The Turkish government calls the figure “grossly erroneous” and attributes the deaths of Armenians in that period to “intercommunal” political, rather than ethnic and religious, conflict.
The bomb plot of which Hovsepian and Yacoubian were convicted was exposed after the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court issued a warrant to tap Hovsepian’s telephone.
A co-conspirator was able to get the bomb on board a Los Angeles to Boston flight in October 1982, but was arrested upon landing. The FBI, which seized the bomb, contended that had it been detonated, it would have likely killed thousands of people.
When the pair was sentenced, Pfaelzer said they were “basically of good character.” She rejected calls by federal prosecutors for lengthy sentences, and issued a “judicial recommendation against deportation” for both defendants, who are permanent U.S. residents.
Under pre-1990 immigration law, a JRAD, as it was known, constituted an absolute bar to deportation based on the underlying conviction. But the Ninth Circuit ruled in 1994 that a change in the law mandating deportation for certain offenses took precedence over the JRAD.
Pfaelzer then ordered the convictions expunged under the Federal Youth Corrections Act—which the judge found applicable because the men were less than 26 years of age when they committed the crimes—and granted them citizenship.
The three-judge panel, however, ruled that even if it was proper to resentence the men as youthful offenders at age 40, it was up to the INS, not the district judge, to determine whether they remained deportable.
The case is United States v. Hovsepian, 99-50041.
Copyright 2003, Metropolitan News Company