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Senators Introduce Bill Demanding Turkey End Unjust Detention of US Citizens

Legislation Requires U.S. to Reject International Loans to Turkey Until Campaign of Harassment and Detention Ends

WASHINGTON, DC – On Friday, U.S. Senators Bob Corker (R-TN) and Bob Menendez (D-NJ), chairman and ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, introduced bipartisan legislation with Senators Thom Tillis (R-NC), Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), James Lankford (R-OK), and Bill Nelson (D-FL) to restrict loans from international financial institutions to Turkey until the Turkish government ends the unjust detention of U.S. citizens. In 2016, Turkey imprisoned American Pastor Andrew Brunson and indicted him on unsubstantiated charges earlier this year. A Turkish court ruled Thursday that Brunson will remain in custody until the next hearing on his case in October. In April, the senators led a bipartisan group of 66 senators in a letter to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan demanding Brunson’s release. Other U.S. citizens, locally employed staff of the U.S. embassy, and tens of thousands of Turkish citizens still face unacceptable harassment and human rights violations by the Government of Turkey.

“Erdogan continues to undermine Turkey’s democracy, crack down on journalists and violate human rights. And he continues to hold Pastor Brunson on completely baseless charges. This thuggish behavior must not go unchecked,” said Senator Nelson.

The Turkey International Financial Institutions Act directs the U.S. executive of the World Bank and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) to oppose future loans, except for humanitarian purposes, to Turkey by the International Finance Corporation (IFC) and EBRD until the administration can certify to Congress that Turkey is “no longer arbitrarily detaining or denying freedom of movement to United States citizens (including dual citizens) or locally employed staff members of the United States mission to Turkey.”

Turkey relies heavily on loans from both the IFC and EBRD. In 2017, Turkey ranked second among all IFC recipients with $927 million in new long-term commitments. Turkey was the largest EBRD borrower in 2017, securing about $1.8 billion in new commitments.

Text of the legislation is available here.

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Florida’s House Delegation Split on Supporting President Obama’s Call to Arm Syrian Rebels

U.S. President Barack Obama lays out his strategy to defeat ISIL. September 10, 2014

U.S. President Barack Obama lays out his strategy to defeat ISIL. September 10, 2014

Senate Confirms Next U.S. Ambassador to Turkey; Vote on Nominees to Yerevan, Baku Expected in December

By Taniel Koushakjian
FLArmenians Managing Editor

This week, the House and Senate considered measures concerning the Armenian American community. Congress was expected to pass a Continuing Resolution (CR) to avoid a government shutdown on September 30th, when current funding is set to expire. However, after President Obama’s primetime address on September 10th calling for the arming of Syrian rebels, the House voted on a measure to do just that and attached it as an amendment to the CR, setting up a complex and very interesting pattern of voting.

In what Roll Call described as a vote “fractured along untraditional [party] lines,” the House approved the CR 319-108, and 273-156 on the amendment to arm Syrian rebels. 143 Democrats joined 176 Republicans in support of the CR, while 55 Democrats and 53 Republicans opposed. On the Syria amendment, 159 Republicans were joined by 114 Democrats in support of the measure, while 85 Republicans and 71 Democrats opposed.

[Also on FLArmenians.com: From Crimea to Kessab: Did the West Approve the Attack on Kessab]

According to several interviews with Armenian American community leaders across the United States, an overwhelming majority support US airstrikes against ISIL. However, they do not support President Obama’s call to train and arm Syrian rebel factions, especially in the wake of the Turkish-backed rebel assault on the Christian Armenian town of Kessab, Syria earlier this year.

An analysis by FLArmenians.com reveals that House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller (R-FL), and Congressmen Alan Grayson (D-FL), and David Jolly (R-FL) voted against arming Syrian rebels, yet supported the CR.

Republican Congressmen Ted Yoho (R-FL), Ron DeSantis (R-FL), Bill Posey (R-FL), Richard Nugent (R-FL), Tom Rooney (R-FL), and Curt Clawson (R-FL) voted against both the amendment arming Syrian rebels and the CR. Interestingly, Democratic Congressman Alcee Hastings (D-FL), a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, and Rep. Lois Frankel (D-FL), opposed President Obama on both the Syrian amendment and the CR.

Everyone else stood with President Obama in supporting the amendment to arm Syrian rebels and for the CR.

While it is clear that Armenian Americans support the President’s vow to “destroy and ultimately defeat ISIL,” they are wary of training and arming Islamic rebel factions with known ties to al-Qaeda and that have a record of attacking Christians just like ISIL.

[Also on FLArmenians.com: U.S. State Department “Deeply Troubled” by Attacks Against Armenians in Kessab, Syria]

Florida Armenians have an important role to play in this debate. Many Armenian American families in Florida emigrated from Syria, mostly descendants of the 1915 Armenian Genocide. Some still have relatives there. They are uniquely familiar with the regional dynamics and can provide critical insight into what groups truly protect and respect religious minorities, be they Christian Armenian, Assyrian, or Yezidi.

Ambassador Nominees to Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Turkey

Mills, Cekuta, Bass

On Wednesday, the Senate voted 98-0 to confirm John R. Bass as the next U.S. ambassador to Turkey. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-NJ), and Senators Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Mark Kirk (R-FL), and Ed Markey (D-MA) submitted to the nominee questions on the Armenian Genocide and Turkey’s blockade of Armenia. “We commend Chairman Menendez, and Senators Barbara Boxer, Mark Kirk and Ed Markey for their stance on issues concerning Turkey’s denial of the Armenian Genocide, the Turkish-Azerbaijani blockade of Armenia, and other critical issues affecting the region,” stated Armenian Assembly of America Executive Director Bryan Ardouny. “Following in the footsteps of Henry Morgenthau, the U.S. ambassador to the Ottoman Empire who in 1915 alerted the world to the Armenian Genocide, it is important that our Foreign Service officers execute a foreign policy that appropriately reflects America’s values,” he said.

Both Florida Senators Bill Nelson (D-FL) and Marco Rubio (R-FL) supported Bass’ nomination without question.

Also on Wednesday, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee heard testimony from President Obama’s nominees to be the next U.S. ambassador to Armenia and Azerbaijan, Richard M. Mills and Robert F. Cekuta, respectively. Both are expected to be confirmed by the full Senate sometime during the lame-duck session, which is scheduled to begin on Wednesday, November 12th.

Couple Stranded by Cruise in Turkey Receives Outpouring of Support

Dodge Melkonian, 89, is in an Istanbul hospital with his wife, Jill, 65. Turkish tour operator Okan Kutlu, right, donated blood so Dodge could get surgery on his broken hip. Courtesy of Hasan Capraz for Tampa Bay Times.

Monday, August 26, 2013 7:56 PM

Brittany Alana Davis, Staff Writer
Tampa Bay Times

CLEARWATER — A Clearwater couple is finally getting help in an American hospital in Turkey after Royal Caribbean cruise lines abandoned them at a rural hospital, leaving them with only hand gestures and guidebook Turkish to try to arrange surgery for a broken hip.

Dodge Melkonian, an 89-year-old World War II veteran and businessman, is now recovering at an American hospital in Istanbul, where he eventually was transported for hip surgery.

The procedure’s success was only possible, said his wife, Jill Melkonian, 65, because of two persistent Palm Harbor travel agents and a Turkish tour guide who befriended the couple and even donated his blood for the surgery.

(ALSO on FLArmenians: Armenians and the Purple Heart)

Jill Melkonian emailed the Tampa Bay Times from Turkey on Monday to say the hospital food is delicious, the Turkish people are “heartwarming and kind” and the visit has been full of “unexpected beautiful moments.”

A real estate agent, Melkonian said she and her husband have visited nearly 200 countries and intend to keep traveling despite the difficulties they’ve endured in the last week.

Their international saga began Aug. 19, a day after they departed on a 12-day cruise to Ukraine, Turkey, Georgia, Russia, Bulgaria and other countries through Azamara, a Royal Caribbean subsidiary.

They got the free trip after their cabin caught fire on a previous Royal Caribbean cruise to southeast Asia in March 2012.

At 1:30 a.m. Aug. 19, Dodge Melkonian rose from bed and stumbled in the dark.

The ship’s doctor diagnosed him with a broken hip, and the cruise line transported the husband and wife to Bartin, a rural province in northern Turkey on the Black Sea. The hospital there had no intensive care unit, and it was clear they needed to move elsewhere.

Jill Melkonian and others tried to get her husband transferred by helicopter, but Royal Caribbean and On Call International, the travel insurance company that offers insurance for the cruise line, delayed.

Friends arranged for a government ambulance, but On Call intervened and insisted on using its own ambulance, arriving more than 24 hours later to pick up the couple for a seven-hour ride over rugged roads.

The ambulance had no doctor or nurse. And by the time they arrived in Istanbul, Dodge Melkonian’s pills were not enough to shut out the pain.

As of Monday, On Call still hadn’t put in writing how much of the medical costs it will cover.

Royal Caribbean and On Call International did not respond to multiple phone calls and emails from the Times on Sunday and Monday.

(READ: U.S., Turkey, Armenia Conference on Tourism and Hospitality: The Highway to Sustainable Regional Development)

The incident has inspired an outpouring of love and support from friends and strangers in Turkey and the United States even as it has raised the ire of critics of the cruise and insurance industries.

Dodge Melkonian, an active member of the Clearwater Evening Lions Club, got a visit Monday from a member of the Lions Club in Istanbul.

And travel agents Tammy Levent and Judy Sontag of Elite Travel Management Group in Palm Harbor have also thrown their support behind their clients, contacting the U.S. State Department, Gov. Rick Scott and Sen. Bill Nelson.

Nelson, who contacted the American Embassy in Turkey, called the incident “outrageous.” And Levent said she’s talking with Nelson’s office about drafting a law that would ban cruise lines from leaving people stranded.

“Where is the humanity in that?” she said. “There is no accountability, and that has to change.”

Levent and Sontag contacted Turkish tour operator Okan Kutlu of TSC Travel, who has spent the past week haggling with the insurance company, the cruise line, the U.S. Embassy and the Turkish government on behalf of the Melkonians. He translates for the couple and visits them every day after he finishes work at 7 p.m.

And it was Kutlu’s A-positive blood donation that made it possible for Melkonian to get the surgery.

Jill Melkonian calls Kutlu “an angel,” but he’s clearly modest.

“They do not know anybody else in the country with same blood type,” said Kutlu, who said the mixing of blood symbolizes “that all mankind has the same creation, even if we are from different nations, religions, cultures and speak different languages.”

He said Melkonian is in a lot of pain and has a fever but smiles a lot and keeps his spirits up.

In the meantime, Jill Melkonian said, the nurses at the hospital love her husband and are giving him “lots of hugs.” The doctor told him he has the “health and body of a man 30 years younger,” she said.

Any setbacks, she said, were only the result of the length of time it took to get treatment.

“He is trying very hard to be a good patient,” she said. “But he is a very proud man and very independent.”

**UPDATE**

Cruise Line Agrees to Pay Medical Bills for Passenger Stranded in Turkey

Tuesday, August 27, 2013 3:49 PM

By Brittany Alana Davis, Staff Writer

Tampa Bay Times

CLEARWATER — Under pressure from media reports and blasted by U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, Royal Caribbean cruise line has agreed to pay “any medical bills not covered by insurance” for an injured 89-year-old man abandoned by the cruise line in Turkey.

Dodge Melkonian of Clearwater, who bought medical insurance coverage through the cruise’s travel insurance partner, On Call International, broke his hip Aug. 19, one day into a 12-day cruise. The cruise line left Melkonian and his wife, Jill, 65, at a rural Turkish hospital that had no intensive care unit.

Pain-ridden, Melkonian waited 24 hours before an insurance-issued ambulance with no doctor or nurse transferred him to an American hospital in Istanbul.

The insurance company also told the couple they would have to front the money for medical treatment.

Two travel agents with Elite Travel Management Group in Palm Harbor promoted the story to the news media and contacted several elected officials to try to help the Melkonians, their clients. They also contacted a Turkish tour guide to help the couple as a translator. He ended up donating his own blood so Melkonian could get hip surgery.

Royal Caribbean executive Dr. Arthur Diskin, who oversees global medical care for the cruise line, emailed Jill Melkonian on Tuesday and promised to pay any medical bills not covered by insurance.

“Our customarily strong support was not up to the standard you deserve,” the email stated. “Although medical situations produce anxiety and stress, especially when they occur away from home, I regret that we weren’t more successful in minimizing these inherent difficulties for you and Mr. Melkonian.

“The focus continues to be on Mr. Melkonian’s and your well-being; arranging your travel home; helping you plan for follow-up care; and easing your logistical and financial concerns,” the email continued.

Melkonian is feverish but is getting “lots of hugs” from nurses while he recovers from his surgery, Jill Melkonian said Monday.

Brittany Alana Davis can be reached at (727) 445-4155 or bdavis@tampabay.com.

This article originally appeared on the Tampa Bay Times and is reprinted with the permission of the author.