This past April, as Armenian Americans across the country were working hard and eagerly waiting to see if President Biden would recognize the Armenian Genocide in his first April 24th remembrance day statement, the community was also mourning the loss of three extraordinary men who would leave the their mark on the world in a way that makes all of us proud to be both Armenian and American.
In the beginning of April, the news broke that long time philanthropist and American homebuilder Hirair Hovnanian had passed away at his residence in Yerevan, Armenia, where he had retired after an impressive and successful life and career.
A bold, daring and caring individual, a visionary leader, the founder and benefactor of many charities, and devoted longtime Chairman of the Armenian Assembly of America’s Board, Hirair Hovnanian leaves behind a remarkable legacy. Hirair was an amazing leader and mentor, always ready to roll up his sleeves and tackle any challenge. Hirair’s integrity, passion, dedication, commitment, work ethic, and love of his people, were extraordinary.
A successful businessman, whose generosity extended to causes around the world, Hirair felt energized by the independence of Armenia, and did everything in his power to assist the newly independent Republic. He demonstrated his commitment to Armenia by resettling in his homeland where his philanthropy extended beyond precedent. Hirair responded immediately to the 1988 earthquake and embarked upon the recovery and rebuilding of the devastated areas. A builder and developer by profession, he knew exactly the type of assistance required and established a building parts manufacturing plant to accelerate the reconstruction process. His generous contributions in support of educational and religious institutions in Armenia and the diaspora are legion.
At the helm of the Assembly, he helped shape non-partisan advocacy, creating an example of a united voice for Armenian Americans in Washington, D.C., and strongly believed in the unique role of American leadership in advancing democracy and human rights. He lent every measure of support within his means towards the affirmation of the Armenian Genocide, including the establishment of the Armenian National Institute. He welcomed Armenian Assembly interns to his home every summer and embraced the next generation with his infectious enthusiasm for all things Armenian. Through his boundless generosity, he touched the lives of countless citizens in Armenia and Artsakh to whom he exemplified the best of the Armenian diaspora.
“We are all saddened by this great loss and remain immensely grateful to Hirair for his unparalleled legacy. He was the champion of every cause that benefited the Armenian people, and he never hesitated to lead from the front with unwavering dedication and commitment. May he rest in peace,” read a statement from the Armenian Assembly.
Ambassador Set Charles Momjian, a former trustee and board member of the Armenian Assembly, passed away on Monday, April 12, 2021 in Huntingdon Valley, Pennsylvania.
“He was born in Atlantic City on April 9, 1930 to Julia and Charles Momjian, both orphaned refugees from the Armenian genocide who were raised by American missionaries. The two parents were born in Malatya in the Ottoman Empire. Charles died at an early age and the family, which included younger brother Albert, had a difficult time during the Depression era,” the Armenian Mirror-Spectator reported.
After enrolling in the U.S. Army, Set Momjian led a prolific career in marketing and advertising at the Ford Motor Company. He went on to become a special advisor to U.S. presidents, and, per President Jimmy Carter’s appointment, served as a U.S. representative to the United Nations with the rank of Ambassador. Momjian was also appointed as a member of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council by President Ronald Reagan in 1981.
Momjian’s impactful commitment to the Assembly and Armenian causes on Capitol Hill is still relevant today. His longtime friendship with President Joe Biden was cultivated during train rides he shared in the 1980s with the Delaware Senator, who was then Chairman of the Judiciary Committee and marshaled through committee approval of an Armenian Genocide resolution, which Senator Bob Dole (R-KS) brought to the Senate Floor in 1990.
“The Assembly appreciates the Momjian family’s dedication, including Set Charles Momjian’s brother Albert’s many years of service as the Assembly’s Solicitor, a role which Albert’s son, Mark Momjian, currently holds. The Assembly extends its condolences to Set Charles Momjian’s family and loved ones,” an announcement from the Assembly stated. Momjian was also active with the AGBU and the Knights of Vartan.
Three days later, on Thursday, April 15th, the world mourned the loss of Dr. Vartan Gregorian, President of the Carnegie Corporation, and one of the most famous Armenians in American history.
Dr. Gregorian was invaluable in the Armenian American community’s efforts to educate the public about the Armenian Genocide and the consequences of its denial. He led the way for others who followed in his footsteps in academia, administrative leadership at top universities, and as a world leader of philanthropy and education. His life’s work, much to long to list in a single column, took him to incredible places across the globe and led to his service in prestigious posts, such as the “Savior of The New York Public Library,” as the New York Times catalogued, as well as President of Brown University, and the Carnegie Corporation of New York, to name but a few.
“This is a painful loss for all Armenians, the United States, and the world. His achievements will stand the test of time, and the spirit in which he delivered those achievements will always be valued. May he rest in peace,” a statement from the Armenian Assembly read.
By Harut Sassounian
Halkbank, whose majority shareholder is the Turkish government, pleaded not guilty in New York on March 31, 2020, to criminal charges that it helped Iran illicitly transfer tens of billions in dollars and gold, wrote Aykan Erdemir and Philip Kowalski in an essay published on April 3 by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute based in Washington, D.C.
On October 15, 2019, the Federal Southern District Court of New York accused Halkbank of “fraud, money-laundering and sanctions offenses,” alleging that Halkbank and its executives aided Iranian-Turkish gold trader Reza Zarrab in a “multi-billion dollar scheme to circumvent U.S. sanctions on Iran.”
Initially, Halkbank refused to appear in court “claiming that the criminal charges are beyond the U.S. court’s jurisdiction,” Erdemir and Kowalski wrote. However, when “prosecutors proposed escalating contempt fines which could have totaled $1.8 billion after eight weeks,” the bank agreed to respond to the court charges.
Originally, the Turkish and Iranian officials had concocted a scheme to exchange gas for gold to circumvent the U.S. sanctions, by claiming that the gold was headed not to Iranian government entities but to Iran’s “private sector.” Erdemir and Kowalski stated that “the scheme ultimately yielded the Iranian regime some $13 billion in Turkish gold between 2012 and 2013. Once the U.S. Congress introduced legislation to close the ‘golden loophole’ in 2013, Iran used Turkish front companies to issue invoices for fake transactions of food and medicine that fall under the humanitarian exception to U.S. sanctions. In one infamous case of over-invoicing, a Turkey-based luxury yacht company used Halkbank to sell nearly 5.2 tons of brown sugar to Iran’s Bank Pasargad at the price of approximately $240 per pound.”
This scheme was first exposed in December 2013 by Turkish investigators who implicated then Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, several of his ministers and other senior officials, including Halkbank’s managers. Erdogan shut down the probe by firing the police officials, prosecutors and judges!
The scandal resurfaced in March 2016 when Iranian-Turkish ring-leader Reza Zarrab was arrested in Miami after he flew to Florida to visit Disney World with his family.
In March 2017, U.S. authorities arrested Halkbank Deputy CEO Mehmet Hakan Atilla upon his arrival in New York. Zarrab pleaded guilty and agreed to testify in court against Atilla. Zarrab confessed that he had bribed senior Turkish ministers and top Halkbank executives. He even implicated Erdogan in the corruption scheme, stating that Erdogan had personally approved the illegal actions.
“Halkbank’s Atilla received a 32-month prison sentence in May 2018, a significantly shorter one than prosecutors had originally sought,” according to Erdemir and Kowalsky. “After Atilla’s return to Turkey, Erdogan rewarded the convicted sanctions buster by appointing him CEO of the Istanbul stock exchange, following the president’s established pattern of rewarding other senior accomplices of Zarrab with cushy appointments.”
Erdogan personally appealed to Pres. Trump and other senior officials to block the court case of Halkbank, claiming that US courts have no right to try Turkish citizens. The Courthouse News Service reported that “One of Zarrab’s shell companies, Royal Holding A.S., listed its address as a 35th floor unit in Trump Towers Istanbul. Before pleading guilty to money laundering, sanctions evasions and bribery, Zarrab retained Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani to lead a campaign of shadow diplomacy that echoed the one in Ukraine. Shuttling between Turkey’s capital of Ankara and the White House, Giuliani met with Erdogan, Trump, former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and other senior U.S. and Turkish officials in an attempt to negotiate a prisoner swap. The New York Times reported that Tillerson resisted the White House pressure for a deal that would have effectively killed the Zarrab case.”
Erdogan’s and Giuliani’s efforts succeeded in stalling the prosecution for almost two years, but ultimately failed when the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York went forward with the charges last October.”
Senator Ron Wyden, the Senate Finance Committee’s top Democrat, told Courthouse News Service: “It sure looked like Donald Trump was doing the bidding of Erdogan and Giuliani, and there were real questions about whether this was about getting Halkbank off the hook, even though there were allegations that they were orchestrating the largest sanctions evasion scheme in history.”
During President Trump’s Senate impeachment inquiry earlier in 2020, Senators Wyden, Robert Menendez and Sherrod Brown asked a joint question which was read aloud in the Senate by Chief Justice John Roberts: “Has the president engaged in a pattern of conduct in which he places his personal and political interests on top of the national security interests of the United States?”
Wyden told Courthouse News Service: “Donald Trump has significant financial interest in Turkey,” referring to Trump Towers Istanbul. “We read regularly that his family has forged personal relationships with important Turkish officials. And so, you have to ask — which is what is part of our inquiry — whether the Trump policy toward Turkey is in a significant way colored by his personal and political interests and not the national security of the country.” If Halkbank is found guilty of violating U.S. sanctions, the court could impose a hefty penalty, regardless of Tump’s wishes.
Last week, Florida Armenians Managing Editor Taniel Koushakjian sat down with Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan during his trip to Washington, D.C. Sargsyan travelled to the U.S. to attend the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in New York City where he delivered an impassioned speech about the need for international condemnation of Azerbaijan military attacks against Armenia and Nagorno Karabakh that has recently claimed several lives, including three Armenian female civilians, in the last few weeks.
From New York, President Sargsyan, accompanied by Foreign Minister Eduard Nalbandian, Presidential Chief of Staff Vigen Sargsyan, and Armenian Ambassador to the U.S. Tigran Sargsyan, travelled to Washington, D.C. for a series of meetings with Armenian American community leaders. Koushakjian shared with Sargsyan activities of the Armenian community in Florida marking the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide. Koushakjian explained that Florida is one of 43 states that has acknowledged the 1915 Armenian Genocide by Ottoman Turkey, which was last proclaimed by former Governor Jeb Bush in 2006. Although Florida recognizes the Armenian Genocide, it does not have an official curriculum mandated by the state to teach the Armenian Genocide. Sargsyan inquired if the presidential candidate was aware of his strong record on the Armenian Genocide, which Koushakjian assured him was the case.
In that regard, Koushakjian talked about efforts by Florida Armenians and the Armenian Assembly of America to advance Armenian Genocide education in the Sunshine State despite lack of a state mandate. For instance, in April of this year Koushakjian presented an Armenian Genocide exhibit entitled “Iconic Images of the Armenian Genocide” at the Holocaust Museum of Southwest Florida (HMSWFL). In the lead up to the presentation, the Turkish Consulate in Miami wrote a threatening letter to the HMSWL objecting to the presentation and demanding it be canceled. Koushakjian explained to Sargsyan that Armenian Genocide denial exists around almost every street corner in America and that grassroots efforts promoting genocide education are vital to ensuring a future free of mass atrocities.
In addition, Koushakjian thanked Armenia’s Foreign Minister Eduard Nalbandian for his efforts to confront and assist with the Syrian refugee crisis. To date, Armenia has absorbed close to 20,000 refugees, the majority of which are the most vulnerable communities: Armenians, Assyrians, Yezidis, and other religious minorities. In addition to Armenian government efforts, Nalbandian has raised the cause of the Syrian peoples’ plight to the international community on several occasions this year alone. Koushakjian informed Nalbandian that Florida Armenians would do everything they can to inform the American public that Armenia is the last Christian safe haven in the Middle East.
In the afternoon, the Florida Armenians attended a luncheon on Capitol Hill hosted by the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation (IRWF) and the Congressional Caucus on Armenian Issues in honor of President Sargsyan. House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-CA) gave remarks and introduced President Sargsyan. “For years, the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation has been a leading voice promoting awareness of the Holocaust and other genocides throughout history, and the Foundation has called upon all of us to have the courage to stand against such despicable brutality in the future,” stated Chairman Royce. “As the leader of a people who survived the first genocide of the twentieth century, President Sargsyan is well aware of the need for that courage. We must continue to speak the truth about the Armenian Genocide and learn its bitter lessons in order to help others who are targeted,” Royce said.
The luncheon featured remarks by special guest Robert M. Morgenthau, grandson of U.S. Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire Henry Morgenthau, who received an award from IRWF Chairman Eduardo Eurnekian and co-founder Baruch Tanembaum for his efforts advancing Armenian Genocide recognition.
On Thursday, October 1, President Sargsyan concluded his visit to Washington with a presentation at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.