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Former U.S. envoy to Armenia tells how 1 word ended his career

WASHINGTON—Ambassador John Evans ended one life and started another when he uttered one remarkable word: genocide.

As the U.S. ambassador to Armenia, and a career diplomat, Evans knew the uses of circumlocution. Some words, he understood, must be avoided. But then, speaking in Fresno, Los Angeles and Berkeley, Calif., two years ago, Evans violated U.S. policy by declaring that Armenians were the victims of a genocide from 1915 to 1923.

"Clearly, I had stepped out of the box," Evans said in an interview. "But what I didn't know precisely was what the reaction would be."

He found out soon enough.

Evans' State Department superiors published apologies in his name. They cut him out of decision-making, then ended his ambassador's posting altogether. His Foreign Service career collapsed, while his fellow diplomats debated whether he was heroic or foolhardy.

"I had some colleagues who managed to tell me I did the right thing," Evans said, "and I had others who were dubious."

The fallout continues: The United States still lacks a permanent ambassador in Yerevan because of Senate discontent with Evans' treatment.

April 24 is the day that Armenians worldwide commemorate the start of the 1915 horrors. Members of Congress will give speeches. President Bush will issue a traditional declaration, omitting the linchpin word "genocide."

Evans will speak freely at the National Press Club, something he couldn't do during his 35-year State Department career. He also has written a manuscript, for which he's seeking a book publisher.

"I came to what I felt was an ethical dilemma," Evans said. "I felt I could not carry out the policy of denial of the Armenian genocide."

April 24, 1915, was when leaders of the Ottoman Empire's Young Turk government began rounding up Armenian leaders. What happened next is unsettling history. Armenians say an estimated 1.5 million died.

Numerous historians and myriad state and foreign governments have concluded that the Ottoman Empire events amounted to genocide.

Under international law adopted in 1948, genocide is the "intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group." It covers killing and deliberately inflicting "conditions of life calculated to bring about (the population's) physical destruction in whole or in part."

Turkey fiercely opposes the description of the Armenian deaths as genocide, maintaining that the Armenians were caught in a complex, multi-front war and that considerably fewer than 1.5 million died.

The diaspora cast Armenians out to U.S. areas that include California's San Joaquin Valley, New Jersey and Michigan. These concentrated populations prompted American politicians to take up the Armenian cause.

"The failure of the domestic and international authorities to punish those responsible for the Armenian Genocide is a reason why similar genocides have recurred and may recur in the future," says a pending House of Representatives resolution that Rep. George Radanovich, R-Calif., co-authored this year.

Some 190 members co-sponsored the resolution. It hasn't been scheduled for a vote yet, amid intense lobbying. Last week, members of the Turkish Parliament lobbied against it.

The Bush administration opposes the resolution, as did the Clinton administration. Although President Reagan officially recognized "the genocide of the Armenians" in April 1981, the standard administration response has been resistance.

"It's a tragedy; everybody agrees with that," Richard Hoagland, Bush's nominee to replace Evans, declared at his Senate confirmation hearing last June, but "instead of getting stuck in the past and vocabulary, I would like to see what we can do to bring different sides together."

His nomination has been frozen, caught in the Capitol Hill conflict. The resolution's fate turns on whether House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., kills the bill at Bush's request, Radanovich predicted.

Now 58, Evans said that no one had warned him explicitly to watch his words before he became ambassador to Armenia in 2004. Everyone simply knew, he said, that "there was a taboo" against the word genocide. He eventually decided that he needed to "help people understand" the history.

"I chose to do something which goes against the grain of every diplomat," Evans said, and that was "to break with the policy of the United States government."

When his comments became widely known, the State Department issued apologies. The statements included made-up quotes that Evans now says others crafted and attributed to him.

"Let's put it this way: I had no role in it," he said of the statements.

The State Department stresses that ambassadors serve at the pleasure of the president, and officials have publicly denied that Evans was pulled from Yerevan prematurely.

Nonetheless, he and his wife, Donna, have been living at their daughter's house in New York since last September. They can't move back into their own Washington-area home yet, because they had rented it out for the full three years they had expected to be in Armenia.