Courts & Crime

Appeals court ends Armenian Genocide Museum and Memorial challenge

A federal appeals court may have ended, once and for all, an extraordinarily protracted legal fight over a proposed Armenian Genocide Museum and Memorial.

In a 37-page decision, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit unanimously upheld a 2011 trial judge’s order awarding the property intended for the museum to the Cafesjian Family Foundation.

The three-judge panel’s decision rejected competing claims by the Armenian Assembly of America, which had sought a new trial. Most poignantly, though, the appeals court voiced dismay over what it called the “morass of litigation” that has entangled museum plans.

“More than seven years and millions of dollars in legal fees later, much of the parties’ work to achieve their dream of a museum appears to have been for naught, which is regrettable,” Judge Robert L. Wilkins wrote. “Whatever happens next, hopefully our decision today can at least serve as the last word on this dispute’s protracted journey through the courts.”

Hirair Hovnanian, chairman of the Armenian Genocide Museum and Memorial, said in a statement following release of the ruling Tuesday that “we hope the Cafesjian heirs keep the promise Gerry (Cafesjian) made to the courts, which was to use this property to build a museum."

At one time, the late Cafesjian Family Foundation founder Gerald Cafesjian was a benefactor of the Armenian Assembly. Together, they planned the museum and memorial marking the period from 1915 to 1923, when by some estimates upward of 1.5 million Armenians died at the hands of the Ottoman Empire.

In downtown Washington, project supporters bought a four-story National Bank of Washington building in 2000. Cafesjian provided funding and bought adjacent properties, with a clause that the properties would revert to his control if the project wasn’t finished by Dec. 31, 2010.

Cafesjian and the Armenian Assembly subsequently had a falling out, leading to the seemingly endless court battles over control of the property.

“With the benefit of hindsight, (the Armenian Assembly) may now think this deal improvident, but no sense of buyer’s remorse can empower us to rewrite the plain terms of the contract to which they agreed,” Wilkins wrote.