Governor Gavin Newsom vetoed the parole of an Armenian-American man who participated in the murder of a Turkish diplomat in Los Angeles over 38 years ago, rejecting the parole board’s finding that the murderer was repentant and no longer posed a danger to society.
Despite Harry Sassounian’s history of good behavior in prison, he expressed support for the Armenian nationalists in 2012 and has yet to show that he “fully understands the link between nationalism and violence,” Newsom said on Sunday. Before being released on parole, Newsom said, Sassounian must demonstrate a “sustained commitment to avoid behaviors that could be used to incite violence or radicalize others, because he himself was radicalized when he was young. “
Sassounian, also known as Hampig Sassounain, was 19 years old when he and another man ambushed and shot and killed Kemal Arikan, the Turkish consul general in Los Angeles, around the corner in January 1982.
It was one of several murders of Turkish officials largely attributed to Armenian nationalists avenging the murders of 1.5 million Armenians by the Ottoman government between 1915 and 1923, although Turkey denies having committed genocide. Newsom said that several of Sassounian’s ancestors were killed in the massacres, and that the others fled to Lebanon, where he was born, and then to the United States.
The second killer fled and was never captured, but Sassounian was found guilty of first degree murder and sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. Prosecutors agreed to make him eligible for parole in 2002 when he admitted his guilt, apologized to Arikan’s family and renounced terrorism.
The National Parole Hearings Commission voted for his release in 2016, but was rejected by Governor Jerry Brown, who said Sassounian was the perpetrator of the “planned murder of a diplomat” and still posed a risk to the society.
The Trump administration also opposed the release of Sassounian. The murder of a diplomat is “an attack on diplomacy itself” and the attacker should serve the maximum sentence without ever being released on parole, said then state secretary Rex Tillerson and the prosecutor. General Jeff Sessions in a letter to Brown in 2017, a reiterated position. by Mike Pompeo and William Barr in a letter to Newsom.
In the Sunday order overturning the December 2019 council decision, Newsom acknowledged that Sassounian had participated in mutual assistance and vocational training programs, had a “long and satisfactory work record in prison” and had not been penalized for serious misconduct for almost two decades. .
But he quoted a letter that Sassounian wrote in 2012, addressed to the Armenian soldiers and published in a military newspaper, in which he promised to go to the Armenian border and keep it for a few days in the event of release from prison, declaring: “I am a soldier from my homeland until the day of my death.
Sassounian told the parole board that he regretted sending the letter, and he sent another letter to the same newspaper in 2019 disavowing his previous letter. He also told the board that he was committed to non-violence and hoped for peace between the Armenians and the Turks.
But Newsom said his engagements were too recent to be fully reassuring and that Sassounian “must do additional work before he can be released safely.”
The Turkish American National Steering Committee and the American Turkish Association of Southern California welcomed Newsom’s decision. They said that thousands of letters had been sent to the governor asking for the continued imprisonment of a man responsible for “a political assassination, a hate crime and the murder of an official”.
Mark Geragos, a lawyer for Sassounian, said Newsom had given in to autocratic President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
“Like its misguided predecessor Jerry Brown, Newsom lost its moral compass and sided with the dictator Erdogan and the Turkish lobby at the expense of the Armenian community,” said Geragos.
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