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Turkish Diplomats Angered by Armenian Killer’s California Parole

FILE - California Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks during a news conference in Rancho Cordova, Calif., April 14, 2020.
FILE - California Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks during a news conference in Rancho Cordova, Calif., April 14, 2020.

Turkish diplomats are outraged at California Governor Gavin Newsom’s refusal to appeal a court decision to allow parole for an Armenian-American man convicted in the January 1982 killing of a Turkish diplomat in a Los Angeles neighborhood.

Hampig “Harry” Sassounian, now 58, was convicted in 1984, nearly two years after witnesses said he and another assailant approached the vehicle of Turkish Consul General Kemal Arikan while it idled at an intersection in Westwood, shooting the diplomat 14 times.

The other suspected shooter, Krikor Saliba, escaped to Beirut, Lebanon, shortly after the killing.

Sassounian, an Armenian immigrant, was initially sentenced to life in prison without parole. A federal appeals court then overturned the jury’s special-circumstances finding of murder because of national origin.

Sassounian and Saliba were members of an Armenian militant organization, Justice Commandos of the Armenian Genocide, which carried out a string of attacks on Turkish interests worldwide.

In 2002, Sassounian signed a statement renouncing terrorism, and the prosecution agreed not to proceed with a retrial on the special-circumstances finding. He was then resentenced to 25 years to life in prison and has since been denied parole four times and granted parole twice.

Both of those paroles were appealed and overturned — once by former Governor Jerry Brown and once by Newsom, who reversed a May 2020 decision to parole Sassounian. A Los Angeles Superior Court judge then vacated that reversal in February, which Newsom is now refusing to challenge.

"The governor has carefully weighed the factors in this case and will not pursue an appeal,” said Newsom's spokesperson.

Turkey’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement on Twitter, “We strongly condemn this approach that deeply hurts the conscience of the Turkish nation.”

“This grave decision, that could not be reversed despite all attempts of the U.S. administration, is in conflict with the universal principles of law and the understanding of justice,” the ministry said.

The statement said Sassounian “has never shown a sign of remorse" over his conviction and the crime “will never be forgotten as a crime that represents a sick and distorted ideology.”

The State Department expressed disappointment at Friday's decision.

"Attacking a diplomat is not only a grave crime against a particular individual, it is also an attack on diplomacy itself," Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a prepared statement. "To ensure the safety of the dedicated U.S. diplomats serving around the world, it has been the long-standing position of the United States to advocate that those who assassinate diplomats receive the maximum sentence possible, and that they serve those sentences without parole or early release.”

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