• Fri. Jun 9th, 2023


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Attack on Turkish Restaurant Lands Two Men in Prison

Two California men were sentenced this week to federal prison terms for attacking five employees of a Turkish restaurant in Beverly Hills, Calif., in November 2020 because of their anger at Turkey’s support of Azerbaijan in its conflict with Armenia, federal prosecutors said on Tuesday.

The men, William Stepanyan, 23, of Glendale and Harutyun Harry Chalikyan, 24, of the Los Angeles neighborhood of Tujunga, had each pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy and one count of committing a hate crime, federal prosecutors said.

A federal judge on Monday sentenced Mr. Stepanyan to five years in prison and Mr. Chalikyan to 15 months, according to a statement from federal prosecutors. The men were also ordered by Judge Stephen V. Wilson of U.S. District Court to jointly pay $21,200 for damage to the Beverly Hills restaurant, officials said.

Prosecutors had sought a sentence of seven years for Mr. Stepanyan and nearly five years for Mr. Chalikyan, according to court documents. Prosecutors wanted a longer sentence for Mr. Stepanyan because of his criminal history, which included a conviction for assault with a deadly weapon, according to court documents.

“These defendants were driven by hate, and their actions were deplorable,” Tracy L. Wilkison, the United States attorney for the Central District of California, said in the statement. “The physical injuries and emotional trauma to the victims cannot be understated. We hope that the sentences handed down today will help vindicate those harms.”

Tensions have long existed between the Armenian and Turkish communities over the mass killings of Armenians more than a century ago, and the frayed relations have played out intensely in Los Angeles, which is home to a large Armenian population.

In April 2021, President Biden broke with predecessors and declared the killing of 1.5 million Armenians by the former Ottoman Empire a “genocide,” a classification that was largely symbolic but that had been sought by Armenian-Americans for decades.

Months earlier, on Nov. 4, 2020, the defendants and other men met in a supermarket parking lot to “discuss a string of violent acts that had been committed against the Armenian community in the preceding days,” according to a sentencing memorandum by Jilbert Tahmazian, Mr. Chalikyan’s lawyer.

Mr. Chalikyan was drunk during this meeting and fired up over a six-week war between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the contested Nagorno-Karabakh region that had erupted in late September and had killed thousands, according to the memorandum.

Prosecutors said the fighting caused heightened tensions in Turkish and Armenian communities in the United States and led to numerous protests and counterprotests in Los Angeles and elsewhere.

After a rally in Glendale, the two men and others drove to the Turkish restaurant — which was not named in the indictment — because they thought it was symbolic of Turkey and believed Turkish people would be there, prosecutors said.

Prosecutors said in an indictment that each defendant threw at least one chair toward the victims, and one of them — it wasn’t clear from the indictment who — shouted, “We came to kill you! We will kill you!” They both smashed glassware, Mr. Stepanyan ripped out computer terminals, and both men fled before the authorities arrived, according to the indictment.

Prosecutors said the attack caused at least $20,000 in damages, and the victims suffered injuries, including when an object struck one person on the back and when some victims fled, but details on the extent of injuries were not available in the indictment.

Lawyers listed for both men could not immediately be reached late Tuesday. But Mr. Tahmazian, Mr. Chalikyan’s lawyer, said in the sentencing memorandum that many Armenians in Los Angeles are descendants of families who fled the genocide, and that some might have been triggered by the “eerie parallels” of Turkey’s rhetoric during the Azerbaijan conflict to that of the Ottoman Empire during the genocide.

Mr. Chalikyan’s actions, he argued, were “an aberration” in contrast to his usual demeanor and “due to world events which evoked a frenzied hysteria within him.”