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ACLU Backs Armenian Group in Lawsuit

December 27, 1990|DOUG SMITH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The American Civil Liberties Union has come to the defense of a Glendale-based Armenian political organization that was sued for demonstrating against a performance of the Soviet Red Army Dance Ensemble last year.

The lawsuit, filed in San Diego by the producer of the show, alleges that the protest staged by the Armenian National Committee's Western Region caused it to lose $100,000 on the November, 1989, appearance of the Soviet dancers at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles.

The lawsuit, filed in October, seeks unspecified punitive damages in addition to recovery of the lost money.

ACLU attorney Carol A. Sobel said the case was a "contract dispute which has become a vehicle for stifling First Amendment rights."

In announcing its decision last week to defend the Armenian National Committee, the ACLU was joined by a variety of civil rights and national interest groups in condemning the lawsuit as an assault on the right of free speech.

Among the groups that sent representatives to a press conference were the Baltic American Freedom League, the American Chinese Human Rights Advocates, the Muslim Political Action Committee and the Romanian Faith and Freedom Coalition.

The Armenian National Committee is the public affairs wing wing of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, a worldwide Armenian independence movement.

The lawsuit resulted from the disruption of the Soviet dance company's Nov. 2, 1989, opening by more than 1,000 demonstrators opposing the Red Army's involvement in the territorial conflict between the Soviet republics of Armenia and Azerbaijan.

The Armenian group charges that the Red Army attacked Armenians and assisted the Azerbaijanis in enforcing a blockade of Armenia.

Though peaceful, the demonstration blocked the auditorium entrance, causing more than a two-hour delay as police led ticket-holders in through side doors.

The USSR Artists Touring Co., which represented the dancers, filed suit in August against the Southern California Theatre Assn., alleging breach of contract for failing to pay guaranteed revenues.

In a countersuit, the Southern California Theatre Assn. also named the Armenian National Committee and two of its representatives.

"They shut the show down that first night, intimidated the crowd," said attorney Robert S. Besser, who represents the theater association.

Besser said he was surprised that the ACLU became involved.

"I think they took the wrong side," Besser said. "I've always understood the ACLU to be a defender of free speech, not the defender of people who try to shut down free speech, which is what the Armenians did that night."

Named in the suit were Berdj Karapetian, now the executive director of the organization, who acted as its spokesman on the night of the demonstration, and Garen Yegparian, then its executive director. Another organization, the Armenia Now Alliance, was also named.

No trial date has been set for the lawsuit.

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