(CN) – Romania’s Communist regime confiscated a “state-of-the-art film laboratory and studio” in the 1940s and two Angeleno expatriates claim in court that it belongs to their family, and they want it back.
Jak and Edward Sukyas sued Romania and RADEF Romania Film on March 16, in Los Angeles Federal Court.
Both plaintiffs were born in Bucharest, Romania. Jak Sukyas became a U.S. citizen in 1990 and his brother, a citizen of Canada since 1977, became a U.S. permanent resident in the 1990s.
The brothers say their father, a Turkish citizen, and their uncle, a U.S. citizen, both of Armenian descent, founded Cinegrafia Romana, or CIRO Films, a post-production laboratory and studio, in the mid 1930s.
Based in Bucharest, CIRO Films “was the industry-leading motion picture production and post-production company for the entire Balkan region with substantial U.S. business,” according to the lawsuit.
The plaintiffs’ uncle, who lived in the United States in the 1920s, began sending short runs of Charlie Chaplin films to a friend in Romania for distribution. After he enlisted the plaintiffs’ father as his agent in Romania, the company became the leading film distributor in Eastern Europe, according to the complaint.
“By the late 1920s to early 1930s, their business had exploded and the elder Sukyas brothers had established themselves as prominent figures in the Eastern European film distribution business by securing distribution deals with Columbia Pictures, United Artists, Metro Goldwyn Mayer and Pathé News in America and bringing the burgeoning, young Hollywood film industry to Romania,” the lawsuit states.
In the late 1930s, the elder Sukyas brothers bought CIRO, a film laboratory with production and postproduction studios. It operated out of a three-story lab building, an office building, two large studio buildings and other facilities.
In addition to commercial film work, the company handled copying and subtitling of foreign films and of government-sponsored newsreels. CIRO produced the first spoken motion picture in Romania, the brothers say.
“CIRO continually updated its equipment for the production and post-production of films to ensure that the company only operated using state-of-the-art technology. By following this reinvestment business model, by the eve of World War II in the late 1930s CIRO was extremely valuable and worth many multiple times more than it was when it had been established,” according to the 29-page complaint.
The young Sukyas brothers claim the Communist government illegally took their family’s business in 1948, before Romania passed laws to nationalize most private property.
“Plaintiffs’ uncle and father, brothers Melik Soukias and Vahram Sukyas respectively, were equal owners of CIRO when the Romanian Communist government illegally expropriated CIRO in 1948 in violation of international law, by way of a sham stock purchase made under duress from threats of imprisonment and threats to safety,” the complaint states. “Since that time, the company has been operated by state-owned successor-in-interest companies, which continue to do business in the United States.”
When the rise of the Communist regime in Romania brought increased antagonism to foreigners, Melik Soukias returned to the United States in the late 1940s, leaving the family business in his brother’s hands.
The Romanian and Soviet governments sabotaged CIRO’s business in the following years, and Romania’s Communist government eventually asked the plaintiffs’ father to sell the business. Before he could sell it, however, the government arrested Vahram Sukyas on false charges of economic sabotage and pressured him to give up the company for an extremely low price.
After Sukyas was convicted and ordered to pay a fine, he was released from jail. The Communist government agreed to give exit visas for Sukyas and his family, including the plaintiffs, but confiscated the company and paid nothing, according to the lawsuit.
The Romanian courts acquitted Sukyas of all charges after the government took over and liquidated the company, but never returned Sukyas’ property nor paid any damages, the lawsuit states.
CIRO became part of the National Cinematographic Office, and later was passed to successor government agencies such as RADEF.
RADEF, a government agency, continues to use CIRO’s assets and business model, according to the lawsuit. RADEF imports and distributes foreign motion pictures, including U.S. films, in Romania.
“Post-Communist era legislation enacted by Romania at the time it joined the European Union in 2007 provides for compensation and legal redress for state-confiscated property,” the complaint states. “Through this legislation, defendant Romania has de facto admitted the wrongful expropriation of CIRO, which was carried out by ultra vires means, including imprisoning Vahram Sukyas to extract the forced sale of the company prior to Communist Romania passing its nationalization laws in the late 1940s.”
The plaintiffs claim the Romanian justice system thwarted their efforts to recover their family’s inheritance, despite reparation laws.
They say RADEF operates out of the original CIRO facilities in Bucharest and continues the company’s business, which includes deals with U.S. film producers and distributors such as Lions Gate Films and Buena Vista International.
“Defendant Romania had no legitimate reason for appropriating CIRO,” the complaint adds. “At the time of the confiscation, the Romanian government was actively targeting and discriminating against foreigners living and operating successful businesses in Romania. The Romanian government particularly targeted American-owned companies it perceived as promoting American interests (such as CIRO, which was half-owned by U.S. citizen Melik Sukyas and whose business involved the importation of American film materials to Romania for post-production activities). No just compensation was paid by defendant Romania in exchange for its appropriation of the company in 1948.” (Parentheses in complaint).
The plaintiffs inherited the estate of their father, who died in 1977.
“Corruption and lack of impartiality and independence of the judiciary make efforts to exhaust domestic remedies in Romania futile,” the complaint states. “The U.S. Department of State and Western and Romanian news outlets alike have investigated the ongoing vulnerability of the Romanian judicial system to political influence and corruption and found that, as a result, the judicial system suffers from a lack of independence and impartiality. Reports have highlighted in particular that the Romanian government continues to fail to take concrete measures to return properties confiscated during the country’s Communist regime, despite legislative efforts. For example, the most recent U.S. State Department Human Rights Report for Romania noted that there has been widespread condemnation of Romania’s laws for restituting property seized by the former Communist and fascist regimes, and that several provisions disproportionately favor the government and current occupants over the rightful owners.”
The brothers say they filed several claims for restitution and reparations in Romania, but all their appeals were rejected.
They say an expert appraiser assessed their damages for the loss of CIRO at $2 billion as of October 2013.
They seek restitution and damages for unlawful expropriation, unjust enrichment, conversion and interference with prospective economic relations.
They are represented by K. Lee Crawford Boyd with Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck of Los Angeles.
After Romania’s new President Klaus Iohannis took office in December 2014, the government’s unprecedented campaign against corruption and organized crime went into overdrive. Scores of business magnates, former government officials and politicians from all major parties have been jailed.
A former top prosecutor who was appointed to head the government’s unit investigating organized crime was arrested on a charge of receiving kickbacks while in office.
While most Romanians welcome the clean-up campaign as a move toward democracy and rule of law, critics view it as an attempt to appease the United States and European Union, and as political retribution.
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