On 15 October 2015, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) made a controversial ruling: Switzerland had violated Dogu Perincek’s right to freedom of speech. Perincek is a Turkish politician who made a series of provocative speeches in Switzerland saying there was “no Armenian genocide”; this historical event in the Ottoman empire in 1915 and after was an “imperialist lie”. Swiss courts condemned him under anti-racist laws. In its decision, the ECHR considered that the Swiss courts had “censured (Perincek) for having simply expressed an opinion divergent from those in Switzerland.”
The case of Perincek vs Switzerland concerned whether denial of the Armenian genocide in Europe would be tolerated or penalised.The ECHR opted for the former. It said that “it was not required to determine whether the massacres and mass deportation suffered by the Armenian people at the hands of the Ottoman Empire from 1915 onwards could be characterized as genocide.” Elsewhere the court refers to the genocide as “tragic events”.
By its decision, the European court has violated my right to justice. Perincek was using the fundamental right to freedom of expression to commit a crime; in fact, it was the latest act in a long chain of a hundred years of crime without punishment, the negation of genocide. For in talking about the Armenian genocide, we are not talking about the past, about history, but about a crime that has continued to take place. As many scholars have argued, denial is the last stage of genocide.
I argued in my recent book Open Wounds: Armenians, Turks, and a Century of Genocide that Turkey's denial of the crime of genocide allowed it to perpetuate its policy of victimising various groups that it defined as undesirable: “agents of imperialism” and “minorities”. That contrast with modern Germany, which has has fully assumed its inherited responsibility regarding the Holocaust; today, denialism comes only from marginal groups. Whereas in Turkey, the state continues to deny its own responsibility.
The impunity given to the Turkish state made it possible to perpetuate a culture of crime. Those Armenians who had survived the death marches and the massacres during the first world war continued to be targeted by the Turkish state; thousands who were able to return home after the genocide fell victim to Kemalist massacres and new deportations between 1921 and 1929; thousands of survivors were forced to convert to Islam; Armenian property was confiscated by the state. The over 2,500 Armenian churches and monasteries were occupied, converted to warehouses or prisons, or destroyed. Today, only thirty-five Armenian churches remain in Turkey.
State repression targeted other groups as well: in 1934, pogroms decimated the Jewish community of Turkey. More pogroms in September 1955 put an end to the Greek presence in Istanbul. Throughout the Turkish republic, Kurdish identity was denied and Kurdish political demands were violently repressed, a policy that continues to this day.
In Turkey, many intellectuals, journalists, and scholars suffer from limitations of freedom of speech. The Turkish authorities harass hundreds of journalists every year; a single example is the arrest on 9 October of Bulent Kenes, the editor-in-chief of Today’s Zaman, a major paper whose editorial line opposed the party in power.
But Perincek himself is no martyr of free speech. When his trial opened in Lausanne in 2007, he did not go alone: a delegation of 160 people flew with him on a chartered plane, including ex-generals and politicians. One of the latter was Rauf Denktas, the former president of the unrecognised republic of Northern Cyprus, the part of the island under Turkish occupation since the 1974 invasion. In 2009, a Turkish court convicted Perincek for his association with the so-called Ergenekon investigation, a secret organisation within the state that was alleged to be preparing a coup against the elected government.
For a century, survivors of the Armenian genocide and their descendants have struggled for justice. In 1965 there were massive demonstrations in Beirut, Paris and Los Angeles demanding both international recognition of the genocide and reparations. A decade later, amid general international indifference, Armenian young people became radicalised and some opted to launch violent attacks. The decade of terrorism was followed by Armenian diaspora communities in democratic countries using legal means to obtain recognition. Others engaged with courts to demand symbolic justice in opposition to Turkish state denialism. But only by overturning this official denialism can appeals for real justice proceed.
The European Court of Human Rights' decision concerns not only descendants of Armenian survivors, but all victims of crimes against humanity. The court has sent the wrong message, by denying victims and future generations the possibility of obtaining symbolic redress through the courts.
If after a hundred years I cannot obtain my rights by going to court, I beg the judges to tell me where to turn to seek justice.