In a landmark freedom-of-speech case, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has ruled that a Turkish politician had the right to deny that the mass killing of Armenians a century ago amounted to genocide.
The ECHR’s 17-judge Grand Chamber, whose rulings are final, announced its decision in the politically charged case at a public hearing in Strasbourg, France, on October 15.
The court ruled that Dogu Perincek should not have been convicted of racial discrimination by a Swiss court for saying in 2005 that it was an “international lie” to describe the slaughter as genocide.
It concluded that Perincek’s conviction and punishment “constituted an interference with the exercise of his right to freedom of expression.”
Perincek’s statements “could not be seen as a call for hatred, violence, or intolerance towards the Armenians” and “could not be regarded as affecting the dignity of the members of the Armenian community to the point of requiring a criminal law response,” it also said.
During his 2005 visit to Switzerland, Perincek repeatedly blamed “imperialist” powers for stoking tensions between Muslims and Armenians in order to undermine Ottoman Turkey, site of the mass slaughter and deportation of up to 1.5 million Armenians beginning in 1915.
Perincek, leader of the Turkish Workers’ Party, now the Patriotic Party, said during the trip that the deaths were not a premeditated attempt to wipe out an ethnic group.
The ruling said the context in which he made the comments “had not been marked by heightened tensions or special historical overtones in Switzerland.”
“The Swiss courts appeared to have censured Mr. Perincek simply for voicing an opinion that diverged from the established ones in Switzerland,” it added.
Armenia and Turkey were acting as third parties in the case.
Armenia points to the World War I-era mass slaughter and deportation of up to 1.5 million Armenians by Ottoman Turks as being one of the first examples of genocide in modern history, predating the Holocaust.
Turkey objects, contending that Armenians died in much smaller numbers and that the deaths resulted from civil strife rather than a planned Ottoman government effort to annihilate the Christian minority.
More than 20 countries, including Switzerland, recognize the killings as “genocide.”
Under Swiss antiracism legislation, the denial of genocide is a crime.
While the ECHR’s decision represented a victory for Perincek, the Armenian Prosecutor-General’s Office issued a statement expressing satisfaction with the ruling, saying it “fully met” the Armenian government’s requests.
The statement welcomed the ruling’s exclusion of language “that could in any way call into question the fact of the Armenian genocide.”
Armenia also noted that the ruling did not deem the criminalization of genocide denial unjustified.
Geoffrey Robertson, a British lawyer representing Armenia, said the ruling contained good news because it clearly stated that Armenians have “a right to respect for their history.”
“And it clears the way for that to be protected in Europe against any real incitement to violence, hatred, or intolerance,” Robertson added.
In a dissenting opinion issued after the ruling, seven of the ECHR judges said Perincek’s “particularly pernicious speech and its consequences have been played down throughout the judgment” and that his statements were intended “to insult a whole people.”
The dissenting judges added that it was a “clearly established historical fact” that the mass slaughter and deportations of Armenians in Ottoman Turkey constituted genocide.
Denying Holocaust Legal?
A court in Lausanne in March 2007 found Perincek guilty of racial discrimination for his remarks and gave him a suspended sentence, as well as a fine.
“I have not denied genocide because there was no genocide,” Perincek had told the court.
The verdict was later confirmed by a Swiss appeal court and the Federal Supreme Court, and Perincek took the case to the ECHR, arguing that his freedom of speech was infringed upon.
A lower chamber of the ECHR rejected the Swiss court’s conviction in December 2013, saying the Turkish politician’s remarks fell within the boundaries of free speech.
The court “doubted that there could be a general consensus as to events such as those at issue, given that historical research was by definition open to discussion and a matter of debate, without necessarily giving rise to final conclusions or to the assertion of objective and absolute truths.”
The case came before the ECHR’s Grand Chamber after Switzerland appealed that ruling.
It gained additional attention in January 2015, when prominent human rights lawyer Amal Clooney, who is also the wife of American actor George Clooney, represented Armenia at a hearing.
The Swiss side argued that denying that a genocide took place is tantamount to “accusing the Armenians of falsifying history, one of the worst forms of racial discrimination.”
The lawyers for Perincek and the Turkish government said there was no “general consensus” that the killings were genocide.
Perincek’s lawyer, Laurent Pech, said his client denied that the Ottoman authorities of the time had genocidal intent, but “neither contested nor defended the massacres, nor did he incite hatred against the Armenians.”
In the proceedings, third-party comments were received from the Turkish, Armenian, and French governments, nongovernmental organizations — such as the Switzerland-Armenia Association, the Federation of the Turkish Associations of French-speaking Switzerland, and the International Federation for Human Rights — as well as a group of French and Belgian academics.
The ECHR said in an October 15 statement that the ruling “does not change anything in the court’s assessment of statements denying the Holocaust.”
“The justification for making Holocaust denial a criminal offense lies in the fact that, in the historical context of the states concerned, even if dressed up as impartial historical research, it has to be considered as implying antidemocratic ideology and anti-Semitism,” the court said in the statement.
In their 2013 ruling, the ECHR judges noted that the historical facts of the Holocaust were “considered clearly established by an international jurisdiction.