|Turks have been protesting against the bill and Ankara has imposed symbolic sanctions on France [EPA]|
A French Senate committee has rejected a bill to make it illegal to deny that mass killing of Armenians by Ottoman Turks nearly a century ago amounted to genocide.
The Senate’s Commission of Laws on Wednesday voted 23 to nine, with eight abstentions, that such a bill could violate constitutional protections, including freedom of speech.
“We consider that if this law was passed, there would be a large risk of it being unconstitutional,” Jean-Pierre Sueur, the commission head, said. “We cannot write history with laws. Freedom of expression must be respected.”
Despite the committee’s rejection, the bill is expected to be passed in the Senate’s final vote on Monday, in which most senators opposed to the legislation are expected to abstain.
The proposed legislation has soured relations between Paris and Ankara, with Turkey imposing symbolic sanctions and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan accusing the French of ‘genocide’ during France’s 132-year colonial rule in Algeria.
“Ankara welcomes the decision by the Laws Commission at the Senate which clearly shows its position by saying that this bill is unconstitutional,” Engin Solakoglu, spokesman at the Turkish embassy in Paris, told the AFP news agency.
‘Sympathy for suffering’
In a statement, the commission said: “There was a genocide, and the commission wants to express its infinite respect for the Armenian people, and the terrible experiences that they have endured”.
But the panel also expressed doubts about “the legitimacy of the intervention of the legislature in the field of history” and suggested that commemorations or legislative resolutions might be a better way to express sympathy for the suffering than laws to criminalise some types of speech.
France formally recognised the 1915 to 1916 killings as genocide in 2001, but provided no penalty for denying it.
The proposed law would set punishment of up to one year in prison and a fine of up to $59,000 for those who deny or ‘outrageously minimise” the killings – placing such denial on par with those of the Holocaust.
France is home to an estimated 500,000 people of Armenian origin.
Hundreds of thousands of Armenians died when the Ottoman Turks deported them from eastern Anatolia to the Syrian desert and elsewhere in 1915 to 1916. They were killed or died from starvation or disease.
Armenians say 1.5 million died. Turkey estimates the total to be 300,000.
The dispute about whether it was genocide centres on the degree to which the killings were orchestrated.
Turkey admits atrocities were committed but argue that there was no systematic attempt to destroy the Christian Armenian people.
Even if the Senate – the upper house of parliament – was to reject the bill, the more powerful lower house – the National Assembly – could resurrect the bill and try again.