Q&A: The legal battle over ‘Armenian genocide’

Al Jazeera spoke with Turkish politician Dogu Perincek, who was convicted in Switzerland for denying the “genocide”.

Dogu Perincek
'Everybody should be able to say whatever they want,' said Turkish politician Dogu Perincek [Ozgur Teksen/Al Jazeera]

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) is to make its final judgement in the coming months on whether denying that the 1915 killings of Armenians was a “genocide” is a criminal offence.

The case involves Switzerland, a country where denying the “Armenian genocide” is a crime, and Dogu Perincek, a Turkish politician who publicly called the “genocide” an “international lie” while there in 2005. He was convicted by a Swiss court in 2007 and took the case to the ECHR a year later.

The ECHR’s first judgement in 2013 was in Perincek’s favour, but it was appealed by Switzerland, with the final verdict expected later this year.

Ankara agrees that many Armenians died in ethnic fighting and the deportation process between 1915 and 1917 during World War I, putting its estimate at 300,000 casualties. Armenia, meanwhile, says 1.5 million died in the process – including the march to Syria – in what it calls a genocide. The accusation is denied by Turkey, who says there was no systematic attempt to kill all Armenians.

“Genocide is a very narrow legal concept that was, moreover, difficult to substantiate,” the court said in its judgement in 2013. “The court took the view that Mr Perincek had engaged in speech of a historical, legal and political nature which was part of a heated debate.”

Al Jazeera spoke with Perincek about his motivations for the case and its potential effects.

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Al Jazeera: In 2005, you attended various conferences in Switzerland and publicly rejected the ‘Armenian genocide’. Did you think this move would take you before a Swiss court and later before the ECHR?

Dogu Perincek: Yes, we said “the Armenian genocide is a lie” in order to bring the issue before the judicial authorities. We knew that the judgements would confirm that we were right. The incidents of 1915 cannot be defined as genocide. There were mutual killings, but, as the Turkish nation, we defended our country. However, some of the Armenians living in our country collaborated with Russia, France, and Britain, becoming tools for the imperialist states. In that respect, this war, a war between Turkey and imperialist forces, is part of World War I. 

Al Jazeera: Up until recent years, many people had been prosecuted for years over using the phrase ‘Armenian genocide’. Through Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code [the article criminalising insulting Turkishness], some were imprisoned. Isn’t this a dilemma?

Perincek: We support freedom of thought. Everybody should be able to say whatever they want. In Turkey, at academic institutions and in public, many people say that they accept the genocide. I haven’t heard of anybody being imprisoned for this reason. The current regime and the system support them [the ones who acknowledge the “Armenian genocide”]. They are not punished, the system backs them. Newspapers publish articles of people defending the genocide claims. The issue is discussed in public. Actually, our freedom is limited. The US doesn’t allow us to speak – we have won a case, but there is no news about it on the media. Our arguments are not heard; they are blocked. 

Al Jazeera: What was the goal of your move in Switzerland? Did you achieve it?

Perincek: We have achieved our goal. Our goal was to fight off the attack on our country – an attack similar to what happened between 1914 and 1918 [World War I]. Today, our rightfulness has been confirmed by European courts. We have created serious public awareness on the issue and achieved our goal.

Al Jazeera: Countries such as Switzerland, Slovakia, and Greece have criminalised denial of the ‘Armenian genocide’. What do you think their purpose is?

Perincek: We should look into the power behind these countries. The power is Europe and the US. They are trying to carry out their plan to divide Turkey and use smaller countries in line with this purpose. 

Al Jazeera: If the appeal results are in your favour, will Switzerland change the act, decriminalising genocide denial as the ECHR judgements are binding?

Perincek: Yes, they will. There are already calls for Switzerland to do that. Even before the ECHR judgement, senior members of the Swiss People’s Party, the largest party in Switzerland, called for this act to be abolished. There have been other political leaders who said that this legal act was against freedom of thought. Some parliamentarians have presented motions on the issue. I have no doubt that Switzerland will abolish this act.

Al Jazeera: Do you think this judgement, when finalised, will have a wider effect on other countries, which also have similar laws, such as Slovakia and Greece?

Perincek: I believe the judgement will have an influence, not only in Europe, but around the world. The ECHR has a very important place in international law, although it is a European legal institution. Our friends visited Greece and held talks there. Political parties say that denial of the “Armenian genocide” should not be a crime in Greece. They say the act in question passed with a minority vote. Syriza, the ruling party in Greece, is against this act. We think that these legal articles will change following the ECHR verdict.

Source: Al Jazeera