France to vote on Armenia 'genocide' bill

Turkey warns French senate to reject bill that would make it illegal to deny mass killings by Ottoman Turks in 1915.

    Thousands of Turks living in Europe rallied in Paris to protest against the bill [AFP]

    French senators are set to vote on a bill that would make it illegal to deny that the mass killings of Armenians by Ottoman Turks nearly a century ago amounted to genocide.

    Members of the French upper house debated the bill on Monday afternoon, nearly a month after the French national assembly voted overwhelmingly in favour of the draft law.

    The scheduled vote prompted an angry response from Turkey, which has vowed to punish the move with "permanent" sanctions if it is passed into law.

    Ankara froze political and military ties with France after the lower house vote and it promised further measures if the measure is passed by the senate or is approved by President Nicolas Sarkozy, whose right-wing UMP party put forward the bill.

    Ahmet Davutoglu, the Turkish foreign minister, on Saturday repeated Ankara's opposition to the bill, saying it went against European values and would not help Turkish-Armenian relations.

    "There will be more sanctions and this time, the sanctions will be permanent, until the change in French position," he said.

    "It is time for French intellectuals, for French senators to defend our common values, freedom of expression. These are European, French values. This is against these values."

    Heightening tensions

    Around 15,000 Turks from France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg rallied on the streets of Paris on Saturday to protest against the law.

    Davutoglu cancelled a trip to Brussels on Monday to brief EU foreign ministers on his visit to Tehran before they were due to vote on further sanctions against Iran, saying he wanted to follow the French vote.

    In a bid to defuse the crisis, Sarkozy sent a conciliatory letter to Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister, released by the French embassy in Ankara on Friday.

    "I hope we can make reason prevail and maintain our dialogue, as befits allied and friendly countries," Sarkozy wrote, adding that the measure was "in no way aimed at any state or people in particular".

    Erdogan, however, accused Sarkozy of using the vote to pursue electoral gains.

    "We cannot understand how Sarkozy can sacrifice a decision that should be made by historians for his own personal
    electoral gains. We will of course take some decisions according to the outcome of the vote at Senate, " he said.

    "I hope the Senate will not make France a country contradicting its own values."

    Bernard Valero, a French foreign ministry spokesperson, said that France was "appeal[ing] for calm" from Turkey over the vote.

    'Untimely' bill

    Sarkozy expressed a wish that Turkey "assess the common interests which unite our two countries and our two peoples".

    A French senate committee on Wednesday rejected the bill, but their vote was not expected to prevent the bill becoming law.

    The senate's Commission of Laws voted 23 to nine, with eight abstentions, that such a bill could violate constitutional protections, including freedom of speech.

    Even if the senate does reject the bill, the more powerful national assembly could resurrect the bill and try again. 

    The bill has not won universal support in the government, where some ministers fear it will hurt diplomatic and trade ties with a NATO ally and major economic partner.

    Sarkozy's foreign minister, Alain Juppe, has admitted the bill is "untimely".

    France recognised the killings as genocide in 2001, but the new bill would go further, by punishing anyone who denies this with a year in jail and a fine of 45,000 euros ($57,000).

    Armenia says that at least 1.5 million Armenians died when 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.

    Turkey estimates the total to be about 300,000. It admits that atrocities were committed but argues that there was no systematic attempt to destroy the Armenian people and argues that many people on both sides died amid the chaos of World War I, in which all sides suffered.

    SOURCE: Agencies


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