The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) brought a unique cast of characters together this week in a high-stakes case for Turkey and Armenia that also attracted the attention of the entertainment media. At the center of the stage was Amal Clooney, the renowned human rights lawyer in the limelight because of her marriage to actor George Clooney.
The case being heard in Strasbourg, where Clooney is representing Armenia, centers on the hotly debated genocide Armenians say Ottoman Turks perpetrated a century ago against 1.5 million of their forbears.
The Armenian claim, though it has significant international political and academic support, is nevertheless questioned by the Turkish judiciary in terms of the strict legal definition of genocide. Turkey officially denies the claim, although it acknowledges that hundreds of thousands of Armenians were among the millions of Ottomans killed during World War I.
The case in Strasbourg is the result of an appeal by Switzerland to the ECHR’s Grand Chamber, after a previous ECHR ruling that the right of Dogu Perincek, the leader of the Turkish Workers Party, to express his views freely had been violated by a Swiss court. In 2007, a court in Lausanne sentenced Perincek to 120 days in prison (but converted the sentence to a fine of 17,000 Swiss francs, or about $21,250) after Armenian organizations complained he had violated Swiss laws against racial discrimination when he denied that genocide had been perpetrated against Armenians during a 2005 conference.
A majority of Turks accept the official Turkish explanation of the events of 1915 and believe, like Perincek, that the genocide claim is part of a hidden agenda by Armenia to grab land from Turkey with support from “imperial Western powers.” Vengeance killings by Armenian terrorists of a large number of Turkish diplomats over the past three decades have also colored Turkish perceptions on the topic. The number of Turks who openly say genocide was perpetrated against Armenians has nevertheless increased in recent years.
Perincek applied to the ECHR in 2008 to defend his right to free speech under the European Convention on Human Rights. Turkey became party to the case in 2010. The ECHR upheld Perincek’s argument against Switzerland in 2013. Armenia is also a party to the appeal and maintains that the initial ruling against Switzerland has legal and factual errors.
The first hearing of the appeal was held on Jan. 29, during which the attention of the international media was focused more on Clooney than the case itself. Reporters and paparazzi thronged Strasbourg, turning the court into what some commentators referred to as a “circus.”
Meanwhile, a group of flag-waving Turks gathered outside the courtroom, while strange bedfellows Egemen Bagis, from the ruling Justice and Development Party — in the news for corruption allegations — and Deniz Baykal, the former head of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), sat side by side in a show of support for Perincek.
Perincek is a controversial “lone wolf” Turkish politician who began his career in the 1960s as a committed communist, which landed him in prison on a number of occasions, but has turned into a staunch supporter of Kemalist nationalism and secularism.
He received a life sentence in the 2013 Ergenekon case for allegedly trying to illegally topple the Islamist government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, but was released last year after the special court that convicted him was abolished.
Flanked by her boss, Geoffrey Robertson, Clooney based her argument on the 1920 Sevres Treaty, which the Ottomans were forced to sign by the victorious allies after World War I. She said the Ottoman government had undertaken to punish those guilty of the Armenian massacres but had not fulfilled its promise. Clooney also brought up Turkey’s poor record on freedom of the press and freedom of expression, clearly trying to point out the irony of Ankara’s demand for freedoms it itself violates.
Perincek, for his part, did not deny Armenians had been massacred, but insisted again that the claim of genocide was a fabrication. He recalled that Britain, after World War I, had dropped the case against Ottoman officials accused of involvement in Armenian massacres due to lack of evidence.
His lawyer, on the other hand, underlined that Perincek had not been convicted in either France or Germany for repeating his views, and declared that his client was a committed and lifelong fighter against racial discrimination.
Taking the stand, the lawyer representing Turkey noted that Switzerland does not officially recognize the events of 1915 as a genocide, and said denial of the Armenian genocide could not be equated with denial of the Holocaust, the existence of which has been established legally.
Riza Turmen, a former ECHR judge who is currently a deputy with the CHP, believes that Perincek’s case remains strong because he restricted his arguments to freedom of expression, while the opposite side tried to concentrate on the genocide claim.
“Perincek did not deny that Armenians were massacred. He merely pointed out that there was no legal ruling concerning the nature of the massacres,” Turmen told Al-Monitor, pointing out that “genocide” is a precisely defined legal term. He added that the Grand Chamber is likely to uphold the initial court ruling.
Taha Akyol, a prominent columnist and former jurist, told Al-Monitor that the arguments presented by Clooney in Strasbourg were rhetorical and legally meaningless.
“The Treaty of Sevres was superseded by the Treaty of Lausanne and therefore has no legal validity,” Akyol said, referring to the treaty signed in 1923, following Turkey’s war of independence, which established the Turkish Republic.
Akyol said Clooney’s reference to the state of press freedom and freedom of expression in Turkey was also irrelevant, and was an attempt to influence the court. “Whatever the state of press freedom and freedom of expression in Turkey may be, this does not take away Perincek’s right to express himself freely in Switzerland or anywhere else,” he said.
Akyol added that the ECHR, in its ruling against Switzerland, did not say the Armenian genocide did not happen. “It said that unlike the case with the Nazis and the Holocaust, this has not been established legally, leaving the topic open to debate. And that is what Turkey is calling for, an objective historic debate on the subject.” Akyol said.
Kamer Kasim, an expert on Armenia from the Ankara-based International Strategic Research Organization, also believes Turkey’s hand is strong, and indicates that the current case holds risks for Armenia. Kasim told Al-Monitor, “Barring unforeseen political factors coming into play, there is a chance that the appeal will be rejected. This will set a disastrous precedent for Armenia.” He added, “Even if Armenia’s hand is weak legally, it had no choice but to support the appeal. Otherwise, it would mean it accepts the ruling about the right to deny the genocide.” Kasim also maintained that Clooney’s presence at the court was part of an attempt by Armenia to attract the attention of the international media and influence the court against Turkey.
Analysts also point to a 2011 decision by the French Constitutional Court, which they say further strengthens Turkey’s hand. The high court in France nullified a law passed by the French parliament that would have criminalized denial of the Armenian genocide, saying it violated the freedom of expression.
The Grand Chamber in Strasbourg is expected to rule in six months on the appeal by Switzerland. In the meantime, the centenary — to be commemorated on April 24 — of the genocide Armenians say was perpetrated against them by Ottoman Turks is approaching fast.
A resolution to what historians have called the longest feud of the century, however, appears no nearer.
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