Turkish prosecutors are seeking to lift the parliamentary immunity of an ethnic Armenian lawmaker in order to prosecute and potentially jail him, marking a further escalation of the government’s assault on free expression.
Prosecutors in Ankara have invoked Article 301, which criminalizes insulting the Turkish nation, and Article 299, which penalizes insulting the Turkish president, against Garo Paylan of the Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP), the largest pro-Kurdish bloc in the Turkish parliament.
They were said to be acting on a criminal complaint filed in May 2017 by Turkish academic Aygun Attar and approved for further action by the Justice Ministry in December. Attar was reportedly protesting Paylan’s depiction of the mass slaughter of more than a million Ottoman Armenians in 1915 as a genocide in separate comments to the parliament and in an interview with the Armenian-Canadian publication Horizon Weekly, among others. Paylan’s critical remarks concerning Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s recent alliance with far-right leader Devlet Bahceli and the ensuing crackdown on the media and civil society were likewise deemed to be insulting to the office of the president.
Nine HDP lawmakers, including the party’s presidential candidate Selahattin Demirtas, are currently in jail facing a cocktail of terror charges together with hundreds of other party officials. But the accusations against Paylan stand out. The government has prosecuted tens of thousands of alleged operatives of the religious cult led by Fethullah Gulen, the Pennsylvania-based Sunni preacher who is accused of masterminding the failed July 2016 coup. Countless others said to be associated with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party, including HDP officials, have been rounded up in the thousands on similar terror charges. But prosecutors had largely steered clear of Article 301, which was commonly used in the past against those who dared to call the orgy of bloodletting in 1915 a genocide.
Article 301's targets include renowned Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk and ethnic Armenian news editor Hrant Dink, who was gunned down outside the office of his AGOS newspaper in January 2007 by an ultranationalist youth said to be acting under the orders of rogue security officials. His murder proved a turning point, opening up nationwide debate on the genocide at a time when Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) was still in reformist gear and ready to sign a now frozen peace deal with neighboring Armenia. On the centennial of the genocide in 2015, Erdogan sent a message to the tiny Armenian community: “We share the Armenians’ pain with sincerity. The doors of our hearts are open to the deceased Ottoman Armenians’ grandchildren.” This year’s message was not quite as magnanimous, with Erdogan warning some 70,000 Armenian-Turks to spurn those “who are trying to ignite hatred and hostility by distorting [our] shared past,” presumably by labeling the 1915 tragedy a genocide.
So what has changed? Yetvart Danzikiyan, the managing editor of AGOS, believes that Erdogan’s partnership with Bahceli, struck in the run-up to the April 2017 referendum on swapping the existing parliamentary system for an executive presidency, is a big factor. "Ever since the AKP established its coalition [with Bahceli] and a suitably nationalist stance, it has reverted to the state's old reflexes and habits on the Armenian question," he told Al-Monitor. Erdogan banked on nationalist support to push through the constitutional changes that will formalize his sweeping powers. The new rules are set to kick in after snap presidential and parliamentary polls that are due to be held on June 24.
Paylan agrees with this assessment. “The charges against me are not a surprise; the climate has changed and there were several clear signs of this,” Paylan told Al-Monitor. “I spoke about the genocide many times in the past, but AKP members in the parliament didn’t blink. It was only Bahceli’s people who protested,” he recalled. Then in January 2017, Paylan, who has been a deputy since 2015, was temporarily banned from parliamentary sessions for broaching the subject of the wholesale killings not only of ethnic Armenians but of Assyrians, Greeks and Jews who were “lost” and “driven from these lands in large massacres [and] genocides."
Undettered, Paylan pressed for formal recognition of the genocide and the establishment of a commission to investigate the events leading up to it in a bill he submitted last month. It was rejected.
The government’s waning tolerance was on full display April 24, the day Armenians worldwide mark the anniversary of the deaths of their forefathers. Turkish police detained activists gathered in Istanbul’s Sultanahmet for unfurling banners that read “genocide.”
The move against Paylan has sparked rebukes from the European Union. Kati Piri, the Turkey rapporteur of the European Parliament called the case "unacceptable." She told Al-Monitor, "This latest incident is a new front in the attack against fundamental rights in Turkey. If even elected parliamentarians cannot express their opinions, where does this leave ordinary citizens?"
Paylan believes the arrest of prominent businessman and philanthropist Osman Kavala is linked to his long-running support for a broad range of civil society initiatives aimed at promoting peace between Turkey and Armenia. Kavala, who commands global respect for his commitment to human rights, conflict resolution and promotion of the arts, has been behind bars for 198 days. A staunch secularist who spoke up against Gulenist infiltration of the justice system, Kavala has yet to be indicted amid farcical claims that he was involved in the coup.
All of this is unfolding as neighboring Armenia embarks on a new path of reform pledged by its new Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian, who swept to power in the mass demonstrations that engulfed the former Soviet republic last month. Pashinian said he was ready to establish diplomatic relations with Turkey without any preconditions while pushing for recognition of the Armenian genocide at a global level. Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said he was willing to consider the offer but suggested Turkey would only do so if Armenia shelved the genocide recognition campaign.
The two countries were on the brink of reopening their sealed borders and establishing diplomatic ties under a 2009 deal brokered by Switzerland and backed by the United States. But it fell apart when Erdogan, who was then prime minister, insisted that Armenia withdraw from the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave it wrested from Turkey’s close ally Azerbaijan in a short and nasty war in the early 1990s. The HDP has pledged to revive the Zurich protocols without any preconditions as part of its campaign manifesto.
Khatchig Mouradian, a lecturer at Columbia University who has done extensive research on the Ottoman Armenians, rues another missed moment. “Following the transformations ushered in by the Velvet Revolution in Armenia, Ankara had a golden opportunity to reciprocate positive signals from Yerevan regarding the normalization of relations,” Mouradian told Al-Monitor. “Instead it invokes Article 301, which bears the stains of Hrant Dink’s blood, to go after Garo Paylan.”
Paylan insisted none of this will stop him from his quest for justice. “They are trying to silence me. They will fail,” he said.