Armenians’ deaths still hit nerve in Turkey

Armenians’ deaths still hit nerve in Turkey
By Catherine Collins

Chicago Tribune
June 3 2005

Special to the Tribune
Published June 3, 2005

ISTANBUL — When Turkey’s justice minister leveled an accusation of
treason at the organizers of a conference questioning the government’s
stance on the mass killings of Armenians, the event was abruptly
postponed and controversy arose in its place.

The minister’s harsh remarks last month drew domestic and international
criticism from academics, the media and the public.

For Turkey’s ruling party, Justice and Development Party, the result
was another black eye in its attempt to convince an increasingly
skeptical European Union that Turkey indeed embraces its democratic
ideals, including free speech.

Few issues are touchier in Turkey than the plight of hundreds of
thousands of Armenians in the waning days of the Ottoman Empire.

Armenia says 1.5 million Ottoman Armenians were systematically killed
during and after World War I. Turkey disputes those numbers, putting
them much lower and says it was partisan conflict in which as many
as 350,000 Turks also died.

While ethnic Armenians are mounting an increasingly successful campaign
to get the events recognized as a genocide, Ankara has steadfastly
refused to budge from its position.

The EU has urged Turkey to improve relations with neighboring Armenia
as part of Turkey’s bid to join the organization. In an attempt to
promote discussion, Bosphorus University, a prestigious state school
in Istanbul, planned a conference to debate the official policy.

But Justice Minister Cemil Cicek saw it as an attempt to undermine
the government’s efforts to counter the Armenian campaign, which
has persuaded 15 countries to pass resolutions labeling the killings
genocide.

“We must put an end to this cycle of treason and insult, of spreading
propaganda against the nation by people who belong to it,” Cicek said,
adding the conference was “a stab in the back to the Turkish nation.”

It might not have been an idle threat. An academic involved with the
conference said the governor of Istanbul cautioned the university that
he might not be able to provide security for the meeting, and a state
prosecutor phoned the university to request copies of presentations
before they were given.

Universities in Turkey are tightly controlled by the state, and
conference organizers said they feared retaliation and restrictions
on academic freedom if they proceeded.

“We are anxious that, as a state university, scientific freedom will
be compromised due to prejudices about a conference that has not yet
occurred,” the university said in a statement last month.

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