Armenian dissident sees a threat to free speech

The Irish Times
October 13, 2006 Friday

Armenian dissident sees a threat to free speech

by Nicholas Birch in Istanbul

Turkey: Hrant Dink knows all about freedom of speech and the lack of
it.

An Armenian Turk who edits the bilingual Istanbul-based weekly Agos,
he is the only person to have been convicted so far under a notorious
law that has been used to bring Nobel prize-winner Orhan Pamuk and
dozens of others to trial.

With a six-month suspended sentence under his belt for "insulting
Turkishness", Dink now faces up to three years’ prison under the same
law for describing the deaths of at least 600,000 Armenians in 1915
as "genocide". Not that that has stopped him criticising the French
parliament’s vote yesterday morning to make denying genocide a
punishable offence.

"If this law passes through the senate, I will go to France and say
that there was no genocide, even if it pains me to say so," he said.
"There is no difference in mentality between the Turkish and French
laws. Let French and Turkish justice compete to see which of them can
judge me faster."

Like other liberals here, Dink sees both pieces of legislation as
flagrant breaches of the European Convention on Human Rights, which
argues that freedom of speech can only be limited if national
security, territorial integrity or public safety is under threat.

But his greatest concern is that this slew of legislation and
counter-legislation will stifle the rapidly growing debate in Turkey
on the reality of 1915.

The biggest taboo in a country political analyst Fuat Keyman
describes as "founded on historical amnesia", the Armenian genocide
is the subject of an increasing number of books, exhibitions and
academic conferences. "Beneath the bluster, the Turkish
establishment’s position is crumbling," says Halil Berktay, referring
to the state’s insistence that Armenians were the victims of a civil
war that killed more Muslims.

A historian at Istanbul’s Sabanci University, Berktay was the target
of months of death threats in 2000 when he became the first Turkish
historian publicly to describe 1915 as a genocide.

He doesn’t like using the word, though. "Turks are furious when you
use it, Armenians when you don’t", he said. "What is needed is to
find common ground, but the climate of polarisation makes that near
impossible."

For him, the meddling of any parliament in the matter is "no better
than those Turkish policemen who used to raid tourist hotels at night
to check couples were married."

The author of a powerfully moving 2005 memoir of her grandmother, who
told her late in her life that she was an Armenian who converted to
Islam in 1915, Istanbul lawyer Fethiye Cetin agrees: "These debates
over terminology and statistics are barren,", she says. "They hide
the lives and deaths of individuals and do nothing to encourage
people to listen."

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