Amal Clooney attracts attention at Armenian genocide trial

Jan 31 2015

Amal Clooney attracts attention at Armenian genocide trial

Author: Semih Idiz
Posted January 30, 2015

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

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 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

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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