A Turkish prosecutor has decided against charging members of a human rights group who were detained for carrying placards bearing the word “genocide” during a memorial event for the victims of the World War I-era massacres of ethnic Armenians.
The prosecutor in Istanbul found that rules governing speech allowed the members of the Human Rights Association (IHD) to describe the killings as genocide, Agos newspaper reported last week. The prosecutor’s office cited rulings by the European Court of Human Rights on free expression in its justification not to pursue criminal charges.
The decision is at odds with a restrictive climate in Turkey during a two-year state of emergency President Recep Tayyip Erdogan imposed after a military coup failed to topple him and may signal a slight easing on curbs on speech ahead of parliamentary and presidential elections on June 24.
Dozens of politicians, journalists and academics have been jailed since 2016 on charges stemming from their opinions amid a broader crackdown on Erdogan’s foes.
Just last month, a prosecutor in the capital Ankara opened a criminal investigation against opposition lawmaker Garo Paylan, who is of Armenian descent, on allegations he insulted Turkish people and the state for calling the killings a genocide in parliament and in a media interview.
Turkey denies the killing of Armenian subjects in the Ottoman Empire amounted to genocide, arguing that both Turks and Armenians died during internecine strife amid the turmoil of World War I that culminated in the collapse of the empire.
Armenians, dozens of governments and most historians say 1.5 million people were murdered in a state-orchestrated genocide that laid the foundations of the far more ethnically and religiously homogenous Turkish Republic. Today, just 60,000 Armenians live in Turkey, which has a population of 80 million people.
Yet more Turks have come to question the official narrative and each April join grassroots events that have sprung up in recent years. Even Erdogan has expressed condolences to survivors of the massacres, though he has stopped short of recognizing the genocide.
Police had detained the three activists, who carried signs that read “Recognize the Armenian Genocide, apologize and compensate,” and barred the IHD from making a statement to the press that contained the terms “genocide” and “massacres” at a memorial event on April 24, the date in 1915 that is considered the start of the genocide and when commemorations are held worldwide.
The prosecutor noted that the European Court of Human Rights has determined that free speech protections apply to “offensive, shocking and discomforting information and opinions.”
“Even though it is of an unacceptable and disagreeable nature, the different interpretations of the subject, which essentially involves historians, when assessed as a whole does not amount to intentionally insulting the Turkish people,” the prosecutor said, according to Agos.
The IHD called on the government to treat the decision as precedent for hundreds of people who are in jail for expressing opinions that contradict official policy. The European Union and critics of the post-coup crackdown have accused the government of undermining judicial independence, and elected officials, including Erdogan, have publicly intervened in a number of high-profile cases against politicians and journalists.
“From now on, we will carry the prosecutor’s decision with us during each April 24 event. Should our events be obstructed again, we will show this decision to the authorities who try to block us,” the IHD said in a statement, newspapers reported.
Ayla Jean Yackley is a journalist based in Istanbul.