STRASBOURG, France—The European Court of Human Rights on Thursday issued a contentious ruling in the case of Perincek vs. Switzerland, which concerned the criminal conviction by Switzerland of Turkish politician Dogu Perincek for publicly challenging the existence of the Armenian Genocide.
While the ruling upholds Perincek’s right to freedom of speech in this narrow case, the court also upholds the “right to dignity” of Armenian people and maintains legality of laws criminalizing genocide denial.
Armenia was represented at Thursday’s hearing by human rights attorney Geoffrey Robertson and Armenia’s Prosecutor General Gevork Kostanyan, with leaders of the European Armenian Federation for Justice and Democracy present at the court. In January, the two were joined by Robertson’s associate Amal Clooney in presenting the appeal.
The ruling does correct several errors in the original judgment, by specifically stressing that “it was not required to determine whether the massacres and mass deportations suffered by the Armenian people at the hands of the Ottoman Empire from 1915 onward could be characterized as genocide within the meaning of that term under international law; unlike the international criminal courts, it had no authority to make legally binding pronouncements on this point.”
This provision strikes down the Chamber’s “doubt[…] that there could be a general consensus as to events such as those at issue, given that historical research was by definition open to discussion and a matter of debate, without necessarily giving rise to final conclusions or to the assertion of objective and absolute truths.”
The Grand Chamber decision concerning the crucial question of the distinction between Holocaust denial and denial of the genocide of the Armenian people in 1915, is contentious. So is its assertion that in his statements, Perincek “had not expressed contempt or hatred for the victims of the events of 1915 and the following years.”
Robertson was upbeat about the ruling, saying it was “a good decision for Armenians.”
He highlighted three noteworthy points from the decision, the first being that Thursday’s judgment reversed the lower court’s ruling, which expressed doubts about the veracity of the Armenian Genocide. Robertson explained that the ruling by the Grand Chamber, as it is known, affirmed that it had no right to make such a distinction.
The second element that emerged from Thursday’s ruling was that Armenians were protected in their assertion of the Armenian Genocide, signaling that in the future individuals could be held accountable—by law—for denying the Genocide if their comments are viewed as inciting hatred or xenophobia.
The most significant turning point, however, according to Robertson, is that Thursday’s ruling suggested that Article 301 of Turkey’s Criminal Code, which stipulated punishment for “insulting Turkishness” can now be deemed in direct contradiction to the ECHR ruling.
“The Court still leaves open other situations where one could punish an individual for denying the Armenian Genocide in certain circumstances. The Court noted that they were it was wrong to convict Perincek partly because there were no heightened tensions or special historical overtones in Switzerland. So one could conclude from the opinion that if there are situations where there are heightened tensions between Armenians and Turks because of the denial, than denial of the Armenian Genocide maybe punishable,” said Kasbar Karampetian, President of the EAFJD.
“A sharply divided European Court for Human Rights failed to consistently apply fundamental principles of law and justice in the Perincek case, resulting in a mixed decision. The court’s conflicted and contradictory judgment, while offering deeply troubling protection for hate speech, does create meaningful new opportunities for progress in ending Turkey’s denials and ultimately reaching a truthful and just resolution of the Armenian Genocide,” said Kate Nahapetian, the Governmental Affairs Director of the Armenian National Committee of America,
Seven Jurists issue dissent to ECHR decision
“That the massacres and deportations suffered by the Armenian people constituted genocide is self-evident. The Armenian genocide is a clearly established historical fact,” said the jurists in their dissent.
“To deny it is to deny the obvious. But that is not the question here. The case is not about the historical truth, or the legal characterization of the events of 1915. The real issue at stake here is whether it is possible for a State, without overstepping its margin of appreciation, to make it a criminal offence to insult the memory of a people that has suffered genocide,” added the dissent.
“In our view, this is indeed possible… The statements in question contain an intent (animus) to insult a whole people. They are a gross misrepresentation, being directed at Armenians as a group, attempting to justify the actions of the Ottoman authorities by portraying them almost as acts of self-defense, and containing racist overtones denigrating the memory of the victims, as the Federal Court rightly found,” the dissenting judges said.
“Within six months at most, Switzerland will report on how it intends to proceed to the Committee of Ministers of the European Council, which is responsible for monitoring the execution by Member States of final judgments. The report must set out the action that Switzerland has taken to eliminate the consequences of the violation determined in this individual case, as well as to prevent such violations in the future. If Switzerland is not yet able to report fully on the execution of the judgment, it must at least present a binding schedule indicating when the intended implementation measures will be undertaken,” said a statement by the Swiss Justice Ministry.
Armenia’s Prosecutor General’s Office Reacts
Armenia’s Prosecutor General’s office issued a statement, in which it expressed satisfaction with the ruling pointing out: