Turkey warns of reprisals over French genocide Bill

Threat of sanctions as French Senate debates law criminalising denial of Armenian massacre

Istanbul

Turkey warned yesterday that it would impose permanent sanctions on France if the French Senate passed a Bill which would punish with prison and a fine anyone denying that the killing of more than one million Armenians by Ottoman Turks in 1915 was genocide.

"Turkey will continue to implement sanctions so long as this Bill remains in motion," the Foreign Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, said before the debate. Turkey briefly withdrew its ambassador to Paris and placed sanctions on economic, political and military co-operation with France when the measure was approved last month by the lower house of parliament, the National Assembly. If the Senate also passes the Bill, which it was debating yesterday, offenders would be liable to a one-year jail term and a fine of €45,000 (£37,200).

The French action has created extreme anger in Turkey where television news channels gave continuous coverage to the Senate debate. Turkish critics denounce the legislation as a cynical attempt by the French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, to win the vote of the 500,000-strong French Armenian community before presidential elections this year. "Turkey is no longer the Turkey of 2001," said Mr Davotoglu, emphasising that Turkey is far stronger today than it was when the French parliament first recognised the Armenian genocide.

In a tea house in the Bayoglu district of Istanbul, an elderly man who gave his name as Ali vehemently denounced Mr Sarkozy. "He plots like the Devil," he said. "He wouldn't even pick up the phone to talk to talk to our President. People do that even in wartime. He should resign as leader of France."

The remaining Armenians in Turkey, believed to number about 70,000, are not optimistic about the Turkish government ever admitting to the genocide. At a march last week commemorating the fifth anniversary of the murder of an Armenian-Turkish journalist, Hrant Dink, in 2007, an Armenian woman, Mariam Kalk, said she did not expect any change. "Turkish society is a very silent society," she said. "The state will never admit to the Armenian massacre."

Cengiz Aktar, a professor of political science at Bahcesehir University in Istanbul, said there were three reasons why Turkey could not admit to the genocide. Those who carried it out continued to work for the government in senior positions. The ethnic cleansing did not stop in 1923 and surviving Armenians, who still numbered 300,000, were being pushed out of Turkey for years afterwards. Thirdly, he said, "we should not forget that the Armenians were often bourgeoisie and their wealth was plundered". Nevertheless, the present government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has shown itself more tolerant than any of its predecessors towards Armenians and other Christians in Turkey.

"The words 'Armenian genocide' are no longer taboo," said Prof Aktar, adding that officials had made sure there were no attacks on those taking part in "Genocide Day" commemorations on 24 April. He believes there would be a nationalist backlash in Turkey if the French Bill was passed into law, but that discussion of what happened would not cease. "The genie is out of the bottle," he said.

Armenians in Istanbul say they are treated with greater tolerance than five years ago, partly because of general outrage over the murder of Mr Dink. "Before, Armenians were second-class citizens in Turkey and now they aren't," said Armen Kalk, who marched last week.

There are signs of some state support for the Armenian community, such as at Vortods Vorodmans, a once-derelict church opposite the Armenian Patriarchate in Istanbul. It re-opened a month ago after being restored by the government.

A million dead: Armenian massacre

The massacre of Armenians by Ottoman forces began in 1915. The exact number killed in death marches or shootings is not known but historians estimate the figure to be between 1.2 million and 1.4 million. A document found in the papers of one Ottoman leader said the empire's Armenian population fell from 1,256,000 in 1914 to 284,157 in 1916.

Turkey argues that the figures were exaggerated or that Armenians were collateral damage, killed in military operations and not on the state's orders. Cengiz Aktar, of Istanbul's Bahcesehir University, says what happened to Armenians and other Christians was "religious cleansing... to create a homogenous state based on Islam".

Patrick Cockburn

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