Akçam wins landmark free-speech case in Euro human rights court

The European Court of Human Rights ruled on Oct. 25 that a violation was committed against freedom of expression in the case of Clark University Professor Taner Akçam. Akçam, the first Turkish scholar to publicly express his conviction that the 1915 Armenian genocide occurred under the Ottoman Empire (of which Turkey is a successor state), brought his case to the European court to tackle the constant fear of prosecution that caused him to stop writing on the subject in 2007. “There is no ‘Armenian’ side or ‘Turkish’ side to history,” Akçam said in an Oct. 27 interview with Today’s Zaman, an English-language newspaper in Turkey. “To discuss what really happened in history is to speak freely and openly about it, without legends or myths.” Akçam holds the Robert Aram and Marianne Kaloosdian and Stephen and Marian Mugar Endowed Chair of Armenian Genocide Studies at the Strassler Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Clark, the only endowed chair in the world dedicated to research and teaching on the subject of the Armenian Genocide. The ruling is the subject of intense discussion in Turkey where talk about the Genocide has long been criminalized.

"Without acknowledging a historic wrongdoing there will be no democracy."

Akçam, who has published widely on the subject of the Armenian Genocide, feared prosecution by the Turkish government under Article 301. The law makes it a crime to insult Turkishness and it has been used to prosecute writers and intellectuals, like Noble prize-winning author Orhan Pamuk. Although Turkey had not brought charges against Akçam under Article 301, he was the subject of numerous legal actions and the target of death threats and intimidation from Turkish ultranationalists. The court agreed with his claim that he faced risk of prosecution despite amendments having been made to the Turkish law. In 2006, Professor Akçam wrote an editorial in the bilingual Turkish-Armenian newspaper AGOS to support his friend Armenian Journalist Hrant Dink, the late editor of AGOS, against the prosecution for the crime of “denigrating Turkishness” under Article 301 of the Turkish Criminal Code. He also requested, in an expression of solidarity, to be prosecuted on the same ground for his opinions on the Armenian issue. Akçam’s article led to three complaints being filed against him for allegedly denigrating Turkishness. Hrant Dink was assassinated in January 2007 in Istanbul. “Article 301 is a murderous law that killed Hrant Dink and it has been killing the freedom of speech in Turkey," Akςam said. "Without acknowledging a historic wrongdoing there will be no democracy. Turkey should learn that facing history and coming to terms with past human rights abuses is not a crime but a prerequisite for peace and reconciliation in the region.” Despite not having “victim status,” the court recognized that criminal complaints filed against Akçam for his views on the Armenians had become a campaign of harassment. The court further found that while the current government had made changes to the law, Akçam could not be sure that, in the future, he would be safe should there be a shift in political will or a change of policy by a new government, and there has been an interference with the exercise of his right to freedom of expression. Akçam’s case, though granted this important initial victory, is still open for three months to referral and review by the Grand Chamber of the Court. If a referral request is made but refused then the judgment will proceed in being executed by the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe.

News about the Akcam v. Turkey decision has appeared in several media, including a live interview (in Turkish) with Haberturk TV, the leading news channel of Turkey (Nov. 1); a Worcester Telegram & Gazette editorial titled “Professor Akcam’s court victory” (Nov. 1); T&G Page One article, “Euro court backs Clark professor in Armenian genocide dispute” (Oct. 29); and Chronicle of Higher Education posting "European Court Rules for American Scholar in Freedom-of-Expression Case" (Oct. 28).