A court Thursday ordered the cancellation of a conference where Turkish academics were expected to challenge the official version of the events surrounding the mass deaths among this nation’s Armenians during and after World War I.
The gathering, which was to be held today in Istanbul, was seen as a first and important step in Turkey’s efforts to confront its troubled past as it seeks membership in the European Union.
The case for blocking the conference was brought by the Turkish Lawyers Union and other lawyers. Court officials declined to comment on why the conference was canceled.
But several conference participants and Western diplomats in Ankara, the capital, said the decision was part of a broader campaign by ultranationalist elements who oppose Turkey’s bid for membership in the EU.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan swiftly condemned the ruling. “I cannot approve of this decision, especially at a time when we are seeking a more democratic Turkey,” he said.
“The aim is clear: It is to derail the EU process,” said Hrant Dink, managing editor of the Armenian language weekly Agos, who was to have addressed the gathering. “But they will fail.”
Armenians say 1.5 million of their people perished between 1915 and 1923 in a genocide carried out by Ottoman Turks. Turkey has long maintained that several hundred thousand Armenians did die, but of starvation and exposure during forced deportations after they collaborated with invading Russian forces in eastern Turkey.
Turkey is expected to open membership negotiations with the EU on Oct. 3, a process that is expected to take at least a decade. The European body has cited Turkey’s checkered human rights record as an obstacle to membership, and there are growing calls within the bloc for Turkey to set aside its prickly nationalism and apologize for the systematic annihilation of its thriving Armenian community.
The semiofficial Anatolian news agency reported that the court had demanded various documents from conference participants, including their resumes and proof that they were competent to address the Armenian issue. The court also reportedly sought details on who was sponsoring the conference.
“The demands are so laughable. I am left speechless,” said a prominent Ottoman historian, Halil Berktay, who is among the organizers.
Conference organizers said they would appeal the ruling and hoped to proceed with their work as early as Sunday.
The forum originally was set for May but was postponed after Justice Minister Cemil Cicek denounced participants, saying they were “stabbing Turkey in the back.”
Last month, internationally acclaimed Turkish author Orhan Pamuk was indicted on charges of insulting Turkey’s national dignity after he told a Swiss newspaper that “1 million Armenians and 30,000 Kurds were killed in these lands but no one but me dares say so.” He is due to appear in court Dec. 16.
Pamuk’s comments enraged nationalists, and the mainstream Turkish media have remained conspicuously silent about his case.
EU enlargement commissioner Olli Rehn told Turkey this month that the Pamuk case constituted “a red line” for the alliance. And should Pamuk be convicted, he warned, membership negotiations could be interrupted.