A controversial conference on the mass killings of ethnic Armenians during the last days of the Ottoman Empire opened here Saturday amid heavy security in defiance of a court ban.
The forum was hailed by participants and Western observers as a groundbreaking event where Turkish academics could for the first time publicly challenge their country’s official version of the events leading to the Armenian genocide.
Hundreds of protesters waving Turkish flags pelted the arriving panelists with eggs and rotten tomatoes, expressing the fury felt by many Turks over efforts to open their country’s painful past to debate.
“The aim [of the conference] ... is to declare Turkey guilty of genocide,” said Erkan Onsel, local head of the small left-wing Turkey’s Workers Party.
The conference had been canceled twice, most recently on Thursday, when an Istanbul court ruled in favor of a group of lawyers who opposed the gathering on procedural grounds.
Turkey’s reformist prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, harshly condemned the ruling, saying it was timed to undermine the country’s efforts to join the European Union. Turkey is scheduled to open long-awaited talks with the EU on Oct. 3.
“I want to live in a Turkey where freedoms are enjoyed in their broadest sense,” Erdogan told reporters Saturday.
His words were echoed by Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, who sent a letter of support to the conference. He earlier said the cancellation was a further example of how “Turks are so good at shooting themselves in the foot.”
Emotions ran high among a packed audience of academics, journalists and diplomats as panelists deconstructed Turkey’s official explanation of how the country’s once-thriving Armenian population, estimated at more than 1 million in the early 20th century, was reduced to its current level of 80,000.
More than a million Armenians were systematically killed in a genocide campaign launched in 1915 by forces of the Ottoman Empire, which became the modern republic of Turkey. The government continues to dispute the view that a genocide took place. It says several hundred thousand Armenians died of exposure, disease and attacks from brigands as they journeyed south to Syria after being deported for collaborating with invading Russian troops.
Most speakers took a cautious tone, saying the purpose of the conference was not to deliver a verdict on whether the killings constituted genocide.
“We cannot allow debate to be trapped between these two conflicting points of view. We need to try to understand what happened in 1915,” said Halil Berktay, a prominent Ottoman historian. He noted nonetheless that Ottoman officials had declared “an open season to hunt Armenians” at the start of World War I.
One speaker did maintain that the killings could be described as genocide. “That is my view,” said Fikret Adanir, a Turkish historian.
“What about the Muslims who were killed, why won’t you mention them?” participant Mustafa Budak, deputy director of the state-run Ottoman archive, demanded during a heated question-and-answer session.
Turkey recently opened the archive to the public, but critics say incriminating documents have been purged. Budak denied that claim in an interview and said “the conference’s credibility would have been vastly enhanced had other academics” supporting the official line been invited to speak as well.
A European diplomat observing the panel said its significance went beyond free debate of the Armenian issue. “It proves that Turkey is maturing into a Western-style democracy, where all opinions, no matter how contentious, can be freely expressed.”
Hrant Dink, managing editor of the Armenian-language weekly Agos, said the session would surprise Armenians around the world. “Some will now find the courage to enter into dialogue with the Turks,” he said.
Some participants expressed concern that they might face prosecution under Turkey’s newly revised penal code, which specifically proscribes description of the killings as genocide.
Internationally acclaimed Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk was charged under the law last month with insulting Turkey’s dignity. He said in a Swiss newspaper interview published in February that “1 million Armenians and 30,000 Kurds were killed in these lands, but no one but me dares say so.” He is scheduled to appear in court Dec. 16 and could face three years in prison if convicted.