(CN) – Europe’s human rights court ruled that a Turkish law allowing prosecution of people who discuss the Armenian genocide violates the right to expression.
Altug Taner Akçam, a professor of history in Ankara, brought the complaint to the European Court of Human Rights in 2007 when extremist groups attempted to use the law against him.
If convicted under the law, a person could face up to three years in prison for degradation of “Turkishness.”
This has been interpreted to forbid use of the word “genocide” to describe the systematic destruction of the Armenian population by the Ottoman Empire before World War I. At least 1 million Armenians, along with members of other ethnic groups, were killed.
Although Akçam was not prosecuted, he claimed that he lived under its threat, and that this caused him to cease writing on the issue.
The statute had been used extensively to persecute writers who reported on the topic, including Hrant Dink, a prominent journalist who was convicted under the law and subsequently shot to death by extremists.
The Turkish government said that amendments to the wording of the law, and a requirement for authorization from the justice minister to initiate prosecution, provided enough free speech safeguards.
But the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights disagreed, saying that although protection of state values is acceptable to an extent, the revised law could still be abused to silence “unfavorable” opinions.
Under Turkish criminal code, there is still the risk that the state will prosecute those who speak publicly on the issue, the court said, pointing to evidence that journalists continue to be persecuted for discussing the Armenian genocide in Turkey.
“As is clear from the number of investigations and prosecutions brought under this provision, any opinion or idea that is regarded as offensive, shocking or disturbing can easily be the subject of a criminal investigation by public prosecutors,” the court concluded in establishing a violation of free speech.
Turkey is bound to change the law in accordance with the ruling.