BERN, Switzerland (Associated Press, RFE/RL) - After an unprecedented trial, a Swiss court Friday cleared prominent Turkish organizations of charges that they violated racial discrimination laws by disputing the World War I era genocide of Armenians.
The case was based on Switzerland's 1995 anti-racism law, making it a criminal offense to "deny, grossly minimize or seek to justify genocide or other crimes against humanity." Until now it was used only against those denying the existence of the Nazi Holocaust.
A Swiss-Armenian association filed a criminal complaint in 1997, objecting to a letter by Turkish associations which said that the "analogy between the (Nazi) Holocaust and the displacement of the Armenian population has no basis."
"It is not possible to talk about 'genocide' when the Ottoman government never intended to 'exterminate' the Armenians," said the letter, drafted by a coordinating body of Swiss-based Turkish organizations.
The Turkish letter to members of the Swiss parliament was in response to a petition by the Armenian community urging Switzerland to recognize as genocide the killing of more than a million Armenians during and after World War I. Court president Lienhard Ochsner dismissed the case for lack of subjective evidence and said there is no sign that the Turks knowingly breached the anti-racism law. The
letter was merely an attempt to voice the opinion of the Turkish community in Switzerland, he ruled.
"They wanted to preserve the untarnished image of their homeland," said Ochsner in his judgment. It was the first case of its kind worldwide.
He said that none of the accused were academics familiar with historical events. All had been influenced by the Turkish teaching of history, which portrayed the genocide purely as an unsubstantiated Armenian allegation.
The Swiss-Armenian association said it will appeal. One of the two ethnic Armenian plaintiffs, Sarkis Shahinian, told RFE/RL by phone that he was “shocked and outraged” by the ruling, which he said “had nothing to do with Swiss law” and was politically motivated. Shahinian charged that Ochsner’s decision was a result of “political pressure.”
The Swiss government refuses to officially use the term “genocide” with respect to the mass killings of Armenians, but lawmakers have tried several times to pass bills recognizing the genocide.
Armenians, backed by many foreign historians, say some 1.5 million of their people were killed as the Ottoman Empire forced them from eastern Turkey between 1915 and 1923 - and that this was a deliberate campaign of genocide by Turkey's rulers at that time. Turkey admits hundreds of thousands died, but says that Armenians were killed or displaced as the Ottoman Empire tried to secure its border with Russia and stop attacks by Armenian militants.
The killings have been recognized as genocide by a U.N. human rights panel and several national governments - including France, Argentina and Russia - as well as 11 U.S. state governments. Turkey retaliated against several French companies in January, canceling millions of dollars worth of defense deals, in fury at the French parliamentary vote.
Last fall former President Bill Clinton persuaded the U.S. House to shelve a nonbinding resolution that would have used the term genocide, arguing it would damage relations with a key ally.