By Jon Hemming
(Reuters) - An Istanbul court's decision to block a conference on the World War One massacre of Armenians has embarrassed Turkey at a sensitive moment and angered EU states just 10 days before the planned start of EU entry talks.
But conference organizers moved on Friday to circumvent the ruling, which banned it from two universities. A spokeswoman for a third Istanbul university said they would host the event.
Turkey has always denied claims that Ottoman Turkish forces committed genocide against local Armenians during World War One, but under pressure from the European Union, has called for historians to debate the issue, not politicians. The Istanbul university conference aimed to give historians that chance, but on Friday, when the conference was due to open, the debate was political rather than academic.
Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said the court verdict had "nothing to do with democracy". Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul said Turkey had only itself to blame. "There is no one better than us when it comes to harming ourselves," he said.
Late on Thursday, an Istanbul court barred two universities from hosting the conference pending information on the qualifications of the speakers. They also wanted to know who was participating and who was paying for it. "It was cancelled because they did not know who was going to say what," the Sabah daily said.
But Justice Minister Cemil Cicek later said there was nothing to stop the conference from being held at another location. A spokeswoman for Istanbul's Bilgi University said the rectors there had agreed to host the meeting.
The European Commission condemned the court's verdict. "The absence of legal motivations and the (timing) of this decision a day before the conference looks like yet another provocation," Krisztina Nagy, the EU executive's spokeswoman for enlargement, said on Friday.
Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn previously called a Turkish court's plans to prosecute best-selling novelist Orhan Pamuk a provocation. Pamuk faces up to three years in jail on charges of "denigrating the Turkish identity" on accusations he backed claims that Armenians suffered genocide 90 years ago.
The Armenian conference had already been postponed in May after the justice minister accused its organizers of treason.
The Armenian conference case shows Turkish courts are not truly independent of government, despite efforts at reform in pursuit of EU membership, one liberal academic told Reuters. "The judiciary is just an adjunct to the executive branch," said Dogu Ergil of Ankara University. "This is the mentality which infests Turkey. They think that if they bar discussion in Turkey, it will just go away, but this is an international issue," Ergil said.
The International Association of Genocide Scholars placed a full page advertisement in the International Herald Tribune on Friday calling on Turkey "to acknowledge the responsibility of a previous government for the genocide of the Armenian people". "There may be differing interpretations of how and why the Armenian Genocide happened, but to deny its factual and moral reality as genocide is not to engage in scholarship but in propaganda and efforts to absolve the perpetrator," they said.
The group of Turkish lawyers who appealed to the Turkish court to have the conference stopped welcomed its verdict. "The real aim of this conference ... was to push the country into chaos, break it up and create a (greater) Armenia and a Kurdistan," the group's chairman Kemal Kerincsiz told reporters.
Turkey closed its border and cut diplomatic ties with Armenia in 1993 to protest against Armenian occupation of the territory of Azerbaijan, a regional Turkic-speaking ally of Ankara. Armenia's government declined to comment on the conference.