A French parliamentary bill that would make it a crime to deny that Armenians suffered genocide at the hands of Ottoman Turks in World War One makes no sense, a senior U.S. official said on Friday.
Daniel Fried, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs, said he backed French President Jacques Chirac's opposition to the bill, which has infuriated Turkey even though it may never become law.
"I certainly share the view that this legislation criminalizing discussion doesn't seem to make any sense," Fried told a news briefing in Brussels. He said the United States and President George W. Bush had spoken out repeatedly about the mass killings of Armenians during World War One and did not want to minimize or deny them.
However, he added: "We as a government have never termed these events genocide. We don't use that word."
Fried said the United States would like to see Turks and Armenians address the issue honestly and some Turks were already urging their government to do so. "It doesn't strike me as clear that resolutions like this in the French parliament are going to encourage this process."
Given opposition from Chirac and the French Senate, the bill is unlikely to become law but it has infuriated Turkey, where consumer groups have called for a boycott of French made goods.
Some Turkish politicians say the French parliament's bid to make it a crime to deny Ottoman Turks committed genocide against Armenians in World War One means it is hypocritical and wrong of the European Union to demand more reforms from Ankara. In particular, they say the EU has no moral right to demand Turkey scrap or modify article 301 of its penal code that makes it a crime to insult Turkish national identity. The article has been used to prosecute Turkish writers and intellectuals.
But the EU's envoy to Ankara said Turkey must refrain from using the French bill as an excuse to keep restrictions on freedom of speech at home. "The French bill ... would prohibit the expression of one specific statement, i.e. that there was no genocide. But 301 is used to prevent public debate on general political issues," envoy Hans-Joerg Kretschmer told Reuters late on Thursday.
"For example, one person ended up in court because she questioned whether conscientious objectors should have to do military service. So comparing the French bill and 301 is really comparing apples and pears," he said in an interview.
Leading writers including Orhan Pamuk, winner of this year's Nobel Prize for Literature, have also faced charges under article 301 for questioning the official Turkish view that there was no Armenian genocide.
(Photolur photo: Daniel Fried.)