A key committee of the National Assembly effectively rejected on Friday a proposal by the opposition Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun) to criminalize public statements denying that the 1915 massacres of Armenians in Ottoman Turkey constituted genocide.
Armenia’s Criminal Code already carries heavy fines and up to four years’ imprisonment for public denial of genocides and “other crimes against humanity.” An amendment tabled by Dashnaktsutyun last month would extend the maximum punishment to five years and apply it to anyone “denying, playing down, approving or justifying the genocide of Armenians in Ottoman Turkey and Western Armenia.”
Dashnaktsutyun leaders acknowledge that the bill is directly connected with the recent agreements to normalize Armenia’s relations with Turkey that have been strongly condemned by the nationalist party. They say it is specifically directed against a Turkish-Armenian “subcommission” of historians envisaged by one of the agreements.
It would be tasked with studying the extermination of the Ottoman Empire’s sizable Armenian population. Dashnaktsutyun and other critics of the deal say the very existence of such a body would call into question the fact of the genocide, a claim denied by the Yerevan government.
In a written opinion submitted to the Armenian parliament committee on legal affairs this week, the Ministry of Justice objected to the Dashnaktsutyun bill and essentially upheld the existing Criminal Code clause relating to genocide denial. The committee on Friday postponed the bill’s consideration by at least two months, meaning that the proposed amendment will not reach the parliament floor before February.
The committee chairman, David Harutiunian, made no secret of his strong opposition to the measure, saying that it would create “extremely serious problems” in the ongoing Turkish-Armenian negotiations. He said its passage would lead the Turkish authorities to resume heavy enforcement of a controversial law makes it a crime to “insult the Turkish nation.” The law, watered down last year, has been used in the prosecution of prominent Turks who have questioned the official Turkish version of the events of 1915.
Harutiunian also argued that by adopting the amendment drafted by Dashnaktsutyun the National Assembly would give the impression that there is now a “serious movement” within Armenian that denies the genocidal character of those events. “Besides, I believe Armenia’s position on this issue is so strong that we don’t need any additional tools of defense in the shape of criminal liability,” the former justice minister said at a committee meeting. “The stronger party doesn’t need such tools.”
“I don’t see that confidence about our strength,” Vahan Hovannisian, the leader of the Dashnaktsutyun faction in the parliament, countered, referring to President Serzh Sarkisian’s conciliatory policy towards Turkey. He said the October 10 signing of the Turkish-Armenian protocols in Zurich was “a sign of weakness” on the part of Yerevan.