By Harut Sassounian
Publisher, The California Courier
The Empire Strikes Back, not in a science fiction movie, but in a French court!
For several years, the French-Armenian community has been trying to pass a law to penalize Armenian Genocide denial, similar to the law that sanctions Holocaust denialism. Even though the French Parliament and Senate have approved such a law, and both Pres. Hollande and former Pres. Sarkozy have supported it, the Armenian efforts have been aborted by powerful Turkish political and economic circles.
Turning the proposed law on its head, Sirma Oran-Martz, a French citizen of Turkish origin, had filed a lawsuit in France against Laurent Leylekian, a French-Armenian, for defamation of character. Leylekian, former editor of "France-Armenie" magazine and former executive director of the European-Armenian Federation for Justice and Democracy, had written a sarcastic editorial titled, "Martz Attack" in the magazine’s website, denouncing attempts to transplant Turkish denialism to French soil. Ironically, Oran-Martz is daughter of Prof. Baskin Oran who resides in Turkey and acknowledges the facts of the Armenian Genocide without using that term because Turkish law penalizes those who recognize the Genocide.
In a shocking verdict last month, the court found Leylekian guilty, ordering him to pay a total of 7,500 euros ($10,000): 4,000 euros to Oran-Martz for moral damages, and 3,500 euros for court costs, despite her evasive and irrational testimony during the proceedings. She had lost an earlier court case after suing Jean-Paul Bret, the Mayor of Villeurbanne, who had requested that she acknowledge the Armenian Genocide before agreeing to include her in his party’s candidate list. She refused and withdrew from the race. In that verdict, the court referred to the Turkish state’s "vast program of denialism -- powerful, perverse, and sophisticated" -- a sentence later quoted by Leylekian in his editorial.
Three prominent individuals testified in court on Leylekian’s behalf: Francois Rochebloine, a French Parliamentarian; Yves Ternon, renowned expert on genocide and denial; and Hilda Tchoboian, former Chairwoman of the European-Armenian Federation for Justice and Democracy. Oran-Martz was accused by Leylekian of taking part in a protest by the Turkish extremist Grey Wolves group against an Armenian Genocide Monument in Lyon, France, and signing a petition against the law on genocide denial. Testifying on behalf of Oran-Martz were: Murat Erpuyan, director of Paris-based ATA Turquie Association; Maxime Gauin, a French researcher working at a denialist Think Tank in Ankara; Alain Mascarou, a retired French teacher who knew the plaintiff in Ankara; and her husband, Jean-Patrick Martz.
Hopefully, Leylekian would be vindicated when he appeals this outrageous guilty verdict. Clearly, the judge has made a mockery of French justice by siding with a genocide denialist, while punishing a descendant of Armenian Genocide victims. By condemning Leylekian for ostensibly defaming Oran-Martz in an editorial, the judge has chosen to deny him free speech, especially a journalist’s right to express his views in an opinion column. Surely, the French judge knows the difference between an opinion piece and a news item! Furthermore, the judge ignored the public prosecutor’s request not to file criminal charges against Leylekian and to refrain from sentencing him.
It is ironic that while the French-Armenian community is trying to penalize genocide deniers, an Armenian is being sued by a denialist Turk. This topsy-turvy state of affairs makes the best case as to why the French government should pass a law banning genocide denial.
While Oran-Martz gave incoherent answers in court, frequently irritating the judge, Leylekian provided clear, concise, and convincing arguments in his defense. This is why his guilty verdict was completely unexpected. Could it be that the long arm of Turkish influence peddling has reached into the French judicial system?
After losing her first lawsuit against the Mayor of Villeurbanne three years ago, Oran-Matz vowed to continue her legal battle by announcing that this was "only the first round." It is imperative that the verdict against Leylekian be reversed through an appeal filed by a competent, high-powered lawyer in order to right this miscarriage of justice and put a stop to more anti-Armenian lawsuits by Turkish denialists.
The French-Armenian community should not remain silent, but express its outrage in the strongest possible terms against this unjust verdict and demand that the judge be disciplined for violating French laws and insulting the memory of genocide victims.
It is high time Armenians show some resolve to defend their rights in France and elsewhere, particularly on the eve of the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide!