Turkish politician has the right to publicly deny Armenian genocide - ECtHR

Katrin Welker

On 15 October 2015, the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights decided that the criminal conviction of the Turkish politician Doğu Perinçek was a violation of his right to freedom of expression, according to article 10 European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR, application no. 27510/08).

Doğu Perinçek, Doğu Perinçek, 24. Juli 2005 (Picture by Ulusal06 via Wikimedia Commons)

The case happened in Switzerland, where the politician publicly denied the genocide of the Armenians in 1915. The Switzerland-Armenia Association lodged a criminal complaint against the Turkish politician on account of his statements. Based on the opinion that the motives of the politician appeared to be racist and nationalistic and that his statements did not contribute to the historical debate, the Lausanne District Police Court found him guilty of a  racial discrimination offence under Section 261 of the Swiss Criminal Code. The Criminal Cassation Division of the Vaud Cantonal Court as well as the federal Court dismissed the further appeals of the politician.


Due to the fact that the dignity of the Armenians is protected by the right to respect for private life according to article 8 of the Convention, the Court had to strike a balance between the right to respect for private life of the Armenians and the freedom of expression of the politician.


In the Court’s opinion those statements, read as a whole and taken in their immediate and wider context, could not be seen as a call for hatred, violence or intolerance towards the Armenians. The ECtHR underlined that the politician had not expressed contempt or hatred for the victims of the events of 1915 and the following years, he had not called the Armenians liars, used abusive terms in relation to them or attempted to stereotype them. His strongly worded allegations had been directed against the “imperialists” and their allegedly insidious designs regarding to the Ottoman Empire and Turkey.


On the contrary, the Swiss Courts based their decisions on the fact that the Turkish politician was a follower of Talaat Pasha, who was historically the initiator of the massacres of 1915. However, the Swiss Courts had not elaborated on this point, and there was no evidence that the membership of the Turkish politician in the so-called Talaat Pasha Committee had been driven by a wish to vilify the Armenians. The Court was aware of the immense importance attributed by the Armenian community to the question of whether the tragic events of 1915 and the following years were to be regarded as genocide, but it could not accept that the statements at issue had been so wounding to the dignity of the Armenians as to require criminal law measures in Switzerland.


However, the Court emphasised that such statements in relation to the Holocaust – for historical and contextual reasons – could be seen as a form of incitement to racial hatred. Therefore, the current ruling does not apply to the denial of other genocides.

Katrin Welker is a research assistant at the Institute for European Media Law, Saarbrücken/Brüssel.

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The press release of the ECHR is available here.