Turkish recognition of Armenian "genocide" at issue in Swiss court

Bern has condemned the masscre but refused to refer to it as a genocide

Seventeen representatives of Turkish organisations have gone on trial in Bern for allegedly denying the massacre of Armenians at the turn of the 20th Century.

This content was published on September 4, 2001

The charge against the Turks was brought by two plaintiffs backed by the Swiss-Armenian Society, which has battled for six years to get official recognition of what it calls the "genocide" of between 500,000 and 1.5 million Armenians by the Ottoman Empire in the second decade of the twentieth century.

The Society said the massacres occurred between 1915 and 1920.

The trial at a cantonal court in Bern is expected to last until Friday. It comes just six months after Switzerland's House of Representatives refused a proposal to recognise as "genocide" the Ottoman Empire's treatment of Armenians.

Swiss authorities have instead opted to condemn the "tragic events that lead to the death of an extremely high number of Armenians."

Anti-racism article

The main charge levelled by the two Armenian plaintiffs against the 17 Turks is the breaking of an anti-racism article in the Swiss penal code, which is punishable by fines or imprisonment.

However, until now, this legal clause has only been applied specifically to cases relating to denials of the Holocaust, and not to other racially-motivated conflicts.

Sarki Shahinian, one of the two Armenian plaintiffs, told swissinfo that the matter was of both personal and international significance.

"My personal human dignity has been attacked in the face of this denial," he says. "The Turkish organisations are trying to minimise and even justify this crime against humanity."

A long battle

The trial is the latest event in a long battle between Turkish and Armenian organisations for official backing for this period in history.

In 1995, Armenian organisations in Switzerland presented a petition to the Parliament in Bern asking for official recognition of the genocide. Turkish organisations reacted the following year with a petition asking Swiss authorities not to give in to Armenian demands.

The Swiss-Turkish organisations said the Armenian petition distorted historical facts and that the term "genocide" could not be applied because the Ottoman government never attempted to wipe out the Armenian race.

However, Shahinian said the trial is a major opportunity to redress wrongdoings against the Armenian community. "Until today, Armenians haven't had the opportunity to get justice before a judge and to fight against the denial of the genocide," he said.

A verdict on the trial could come as early as Friday.

The Turkish embassy in Bern said it was not prepared to comment fully on the trial until a verdict has been reached. However, Levent Shaenkaya, a Turkish diplomat, said he had faith in the Swiss judicial system.

"We hope that common sense will win through and that the court reaches an objective decision," he said.

swissinfo with agencies

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