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050924 - Turk nationalists rally outside Armenian conference
Reuters.Sat Sep 24, 2005 2:40 PM BST- By Jon Hemming
ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Hundreds of Turkish nationalists chanting slogans and waving flags protested on Saturday against a controversial academic conference devoted to the World War One massacre of Armenians in Ottoman Turkey.
The conference had been due to open on Friday at two universities in Istanbul but a last-minute court order blocked it, causing acute embarrassment to the Turkish government just days before the start of its European Union membership talks.
Organisers then circumvented the court ban by moving the conference on Saturday to a third university in the city.
"This conference is an insult to our republic and to the memory of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk," Erkal Onsel, head of the Istanbul branch of the leftwing but nationalist Workers' Party, told protesters gathered outside the private Bilgi University.
Ataturk is the revered founder of the modern Turkish Republic on the ashes of the Ottoman Empire in 1923.
The demonstrators chanted slogans such as "Treason will not go unpunished" and "This is Turkey, love it or leave it".
The issue of the Armenian massacres is a highly sensitive issue in Turkey. Armenia and its supporters around the world say some 1.5 million Armenians perished in a systematic genocide committed by Ottoman Turkish forces between 1915 and 1923.
Ankara accepts many Armenians were killed on Turkish soil during and after World War One, but says they were victims of a partisan conflict which claimed even more Turkish Muslim lives as the Ottoman Empire was collapsing. It denies any genocide.
Turkey is under pressure to change its stance if it is to become the first Muslim country to join the European Union.
The conference had originally been due to take place at Istanbul's Bosphorus University in May but was cancelled after Justice Minister Cemil Cicek accused those backing the genocide claims of "stabbing Turkey in the back".
This time, with a nervous eye on Brussels as the clock ticks towards the start of its long-delayed EU entry talks on October 3, the government has strongly backed the conference.
The court banning order, announced on Thursday evening just before the conference was due to start, drew swift condemnation from Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan as well as from the European Commission, which spoke of a "provocation" by anti-EU elements.
Lawyers behind the original court ban condemned Bilgi University's decision on Saturday to host the event regardless.
"We will file a legal complaint against all of those people behind this conference," lawyer Kemal Kerincsiz told Reuters outside the university.
"Nobody, not even the prime minister, can go against (a court verdict)," he said.
The court had blocked the conference pending information on the qualifications of the speakers. The court also wanted to know who was participating and who was paying for it.
Despite a flurry of EU-inspired liberal reforms in recent years, promoting certain interpretations of Turkish history can still be deemed a criminal offence under the revised penal code.
The protesters said the organisers of the conference were not really upholding freedom of speech.
"They don't let us inside... they don't give us a chance to put our case. They forget those of the Turkish nation killed by Armenians," said Kemal Ermetin, who runs a nationalist magazine.
The protesters displayed photographs of what they said were Azeris killed by Armenians in the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh during fighting in the early 1990s.
Turkey closed its border and cut diplomatic ties with tiny ex-Soviet Armenia in 1993 to protest against Armenian occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh, part of the territory of Azerbaijan, a regional Turkic-speaking ally of Ankara.


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