ANKARA (Al-Monitor) — Turkish prosecutors are seeking to lift the parliamentary immunity of Istanbul-Armenian lawmaker Garo Paylan in order to prosecute and potentially jail him, marking a further escalation of the government’s assault on free expression.
Prosecutors in Ankara have invoked Article 301, which criminalizes insulting the Turkish nation, and Article 299, which penalizes insulting the Turkish president, against Garo Paylan of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), the largest pro-Kurdish bloc in the Turkish parliament.
They were said to be acting on a criminal complaint filed in May 2017 by Turkish academic Aygun Attar and approved for further action by the Justice Ministry in December. Attar was reportedly protesting Paylan’s depiction of the mass slaughter of more than a million Ottoman Armenians in 1915 as a genocide in separate comments to the parliament and in an interview with the Armenian-Canadian publication Horizon Weekly, among others. Paylan’s critical remarks concerning Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s recent alliance with far-right leader Devlet Bahceli and the ensuing crackdown on the media and civil society were likewise deemed to be insulting to the office of the president.
Nine HDP lawmakers, including the party’s presidential candidate Selahattin Demirtas, are currently in jail facing a cocktail of terror charges together with hundreds of other party officials. But the accusations against Paylan stand out. The government has prosecuted tens of thousands of alleged operatives of the religious cult led by Fethullah Gulen, the Pennsylvania-based Sunni preacher who is accused of masterminding the failed July 2016 coup. Countless others said to be associated with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party, including HDP officials, have been rounded up in the thousands on similar terror charges. But prosecutors had largely steered clear of Article 301, which was commonly used in the past against those who dared to call the orgy of bloodletting in 1915 a genocide.
Article 301’s targets include renowned Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk and Istanbul-Armenian news editor Hrant Dink, who was gunned down outside the office of his AGOS newspaper in January 2007 by an ultranationalist youth said to be acting under the orders of rogue security officials. His murder proved a turning point, opening up nationwide debate on the genocide at a time when Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) was still in reformist gear and ready to sign a now frozen peace deal with neighboring Armenia.
“The charges against me are not a surprise; the climate has changed and there were several clear signs of this,” Paylan told Al-Monitor. “I spoke about the genocide many times in the past, but AKP members in the parliament didn’t blink. It was only Bahceli’s people who protested,” he recalled. Then in January 2017, Paylan, who has been a deputy since 2015, was temporarily banned from parliamentary sessions for broaching the subject of the wholesale killings not only of ethnic Armenians but of Assyrians, Greeks and Jews who were “lost” and “driven from these lands in large massacres [and] genocides.”
Undettered, Paylan pressed for formal recognition of the genocide and the establishment of a commission to investigate the events leading up to it in a bill he submitted last month. It was rejected.
The move against Paylan has sparked rebukes from the European Union. Kati Piri, the Turkey rapporteur of the European Parliament called the case “unacceptable.” She told Al-Monitor, “This latest incident is a new front in the attack against fundamental rights in Turkey. If even elected parliamentarians cannot express their opinions, where does this leave ordinary citizens?”