26 April 2018
On April 24, 2018, an international delegation, coordinated by the European Grassroots Antiracist Movement (EGAM) and the European branch of the Armenian General Benevolent Union (AGBU), assembled in Istanbul to commemorate the Armenian Genocide at a series of events organized by the Turkish Human Rights Foundation (IHD) and DurDe! (Say Stop!).
Significant public commemorations of this first genocide of the 20th century have been taking place in Turkey since 2010. This year, however, such gatherings were severely hindered by a disproportionate police presence, searches and restrictions.
The delegation was composed of representatives from 13 countries, Armenia and France, among them. Lifelong human rights activist, Mireille Clapot, Vice-President of the Committee of Foreign Affairs of the French Parliament also participated.
One demonstration at the Sultanahmed prison, the site where Armenian intellectuals and community leaders were arrested on April 24, 1915 prior to their deportation and execution, was met with an oversized police force that proceeded to confiscate banners and handouts, on grounds that they contained the word “genocide”. Two people were arrested, and the organizers decided to withdraw in protest.
A commemorative service was held at the Sisli cemetery, in honor of Sevag Balikci, the young conscript who was assassinated on April 24, 2011 by a fellow soldier on account of his Armenian identity. Balikci’s assassin was never prosecuted for the murder. Again, the police were present en masse at the service, searching participants and warning organizers not to use the word “genocide”.
That same evening, a major demonstration was held in the city center, involving hundreds of participants including Turks, Armenians and many other ethnic minorities and nationalities. As in previous years, this moving commemoration evokes the memory of the 1.5 million victims, by listing the names of many of those leaders arrested on April 24, 1915 in Istanbul, never to be seen again. Organizers displayed their portraits including those of Hrant Dink, murdered in 2007, and Sevak Balikci, murdered in 2011.
Prior to the commemorations on April 24, the delegation met with a number of other organizations and leaders in Istanbul who are involved in human rights or promoting dialogue and peace. All recounted their personal stories of judicial harassment, arbitrary arrests and arbitrary sentencing. Osman Kavala, for instance, is a prominent and sage sponsor of intercultural understanding, including Armenian-Turkish dialogue, who has remained in jail since December 2017 without charge. The dramatic and large-scale arbitrary repression currently carried out under the pretext of fighting “terrorism” and uncovering those involved in the July 2016 attempted coup is widely known.
The freedom to discuss the Armenian genocide in public and to hold commemorations on April 24 was gradually granted by the authorities from 2005 onwards, which set the stage for major commemorations starting in 2010. The largest commemorations were held in Istanbul in 2015 on the occasion of the centenary of the Armenian genocide. It seems, however, that window of tolerance may be closing.
AGBU Europe, along with its partner EGAM and fellow Europeans of goodwill, intends to maintain its engagement in Turkey, working with those in the country who share our humanistic values.