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Cablegate: Istanbul Administrative Court Blocks "Alternative

This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.

UNCLAS SECTION 01 OF 04 ISTANBUL 001655

SIPDIS

SENSITIVE

E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: PREL PGOV PHUM TU AM
SUBJECT: ISTANBUL ADMINISTRATIVE COURT BLOCKS "ALTERNATIVE
ARMENIAN CONFERENCE"; ORGANIZERS SEEK TO BYPASS DECISION BY
USING A THIRD VENUE

REF: A. ANKARA 4951

B. ANKARA 3032

This message was coordinated with Embassy Ankara.

1. (U) This is an action message, see para 13.

2. (SBU) Summary: In a controversial decision unveiled just
hours
before the start of the "Alternative Armenian Conference," at
which
independent-minded speakers planned to challenge Turkish
orthodoxy
about the massacre of Armenians in 1915, an Istanbul court on
September 22 handed down an injunction blocking the event.
The
ruling marked the second time the event has been cancelled.
Most
legal experts were highly critical of the decision and both
PM
Erdogan and FM Gul strongly condemned it. The European
Commission
also reacted vigorously, criticizing the decision and terming
its
late delivery a "provocation." Embassy has expressed
appreciation
for the GOT,s reaction and told the MFA the conference needs
to get
back on track. At mid-day on September 23, organizers
indicated they
hope to do so by holding the conference at Bilgi University
on
September 24, seizing on Justice Minister Cicek's suggestion
that
the court decision only applies to Bosphorus and Sabanci
Universities, as the plaintiffs omitted Bilgi in their
initial
filing. Suggested press guidance is in para 13. End Summary.

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3. (SBU) Organizers at Bosphorus and Sabanci universities had
originally planned to hold the "Alternative Armenian
Conference" in
May. But they were forced to cancel at the last minute after
Justice
Minister Cicek angrily denounced them on the floor of
Parliament as
"traitors" and asserted that the conference was a "stab in
the back"
(reftel B). At that time, neither Erdogan nor Gul spoke out,
though
Speaker of Parliament Arinc did criticize Cicek.

4. (SBU) Stung by negative international reaction, however,
the
government subsequently encouraged organizers to re-schedule,
with
Gul even accepting in principle an invitation to open the
conference
on September 23 (though the UNGA ultimately precluded his
attendance)
(Ref A). Opponents in Turkey's nationalist Union of Jurists
quietly
filed suit to block the conference, and won provisional
approval of
their suit in a September 19 decision by Istanbul's 4th
Administrative
Court. Lawyers for the plaintiffs did not deliver the
decision to
the Governor's office until late on September 22, however,
and by the
time the decision was relayed to the universities shortly
thereafter,
there was no time left to appeal. The court's decision,
adopted by a
split 2-1 vote, is not a final one, but is preliminary,
pending
submission of material to the court by the defendants.

5. (SBU) The material requested by the court includes
information on
the "administrative process" used to organize the conference,
whether
any administrative authority was informed about the
conference, the
criteria used in deciding on who would speak, whether the
meeting was
open to "anyone who would like to express their views," the
criteria
"that have been considered in case the meeting has been
organized for
limited representation," and how the cost of transportation
and
accommodation for the speakers would be financed. The court
gave the
defendants 30 days to produce the required information.
Court head
Saadettin Yaman and member Hami Ali Kandil voted in favor of
the
decision, while judge Fethi Sayin opposed it, arguing that
the
"meeting in question is not an administrative action that can
be the
subject of an administrative trial."

6. (SBU) In a remarkable reversal of its statements in May,
the GOT
reaction to the court decision was swift and negative.
Erdogan, who
earlier this week declined to directly address the
prosecution of
Orhan Pamuk, was unusually forthright in decrying the ruling.
He
stated that he could not approve such a decision at a time
when "we
want a more democratic and freer Turkey," adding that, "I
cannot
reconcile the blocking of a platform for ideas, which has yet
to take
place, with the concepts of democracy, freedom, and
modernity."

7. (SBU) Gul added that "there are few countries that do as
much harm
to themselves as we do." He ascribed the decision to the
"last
attempts of certain circles that try to block Turkey,s road
on her
way to EU negotiations on October 3," and said he would not
be
surprised to see more such last-gasp efforts in coming weeks.
Both
the PM and FM,s statements were carried widely on
television.
(Comment: This is the first time we have seen high-ranking
GOT
officials make such statements in conjunction with freedom of
speech.
End Comment). Opposition CHP officials also criticized the
decision.
Only the opposition True Path Party (DYP) and several fringe
parties
expressed support for the decision. In a strong statement
issued in
Brussels, the European Commission condemned the decision,
describing
its late delivery as a "provocation," but taking note of
Erdogan,s
statement.

8. (SBU) Most legal pundits and observers were also quick to
criticize the decision, agreeing with Sayin that the court
had
overstepped its bounds in viewing the meeting as an
administrative
action. Ibrahim Kabaoglu, an expert in constitutional law
from
Marmara University, told the press that no judge has the
legal
authority to postpone a scholarly meeting and that the
decision was a
"first." Ismet Berkan, editor of the liberal daily
"Radikal," who
had characterized Bosphorus's earlier decision to postpone
the
conference as a "turning point in terms of academic autonomy
and
freedom in Turkey," was equally unsparing regarding the
court's
action. He argued in his September 23 column that if in the
Turkish
Republic "respected" universities say that a conference is a
"scholarly" one, "that conference is scholarly." Courts, he
said,
have no authority to judge the issue one way or another. "We
are
witness," he concluded, "to a court overstepping the bounds
of its
authority."

9. (SBU) Organizers met for three hours on the evening of
September
22 and again on the morning of September 23 to review their
legal
options, which they pledged in a September 22 statement to
defend
fully. Seizing on an opening made by Justice Minister Cicek
(whose
earlier criticism helped torpedo the conference in May), they
announced mid-afternoon September 23 that they would both
appeal the
ruling and seek to hold the conference at Bilgi University,
which was
not cited in the plaintiffs, application to the court, or at
another
venue. (Cicek indicated that the Administrative Court's
decision
covers Bosphorus and Sabanci Universities, but does not apply
to any
school.)

10. (U) Yet to be seen are the plaintiffs' and court's
reaction.
Earlier on September 22, Kemal Kerincsiz, a member of the
Union of
Jurists (which brought the case) and former president of the
Nationalist Lawyers' Association predicted that the decision
was the
final nail in the conference's coffin, but warned that "if
you insist
and decide for the third time to hold this conference, the
Turkish
nation will not tolerate it."

11. (SBU) Comment: As Gul observed, Turkey has a knack for
drawing
attention to its democratic deficiencies at especially
inopportune
moments. With the opening of EU negotiations less than two
weeks
off, two Armenian genocide-related resolutions voted out of
committee
on Capitol Hill, and the ongoing investigation of novelist
Orhan
Pamuk for having dared to claim that there is no freedom in
Turkey to
discuss controversial issues like the massacre of Armenians
(reftel
C), now was a time to highlight Turkey's ability to openly
debate
controversial issues, rather than the reverse. Embassy
Ankara has
already made the point with Turkish officials that the
conference
needs to get back on track. The originators of this latest
fiasco
came not from within the GOT but from outside elements that
would be
happy to see the EU process fail and that also do not mind
embarrassing the government. The GOT has rallied strongly
and the
combination of Erdogan and Gul's strong statements and
Cicek's
opening may enable organizers to find a way
around the court ruling.

12. Comment continued: It is encouraging that the conference
may
still take place at an alternative site. But even so,
speakers would
be under intense pressure. As reported reftel B, the
EU-related
legal reforms have made no meaningful impact on freedom of
speech.
We will be encouraging the government to work harder on this.
It
remains to be seen whether the speakers are able to express
their
views, and whether doing so lands them in court, as happened
to
Pamuk. End Comment.

13. (SBU) Action request: Mission Turkey recommends that
Department
adopt press guidance expressing disappointment with the
decision and
recognizing the prompt and positive reaction of the
government.
Suggested text follows:

Q: Any comment on the decision by a Turkish court to prevent
an
academic conference on the Armenian issue that was scheduled
to begin
today in Istanbul?

-- We have said many times that the circumstances surrounding
the
mass deaths of Armenians at the end of the Ottoman Empire is
a
question best left for historians to debate.

-- We have long supported Turkey,s democratization process
as part of
its drive to secure membership in the European Union.

-- Prime Minster Erdogan said yesterday that the court,s
decision is
inconsistent with that process. We agree with the Prime
Minister,s
observation.
JONES

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