Vincent Boland: Turkey's Bosphorus University Holds Conference On Armenian Genocide

Roundup: Talking About History

There is no more sensitive issue in Turkey's 20thcentury history. The country's most celebrated writer faces jail for mentioning it. But this weekend Bosphorus University plans to go ahead with a conference, on the fate of Turkish Armenians at the end of the Ottoman empire, that has been delayed for months after a government minister accused the university of treason.

The meeting will be the first to discuss the issue outside official control and will be closely watched for any hint that Turkey's democratic credentials fail to meet the standards expected of a candidate for European Union membership.

As it prepares to begin the long process of joining the EU, Ankara seems ready to address many contentious issues, such as Cyprus or the plight of the country's ethnic Kurds. But it appears paralysed on the question of the Armenians.

Armenia claims that 1.5m Armenians died as a result of genocide by Ottoman troops beginning in 1915, before the republic of Turkey was created. Turkey maintains the death toll was much lower and that the deaths were caused by deportation, war and hunger. Many historians and some governments take Armenia's side.

Two recent events highlight the sensitivity of the issue and what could be at stake in this weekend's conference, which will be attended and addressed solely by Turkish historians. When the university announced the gathering, to be held originally in late May, there were fierce protests by republican and nationalist politicians and academics at other universities and a government minister accused the institution of "stabbing the country in the back".

The university capitulated, worried that hundreds of students from universities in Anatolia, which are far more nationalist than Bosphorus, would descend on the conference and disrupt the proceedings. It rescheduled the conference for this weekend, with far less publicity and a heightened sense of security.

The second event, which has given the conference proceedings added significance, is the prosecution of Orhan Pamuk, Turkey's most celebrated writer. Earlier this year he told a foreign magazine that "30,000 Kurds and 1m Armenians were killed in these lands and nobody but me dares to talk about it". He has now been charged with the "public denigration of Turkish identity" for this statement, and faces up to three years in jail if convicted in a trial set for December.

The fact that this weekend's conference is going ahead is a small victory for civil rights in Turkey, while Mr Pamuk's prosecution is a large setback.

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