ANKARA - Criminal proceedings can in fact be launched against the organizers of an online campaign to apologize to Armenians for incidents that occurred in 1915, the high criminal court in Ankara’s Sincan disrict ruled Monday.

The court’s decision overturned an earlier ruling by the Ankara prosecutor’s office that had rejected demands to bring criminal charges against the organizers. Prosecutors are now free to seek the permission of Justice Minister Mehmet Ali Şahin to launch an investigation.

Campaign architect Cengiz Aktar suggested that the Justice Minister would not green-light such an investigation, but said Şahin may be drawn in two different directions. "While the upcoming elections might incite the minister [to issue] an investigation permit, pressure from the United States on human rights might lead him not to," Aktar told the Hürriyet Daily News & Economic Review yesterday. "Both Europe and the United States are aware of the importance of the campaign."

Freedom of thought

In response to a petition calling for the organizers of the Internet campaign to be penalized, the public prosecutor’s office launched a probe in January. It ruled that there was no need for criminal proceedings, saying that opposing views were protected as freedom of thought in democratic societies. The petition was submitted by six Ankara residents who claim the campaign insults the Turkish nation, an illegal act under Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code, or TCK.

Launching an investigation under Article 301 requires the permission of the Justice Ministry, which the high criminal court can now request. Justice Minister Mehmet Ali Şahin had previously stated that the campaign was a matter of the organizers’ own discretion, saying: "What is important for me is the approach and policy of the Republic of Turkey."

The "I apologize" campaign was launched on Dec. 15. Though it has drawn harsh criticism within the country, approximately 29,000 people, including many intellectuals and journalists, have signed the petition, which reads, in part: "My conscience does not accept the insensitivity showed to and the denial of the Great Catastrophe that the Armenians were subjected to in 1915."

Armenia claims that up to 1.5 million Armenians were systematically killed in 1915 under the reign of the Ottoman Empire, while Turkey denies this, saying that any deaths were the result of civil strife that erupted when Armenians took up arms for independence in Eastern Anatolia.