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French council throws out legislation on genocide denial

February 28, 2012 |  4:35 pm

French senate
REPORTING FROM PARIS -- A new, controversial French law meant to punish deniers of World War I-era mass killings of Armenians was thrown out by the country’s Constitutional Council on Tuesday, but President Nicolas Sarkozy said a new version would be drafted for approval.

The French court said in a statement that it could not sanction the law because it “infringed unconstitutionally on the exercise of the liberty of expression and communication.”

The law, backed by Sarkozy, was approved by the French Parliament in January despite deep divisions among lawmakers across the political spectrum and the diplomatic train wreck it caused with Turkey.

The original law, presented by conservative lawmaker Valerie Boyer, called for a maximum punishment of one year in prison and a $59,000 fine for publicly denying or seriously minimizing any events recognized as acts of genocide by French law.  The mass killing of Armenians by Turkish troops is legally considered genocide in France, along with the Holocaust.

Turkey has long maintained that hundreds of thousands of Armenians who died were not the product of organized killings by Turkey’s Ottoman Empire at the time.  However, Armenians claim as many as 1.5 million of their kin were massacred by Ottoman forces in a genocide that served as a model for Adolf Hitler.

Armenian leaders had expressed gratitude for the initiative, but Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan canceled meetings with French officials and said the law was “founded on racism and discrimination” and would “open irreparable, very serious wounds in bilateral relations.”

Turkish officials Tuesday welcomed the French court’s decision, which “averted a potentially serious crisis in Turkish-French ties,” said Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc on Twitter.

However, Sarkozy’s office quickly released a statement saying a new version of the law would be written, “taking into account the Constitutional Council's decision."

The president “measures the immense deception and profound sadness of all of those who welcomed with recognition and hope the adoption of this law,” the statement said.  The denial of genocide is “not only an insult to the memory of victims and the dignity of their descendants, but also a threat against our national community.”

The French Constitutional Court made its ruling after an official request from lawmakers.

One lawmaker who joined in that request, Jacques Myard, also a member of Sarkozy’s Union for a Popular Movement party, said in a statement that his decision was made “with the single goal of protecting freedom of speech and historical research.”

An estimated 500,000 Armenians live in France.


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Photo: The French Senate votes in January on a bill criminalizing the denial of the genocide, including the mass killings of Armenians by Ottoman Turks. France's Constitutional Council on Tuesday threw out the legislation. Credit: Eric Feferbert / AFP/Getty Images