Turkish PM tries to defuse crisis over halting Armenia conference
ISTANBUL, May 27 (AFP) - 23h07 - Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Friday tried to defuse a crisis over squelching a debate on the mass killings of Armenians under the Ottoman Empire which has provoked concern in the EU.
A landmark conference questioning the official line on the mass killings that had been due to open Wednesday at Istanbul’s prestigious Bogazici University was postponed after Justice Minister Cemil Cicek accused the participants of "treason."
Cicek condemned the initiative as "a stab in the back of the Turkish nation" and said the organizers of the conference of Turkish academics and intellectuals who dispute Ankara’s version of the 1915-1917 massacres deserved to be prosecuted.
The minister’s intervention sparked concern within the EU, which is due to open membership talks with Ankara later this year, about Turkey’s commitment to democratic norms.
Erdogan tried Friday to distance his government from Cicek’s statements.
"Cemil Cicek is the spokesman of our government. He made a statement but not a statement of the government, it was a personal statement," Erdogan was quoted as saying by the Anatolia news agency.
The killings, one of the most controversial episodes in Ottoman history, is rarely discussed in schools and the aborted conference would have been the first by Turkish personalities to question the official stand on the events.
Several countries have recognized the massacres as genocide -- a term Turkey fiercely rejects -- and Brussels has urged Ankara to face its past and expand freedom of speech.
The incident follows a brutal police clampdown on a women’s demonstration in Istanbul in March, which also raised tensions between the European Union and Turkey.