Crime of “Denigrating Turkishness” Violates European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights

So held the European Court of Human Rights in Altuğ Taner Akçam v. Turkey (Oct. 25, 2011), a case brought by a professor (who teaches at an American university) who had been subject to prosecutions (brought by individuals) under the law based on his work on the Armenian genocide. An excerpt from the court’s reasoning:

53. The applicant complained that the existence of Article 301 of the Turkish Criminal Code interfered with his right to freedom of expression. He maintained that the mere fact that an investigation could potentially be brought against him under this provision for his scholarly work on the Armenian issue caused him great stress, apprehension and fear of prosecution and thus constituted a continuous and direct violation of his rights under Article 10 of the Convention, which reads as follows:

“1. Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers. …

2. The exercise of these freedoms, since it carries with it duties and responsibilities, may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society, in the interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime …” …

82…. [T]he Court concludes that the criminal investigation commenced against the applicant and the standpoint of the Turkish criminal courts on the Armenian issue in their application of Article 301 of the Criminal Code, as well as the public campaign against the applicant in respect of the investigation, confirm that there exists a considerable risk of prosecution faced by persons who express “unfavourable” opinions on this matter and indicates that the threat hanging over the applicant is real. In these circumstances, the Court considers that there has been an interference with the exercise of the applicant’s right to freedom of expression under Article 10 of the Convention….

84. Such interference will infringe the Convention if it does not satisfy the requirements of paragraph 2 of Article 10. It should therefore be next determined whether it was “prescribed by law”….

87. The Court reiterates that the relevant national law [restricting expression] must be formulated with sufficient precision to enable the persons concerned — if need be with appropriate legal advice — to foresee, to a degree that is reasonable in the circumstances, the consequences which a given action may entail. Those consequences need not be foreseeable with absolute certainty: experience shows this to be unattainable. Whilst certainty is highly desirable, it may entail excessive rigidity and the law must be able to keep pace with changing circumstances. Accordingly, many laws are inevitably couched in terms which, to a greater or lesser extent, are vague and whose interpretation and application are a question of practice….

93. In the Court’s opinion, while the legislator’s aim of protecting and preserving values and State institutions from public denigration can be accepted to a certain extent, the scope of the terms under Article 301 of the Criminal Code, as interpreted by the judiciary, is too wide and vague and thus the provision constitutes a continuing threat to the exercise of the right to freedom of expression. In other words, the wording of the provision does not enable individuals to regulate their conduct or to foresee the consequences of their acts. As is clear from the number of investigations and prosecutions brought under this provision (see paragraphs 28-33 and 47 above), any opinion or idea that is regarded as offensive, shocking or disturbing can easily be the subject of a criminal investigation by public prosecutors…