Historian and sociologist Taner Akçam, one of the first Turkish intellectuals to acknowledge and openly discuss the Armenian Genocide, holds the only endowed chair dedicated to research and teaching on this subject. As Robert Aram and Marianne Kaloosdian and Stephen and Marian Mugar Professor of Armenian Genocide Studies at the Strassler Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Clark University, he is committed to research, teaching, and training future scholars. An outspoken advocate of democracy and free expression since his student days at Middle East Technical University in Ankara, he is an internationally recognized human rights activist.
During the mid-1970s, Akçam was active with pro-democracy student groups in the wake of Turkey’s 1971 coup. As editor-in-chief of Devrimci Gençlik (“Revolutionary Youth”), the student journal of the Ankara movement of leftist democrats, he received a prison sentence of 8 years, 9 months, and 20 days with an additional 3 years of probation. During his trial, Amnesty International adopted him as a prisoner of conscience. After a year imprisonment, he escaped Ankara Central Prison and received political asylum in Germany. In 1991, as part of its effort to join the European Union, the Turkish government repealed the laws restricting freedom of expression that were the basis for his prosecution. With his record cleared and the statute of limitations on his prison escape expired, he returned to Turkey but found it impossible to work there on the history of mass violence.
Akçam received his PhD in 1996 from the University of Hannover with a dissertation titled, Turkish Nationalism and the Armenian Genocide: On the Background of the Military Tribunals in Istanbul between 1919 and 1922. He moved to the United States in 2000 and served as Visiting Scholar at the University of Michigan for a year and as a Visiting Associate Professor of History at the University of Minnesota from 2002-2008. In response to criticism about his 2008 appointment at Clark University, Strassler Center Director Professor Debórah Dwork responded that “ethnic or religious identity is not crucial to any appointment,” and that “Clark hires the best scholars in the pool”.
In January 2007, the Turkish government launched an investigation into an October 6, 2006, newspaper column in the Turkish-Armenian journal Agos. Akçam criticized the prosecution of Agos managing editor Hrant Dink for using the term “genocide” in reference to the Armenian Genocide. The use of the term was construed by the prosecutor’s office as the criminal offense of “insulting Turkishness” under Article 301 of Turkey’s penal code. Akçam declared himself an accessory to the charge against Hrant Dink of using the term “genocide” but an Istanbul court declined to pursue charges.
On February 16, 2007, Canadian authorities detained Akçam who was scheduled to lecture at the McGill Law Faculty and Concordia University. The cause for his detention was his Wikipedia page which had been corrupted by Turkish ultranationalists who had labeled him a terrorist. Such politically motivated attacks culminated with the 2008 discovery that the ultra-nationalist terrorist group Ergenakon had orchestrated a campaign against him. The investigation revealed that Akçam’s name was included in a list of Ergenakon’s assassination targets.
Fearing prosecution under Article 301, Akçam filed a case against Turkey in the European Court of Human Rights. In October 2011, the court ruled in his favor making it possible to use the term genocide without legal consequences. Although Turkey had not brought charges against him, Akçam was the subject of numerous legal actions and the target of death threats and intimidation from Turkish ultranationalists. The court agreed with his claim that he faced risk of prosecution despite amendments having been made to the Turkish law. The ruling in the case of Taner Akçam v. Turkey is a major human rights victory and a significant contribution to freedom of speech.