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Cyprus criminalises denial of 1915 Armenian genocide by Turks

NICOSIA (Reuters) - Cyprus on Thursday made it a crime to deny that Ottoman Turks committed genocide against Armenian Turks a century ago, a move likely to rile its old rival Turkey as peace talks on the ethnically-split island remain stalled.

The Cypriot parliament passed a resolution penalising denial of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes, modifying existing legislation, which required prior conviction by an international court to make denial a crime.

“Today is a historic day,” speaker of parliament Yiannakis Omirou said. “It allows parliament to restore, with unanimous decisions and resolutions, historical truths.”

The east Mediterranean island, split in a Turkish invasion in 1974 after a brief Greek inspired coup, was one of the first countries worldwide in 1975 to recognise the Armenian killings as genocide. It is commemorated on April 24.

The nature and scale of the killings remain highly contentious. Turkey accepts that many Armenians died in partisan fighting beginning in 1915, but denies that up to 1.5 million were killed and that this constituted an act of genocide, a term used by many Western historians and foreign parliaments.

In a statement, Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman Tanju Bilgic said the Cypriot resolution was “null and void to us and not worthy of comment”.

“Those who have tried to exploit the events of 1915 at every opportunity by using base political calculations have not been able to achieve any result until now and won’t do so in the future,” he added.

Armenia accuses the Ottoman authorities at the time of systematically massacring large numbers of Armenians and deporting many more, including women, children, the elderly and infirm, in terrible conditions on so-called death marches.

The issue has long been a source of tension between Turkey and several Western countries, especially the United States and France, both home to large ethnic Armenian diasporas. Cyprus too has an Armenian population.

Cyprus has been at loggerheads with Turkey for decades. Its ethnic Greek and Turkish Cypriot populations have lived estranged in the south and north respectively since 1974. Seeds of division were sown earlier when a power-sharing government crumbled amid violence in 1963.

Thursday’s resolution was passed by Greek Cypriot lawmakers who now comprise the island’s only internationally-recognised parliament.

Reporting by Michele Kambas; additional reporting by Daren Butler in Istanbul; editing by Andrew Roche