WASHINGTON — The storied Southern Poverty Law Center has agreed to formally apologize to a scholar it accused of being a Turkish agent because of his views on the long-ago slaughter of Armenians.
The public apology by the civil rights group ends a multimillion-dollar libel lawsuit filed by historian Guenter Lewy, author of the book "The Armenian Massacres in Ottoman Turkey: A Disputed Genocide." The settlement does not, however, end a debate that still entangles lawmakers from regions with large Armenian-American populations.
"I think it was a long time coming," Lewy said of the lawsuit settlement in an interview Wednesday. "It not only clears me of these malicious charges, it's a victory for free inquiry."
The settlement of the 2-year-old lawsuit includes a confidential financial payment to Lewy as well as a three-paragraph apology and retraction that the Southern Poverty Law Center will be making public within a week.
Lewy initially asked for $8 million from the law center.
In its negotiated statement, the Alabama-based group said it "misunderstood" Lewy's scholarship and admitted it was "wrong to assume that any scholar who challenges the Armenian genocide narrative necessarily has been financially compromised by the government of Turkey."
The organization further stated that it was "wrong to assert" that Lewy was part of a genocide-denying network financed by Turkey.
"We're very pleased with this," David Saltzman, one of Lewy's attorneys, said in an interview Wednesday. "This shows it's possible for people like Guenter Lewy to research controversial topics and reach their conclusions."
Saltzman and his co-counsel, Bruce Fein, lead the Turkish American Legal Defense Fund, which took up Lewy's case. Saltzman said he believes the libel action was the first of its kind in the United States involving allegations about a scholar. Other lawsuits, though, have revolved around how textbooks characterize Ottoman Empire events.
A spokesperson for the Southern Poverty Law Center could not be reached to comment Wednesday.
An 87-year-old emeritus political science professor from the University of Massachusetts, Lewy concluded through his research that the murders and deportations of Armenians between 1915 and 1923 did not amount to a genocide. Lewy said in his extensively footnoted book that while many died, the Ottoman Empire's actions were not a premeditated effort to wipe out the Armenians.
Following 2005 publication of his book, Lewy was criticized sharply by Armenian-American activists. This was not unexpected. For years, questions of motivation and assertions of Turkish influence have shaped the Armenian genocide debate.
More than a decade ago, for instance, Rep. George Radanovich, R-Mariposa, secured House but not Senate approval of an amendment that cut U.S. aid to Turkey by the same amount the country spent on lobbying. Lawmakers complain that Turkey's political clout blocks Congress from approving resolutions that use the phrase "Armenian genocide."
"Turkey has an incredible lobbying effort and has historically spent millions of dollars a year keeping this resolution off the House floor," Radanovich declared in 2007.
Founded in 1971 and subsequently made famous by its work researching hate groups, the Southern Poverty Law Center entered the debate in 2008 with its Intelligence Report magazine. An article titled "State of Denial" enumerated Turkish lobbying and investment in academic think tanks, among other efforts.
"Lewy is one of the most active members of a network of American scholars, influence peddlers and website operators, financed by hundreds of thousands of dollars each year from the government of Turkey, who promote the denial of the Armenian genocide," the periodical stated.
Lewy said the assertions distressed him.
"A scholar doesn't have much more than his reputation," Lewy said Wednesday. "If that's questioned, you're in trouble."
McClatchy Newspapers 2010