The 1919-1920 Trials for the Forced Relocation of Armenians

The Turkish-Armenian relations, which have had a common past for hundreds of years, entered into a very troubled process starting with the last quarter of the 19th century. In parallel to the weakening of the Ottoman State, the Armenians attempted to revolt based on the dream of an independent Armenia, committed many massacres until 1914, when the First World War started, and they started to threaten the domestic and international security of the country. When these threats increased in time after the outbreak of the war and turned into collaboration with the enemies of the Ottoman State during the war, the state was forced to take a radical measure and sent some of the Armenians to the southern areas of the country where they could not be in touch with the enemy (Bakar, 2009, pp.75-76).

Undoubtedly, some unwanted incidents took place during this migration, even though the Ottoman State took all kinds of precautions for the Armenians. Some of the Armenians lost their lives due to attacks, and some of them lost their lives because of reasons such as diseases or road conditions. However, the government of the Party of Union and Progress, which had taken the decision of forced relocation, did not remain silent with regards to these incidents. On the contrary, it punished those who harmed the Armenians in the courts that it established between the years of 1915-1916 (Sarınay, 2013, p. 218). The fact that the culprits were punished like this is a clear indication that the members of the Party of Union and Progress, who made the decision of forced relocation and implemented it, did not have any negative intentions. In any case, the Armenians were only sent during the war and temporarily, and this does not allow any other interpretation.

What were the Reasons for the Trials?

When the Ottoman State had a heavy defeat at the end of the First World War, the winning parties of the war started to impose some practices that were based on ulterior motives.   They did not see it sufficient that they took over the geography which is called “the Middle East” today, but they also started to divide up Anatolia. On the other hand, while the Allied Powers were making efforts to divide up and claim the territories of the Ottoman State, they also started to apply pressure on the government after the Mudros Armistice (30 October 1918), as soon as they arrived in Istanbul for the members of the party of Union and Progress to be tried in court because of their “bad” practices during the war. The primary one among the “bad” practices of the members of the Party of Union and Progress was the bad treatment of the British prisoners of war, the forced relocation of Armenians, and the so-called killing of the Armenians during this relocation. Therefore, the issue of the punishment of all of the members of the Party of Union and Progress who were in power during the war was a topic that had priority among the topics for the winners of the war.

As for the governments that were in power after the Armistice when the war had ended in defeat, a serious collapse was experienced in every area and almost a war of life and death was waged; they not only did not put forward any resistance, but they sought consolation in surrender and did everything that the Allied Powers asked them to do. Faced with a heavy threat so that the members of the Party of Union and Progress would be punished immediately and harshly, the government established an extraordinary court named “Diwaan-i Harb-i Urfi” (the Customary Court Martial) (BOA., BEO., 340979).

This pressure and threat by the Allied Powers combined with the feelings of revenge on the part of the opponents of the Party of Union and Progress and as a result, the government started to prosecute the members of the Union and Progress. In addition to Enver, Talat, and Jamal Pashas, some leaders of the Union and Progress left the country in the first days of November 1918; this infuriated the Allied Powers and the opponents of the Union and Progress and what amounts to almost a witchhunt for them started everywhere in the country. All of the members of the Party of Union and Progress were seen as potential criminals and hundreds of people including low level civil servants, the grand vizier, ministers, MPs, and journailsts of that period were almost locked up in the Bekiraga Squadron. The Grand Vizier Sait Halim Pasha, Speaker of the Parliament (Majlis-i Mabusan) Halil Bey [Menteşe], Hüseyin Cahit Bey [Yalçın], and Ziya Gökalp were some of these people (Yeni Gün, 3 February 1919), No. 151).

The court that was established on 16 December 1918 started its first trial with the lawsuit of the Yozgat Forced Relocation in which the dispatching of people from Yozgat on 6 February 1919 was examined. However, the subject of where and how those responsible for the forced relocation would be tried caused debates among the public until the beginning of the trial. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the government was only busy with these issues from the date of 11 November 1918 on which Tevfik Pasha became the Grand Vizier. Tevfik Pasha was so tired of the pressures that he wanted a group of judges to be brought from Sweden, Holland, Spain, and Denmark to review the issue so that those responsible for the Armenian incidents could be uncovered. However, the British, who planned to try the Ottoman State at an international court, prevented independent judges from coming to the country because they feared that the truth would be discovered; in other words, it would be proven that the Ottoman State was not responsible in the Armenian Question as per the claim of the Allied Powers (Şimşir, 1995, p. 61).

Therefore, the victorious states focused their efforts on the trial of those who were responsible for the Armenian Question within the framework of Ottoman domestic law, because they saw that as more advantageous in terms of their political goals. This is because the Ottoman governments could bend the domestic law as they wished or could make the required arrangements easily in line with their requests. As a matter of fact, their most important helpers on this subject in the following months were the members of the Party of Liberty and Alliance, who were the political opponents of the members of the Party of Union and Progress and who had achieved an influential position after the armistice, the Damat Ferit governments, the press, and the Greeks and Armenians in the country

What was the Purpose of the Debates on Authority During the Trials?

As the pressures for the members of the Party of Union and Progress to be punished were increasing everyday, some debates as to at which court these people should be tried were also an important part of the agenda, because those people who had served as ministers could not be tried in ordinary courts, nor could a special court be established in order to discuss a special subject. Therefore, the attempts for such purposes constituted the agenda of the days in the aftermath of the armistice with a significant intensity.

On the other hand, this subject came to the agenda of the parliament in those days when the parliament was still open, those who had served as a minister were questioned at the Fifth Branch, which was one of the commissions at the parliament, so as to be tried at the Supreme Council (Yuja Diwaan). However, these attempts remained fruitless since the parliament was shut down on 21 December 1918 due to domestic and external pressures.

Especially the members of the Party of Liberty and Alliance and Damat Ferit Pasha, who was a member of the Majlis-i Ayan (Assembly of Notables) in those days, noted in their speeches that the parliament consisted of MPs who were members of the Union and Progress Party.   Based on this, they argued that a fair trial would be impossible even if a Supreme Council was established, and they made a lot of efforts to ensure that the trial would be carried out by a parliament to be elected in the future (MAZC. 1993, pp. 8-9).

However, the parliament was shut down, a decision was taken to try the ministers in question at an extraordinary military court such as the Customary Court Martial like the other defendants because a new parliament could not be assembled. This action, which did not take place in the days when Tevfik Pasha became the Grand Vizier, was realized as soon as Damat Ferit Pasha came to power (4 March 1919). This decision for trial, which was clearly unconstitutional, became possible because of a ridiculous judicial opinion stating that the ministers in question committed the “crimes” they committed not because of their authorities as ministers but personally. Whether a civil servant that does not have the authority as a minister could take political responsibility and decisions that have a high risk was not considered at all and the clear provision of the constitution stating that ministers could only be tried at the Supreme Council with purely political reasons was ignored. Therefore, Enver, Talat, and Jamal Pashas were sentenced to execution in their absence on 5 July 1919 because they were abroad (TV., No. 3540).

What was the Nature of the Political Pressures on the Court?

The primary one among the characteristics of the court that carried out the trial on forced relocation was the fact that it took decisions politically, under domestic and external intervention, with a view towards revenge and by ignoring the simplest rules of law instead of being fair, impartial, independent, and compliant with the law. This is because this court had decided a priori that all the defendants had to be executed immediately, if possible, rather than uncovering any injustice. The domestic and external political environment was very convenient for this (Ata, 2005, p. 89).

Especially the Allied Powers undertook an effective role in each phase from the establishment of the court to the formation of the panel of judges, having the witnesses memorize their statements and the making of the decision. They behaved as if they had failed to get rid of their grudge against the members of the Party of Union and Progress and they wanted to satisfy their feelings. As a result of this emotional state of theirs, they followed everything closely in detail from who would be the political party in power to their practices. This speech of former British Prime Minister Asquith expresses clearly the level of hatred of almost all the British towards the Muslims during the Armistice period. Asquith said the following in his speech dated 9 November 1918: “Let us hope that these days will be the last days of the Ottomans, which is a nation that represents evil among the community of nations. Whatever is written on the gravestone of this corpse, it will never be able to be born again” (Kurat, 1986, pp. 50-51).

As the war-time bureaucrats were being arrested one-by-one in Istanbul, there was also Colonel Jawad Bey, who was the former Istanbul Central Commander who was imprisoned on the basis of the claim that he had mistreated the British prisoners of war, among these. The most concrete indication that Jawad Bey was arrested unjustly and solely because of the pressure of the British was a letter written by the Minister of War Omar Yawar Pasha from the government of Grand Vizier Tevfik Pasha, who established a government in the days following the Armistice, to Jawad Bey. Omar Yawar Pasha started his letter with “my son” and said: “Your Plaintiff is the British Government. When your arrest was proposed, a lot of effort was made to prevent this, but all of these efforts failed. The Ottoman State does not have complaints about you. I cannot see a solution other than patience and perseverance” (BOA., BEO., 341518).

On the other hand, not only that the Ottoman government did not stop innocent people getting arrested, the rulers of the country gave all of their support because they saw the “liberation” of the country in such a policy. The response of Sutan Wahdaddin to the British saying “I am ready to punish anybody who you wish” (Jaeschke, 1991, p.174) is remarkable in terms of showing the level of the support. As a result, the British gave the “black lists” that they had prepared and all the people on that list were then arrested one-by-one. Admiral Calthorpe was very pleased that the arrests were carried out and he expressed this by saying: “the impact of the arrests was perfect in every way. I think the Committee of Union and Progress must have been demoralized to some extent in Istanbul” and by showing his joy (Jaeschke, 1991, p. 175).

Domestically, the members of the Party of Liberty and Alliance, who had become a chronic opposition to the Party of Union and Progress, were loyal supporters of the Allied Powers with the excuse of holding accountable the latter party for the many wrongdoings that had been experienced during the war. They were not to be outdone by the British, Greeks or Armenians in inventing culprits; they worked with great excitement in the catching and punishing of the people they opposed by relying on the British protection and using the accusation that the members of the Party of Union and Progress committed evil acts against the Armenians during the forced relocation. When a member of the Party of Union and Progress was caught, they displayed the most excessive examples of partisanship by saying, “this person was a fanatic member of Union and Progress. This is enough for him to be arrested” (Mimaroğlu, 1946, pp.76-77) even if there was not any evidence of a crime for such an arrest. In contrast, Armenians, for which they acted to ingratiate themselves, and their supporters did not distinguish between the members of the Party of Union and Progress and the Party of Liberty and Alliance; they did not distinguish any Turk and said, “the members of the Union and Progress are murderers, all the Turks are the partners of the murderers and Turkey is an area of massacre” (Yeni Istanbul, No. 22).

How did the Trials Take Place?

The courts that tried the cases for the forced relocation were worse than the most primitive court in every respect and they were less reliable than them. The fact that seven different heads of court served from the day they were established until the last minute and that their terms were very short, except for a few, clearly show the domestic and external pressure on the court.

Especially the periods in which Damat Ferit Pasha was the Grand Vizier were the periods in which the irregularity in the court, in other words, the political pressure on the court, was the most extreme. The Investigation Commissions, which were established to uncover the corruptions that were claimed to have taken place during the forced relocation of the Armenians, arrested many innocent people in Anatolia and Istanbul just because they were members of the Party of Union and Progress or due to some personal reasons, using the excuse of the Armenian Question. The intent in the arrests was so exaggerated that even the government of Damat Ferit, which was making an effort to give the heaviest punishment to the members of the Party of Union and Progress, had to warn the relevant commission members. In the warnings, the government wanted the members to refrain from arresting people based on reports that were mere gossip without having any evidence (BOA., DH. ŞFR, 97/135). However, the commission in question, which included Greek-Armenian officials or those who acted with the wish to take revenge, still did not refrain from arresting innocent people even though it was warned many times.

On the other hand, the Investigation Commissions not only arrested innocent people, but also the reports that were prepared by this commission were the source of the indictments that incriminated the defendants the most at the court. Therefore, the sequence of punishment worked with an ulterior motive from the very beginning. Since the heavy   accusations in the indictments did not correspond to the facts, this made a defense very difficult, because when the panel of judges was asking questions to the defendants, they asked them saying, “the crimes that have been committed” instead of saying, “the crimes that are alleged to have been committed” in an impratial manner, and therefore, clearly indicated the opinion of the trial from the beginning. Undoubtedly, what was behind the reasons that pushed the panel of judges to ask the questions in this way was the indictments that were prepared based on fabricated reports, the grudges and hostility that had accumulated with the thoughts of advocating for their party, and the political instructions that they had received from above.

Another important factor in the punishment of the defendants was the false witnesses and it was not difficult for the court, which had decided from the beginning, to find false witnesses. It was ordinary for these courts to listen to witnesses that had been convinced to provide testimony for money, for political purposes, by force and threat. Though it is not even known whether witnesses testified in the court in the second period of the Damat Ferit Pasha government (except for the first period of that government between 4 March 1919-1 October 1919) because they were in a hurry to punish people. There was no need to deal with witnesses. There was no hesitation in issuing capital punishment verdicts after a few make-believe hearings in the presence or absence of the defendants.

Most of the witnesses who had testified in the lawsuit cases, such as the Yozgat Forced Relocation and the Trabzon Forced Relocation in the first period, were not people who had witnessed any incidents. They carried out supposedly the most important function of the trials with statements that they had been made to memorize. However, what is more serious is that although the panel of judges realized that their statements were lies, fabricated, and given in return for bribes or that they had ben made to memorize, they accepted the declarations of the false witnesses in question as if they were true and issued their verdicts accordingly. Kemal Bey, who was the district governor of Bogazliyan, was executed as a result of such a trial (Memleket, 11 April 1919, No. 61). In the lawsuit against the Governor Nusret Bey in Urfa, witnesses were sought by publishing notices in the newspapers. Before that, a sentence of 15 years had been given, and then additional false witnesses were found, the members of the court were changed, a capital punishment verdict was issued, and he was executed. The fact that they gave a prison sentence at first to a defendant and then issued a verdict of capital punishment is one of the most concrete indicators of this court did not carry out a fair trial.

Conclusion

The verdicts that were issued by this court, which had worked on the basis of political preferences, are full of bad examples that can be recorded in the history of law in the world. It is undoubtedly not possible to accept the verdicts of a court that worked based on the political pressure, grudges, revenge, and ambition created by the occupation environment from the beginning until the end as verdicts that have been reached objectively.

On the other hand, when the documents related to the lawsuits are evaluated impartially, the claims that the forced relocation of the Armenians was done for the purpose of extermination prove to be baseless. Therefore, it does not seem to be possible to find any evidence that the trials on the forced relocation between 1919-1920 worked in an independent, impartial manner within the criteria of law. Especially the court cases in which a retired general named Nemrut or Kurd Mustafa Pasha, who had nothing to do with the law but was the head of the court, are full of examples of unlawfulness. In any case, he was dismissed from this job because his irregular practices were found out; he was then tried and sentenced to a prison term of seven months. It is not possible to obtain a positive result in terms of law from a court whose head was punished for irregular practices. In addition, all of the verdicts issued by him were reversed at the Court of Appeals as a result of the reviews that were carried out upon his dismissal.   Thus, attributing a special meaning to the sentences given by this court and ignoring the fact that these were later on reversed by the Court of Appeals would simply amount to pursuing new injustices.

Bibliography

Başbakanlık Evrak Odası (BEO), nr. 340979, 341518.

Dahiliye Nezareti Şifre Kalemi (DH. ŞFR) nr. 97/135.

Takvim-i Vekayii (TV), nr. 3540.

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Şimşir, Bilâl N. (1995), Malta Sürgünleri, Ankara.

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