The Ghosts of Sivas: Justice Denied in Turkey

March 12, 2012

In Turkey, echoes of past crimes continue to call out for justice.  Under Turkey’s infamous Article 301 statute (in which it is a crime to “denigrate Turkishness”), Temel Demirer is still on trial for speaking publicly about the Armenian Genocide.  Almost monthly, new mass graves are found from the thousands killed by security forces during the 1980s and 90s.   As we have previously reported, investigations of these graves are slipshod and the perpetrators not held to account.

Emblematic of this grim pattern is the sad legacy of a massacre in Central Anatolian town of Sivas in 1993 (A Turkish documentary on the massacre, with English subtitles, can be found here).  The events of that day are shocking still.

A group of writers, artists, and intellectuals had gathered at a hotel in Sivas for a commemoration of the 16th Century Ottoman folk poet, Pir Sultan Abdal.  Outside the hotel, a large crowd, almost certainly supported by local government officials, surrounded the hotel, shouting Islamist and nationalist slogans.  Their anger was partially directed at one of the writers present, Aziz Nesin, who was famous for his satirical writing and social criticism  and who had recently facilitated the translation of Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses into Turkish.   At the same time, the crowd seems to have been responding as well to the increasingly vocal place of the Alevi, a heterodox Muslim group viewed with disdain by many devout Sunnis, within Turkish society.

With each passing hour, the crowd became increasingly ugly and, as security officials passively looked on, they set fire to the hotel.  Caught between a rabid crowd and the flames, a few, including Aziz Nesin, managed to escape, but more than thirty perished, including a number of children.

It now seems likely that a last attempt at uncovering the truth of the massacre at Sivas will come to an end this week when, on Tuesday, March 13,  the statute of limitations on the original charges (“for threatening the constitutional order”) is set to expire.  This means that some of those involved in this massacre may go unpunished.  The Turkish government seems unwilling to take action; an attempt by some members of the opposition CHP to discuss revision of the statutes of limitation was unanimously rejected by the majority AKP.

Activists have mobilized an online petition (available only in Turkish, here), calling for the court to revise its charges so that they include “crimes against humanity.”  This would, in addition to highlighting the hate-crime elements of the massacre, remove the statute of limitations and, potentially, allow Turkey to revisit its botched attempt to extradite suspects from Germany.  If Turkey fails to take action, there is still the possibility of the victims’ families applying to the European Court of Human Rights.  But there is still time for the Turkish government to take action on its own to ensure justice for the victims of Sivas.

In 2011, one of the prime suspects in the case, Cafer Erçamak was found to have died peacefully in Sivas, having “eluded the police” in the comfort of his own home for nearly two decades.  Turkey can – and must  – do better.  Victims of past crimes still call out for justice.  And a culture of intolerance and impunity lingers on.

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