Sivas attacks in 1993 were organized, systematic and planned
29 years ago, on 2 July 1993, during the Pir Sultan Abdal festivities in Sivas, 33 writers, poets, thinkers, and young children who were mostly Alevis, as well as two hotel employees were burned alive or suffocated by smoke when a group of radical Islamists attacked the Madimak Hotel.
Those who witnessed the massacre and those who watched the events on television are of the opinion that security forces did not do their best. Aziz Nesin, who survived the massacre with major injuries, harshly criticized the then President Suleyman Demirel and the Tansu Ciller/Erdal Inonu (DYP-SHP; True Path Party-Social Democratic People’s Party) coalition government in a press statement he made after the event, saying: "There is still a state, I thought to myself. There is still a state, a state to believe in. It can do wrong and evil, but there is still a state. Surely they would prevent something like that. It's too big a compromise. I was clearly wrong." President Suleyman Demirel had commented: "The incident is individual. There is a strong provocation. As a result of this provocation, the local people rose up. The security forces did what they could. There was no confrontation between opposing groups. The incident was the burning of a hotel which resulted in casualties."
Tansu Ciller, Prime Minister at the time, remarked: "Thank God, the people outside the hotel were not harmed." Erdal Inonu, Deputy Prime Minister at the time, responded: "What could I do, I had no authority." Mehmet Gazioglu, the Interior Minister at the time, stated, "Public opinion reacted in an uproar because of Aziz Nesin's known provocations against the beliefs of the people."
The Sivas Massacre has gone down in history as one of the bloodiest massacres in Turkey's past and is still unclarified. On the 29th anniversary of the Sivas massacre, we spoke to Senal Sarihan, one of the lawyers for the families of the murdered, about the massacre and the course of the trial.
"REPORTS INDICATING AN IMPENDING MASSACRE WERE CIRCULATING"
How were the incidents of the Sivas massacre covered by the media? What was your first reaction?
We were at a meeting with our board members at the headquarters of the Cagdas Hukukcular Dernegi (Contemporary Lawyers' Association). At five o'clock in the afternoon, the secretary knocks on the door of the meeting room and says: "I have been watching the news on TV. Something sinister is happening in Sivas".
The reporter was telling that a group of five hundred people who came out of the mosques of Pasa and Meydan started marching towards the governorate, that the group was shouting slogans against Aziz Nesin, the governor and the government and in favor of sharia, that this group was expelled from outside the governorate and the same group was now heading towards the cultural center where the festivities were taking place, that they resisted the police intervention by sitting down, that the governor called the commander of the brigade and asked for help, that the interior minister and the prime minister were informed by fax, that forces were called in from the neighbouring cities of Tokat and Kayseri, that the sitting group returned to the governorate, that a café was attacked with stones on the way, that they returned to the cultural center, that they were attacking with stones there, that two policemen and two civilians were injured, and that the demonstrators, whose number gradually increased to five thousand, started to surround the Madımak Hotel and were stoning it. We walked around, our eyes and ears glued to the news.
Eventually, we picked up the phones and called all the MPs, officials and journalists we knew. Aziz Nesin also called them from the hotel. So did Arif Sag. They were told to stay calm, that help would surely come. However, the situation was quite the opposite. The television was reporting the news of a massacre stage by stage.
"NO ORDER OR COMMAND WAS ABLE TO HALT THE UNLEASHED REACTION"
A horrible massacre took place before the eyes of the state. Could it not have been prevented?
On 6 July 1993, we were among the stream of people leaving the Ankara branch of the Pir Sultan Abdal Dikmen Cultural Association (PSAKD) for the Karsıyaka Cemetery. The crowd marching silently towards the parliament, in rebellion in front of the parliament. A rightful outcry. A government with its hands tied. A coalition partner whose hands were also tied. No order or instruction was able to stop the unleashed reaction. Later we learned from the archives that the police report gave the number of 15,000 demonstrators. After the massacre, countless vehicles left Sivas.
The police did not stop them from leaving. They were welcomed with arms wide open, they carried out the massacre and left. No effort was made to identify and arrest these people from the photographs and video footage. Not a single person was brought to the bench. The day before the attack, the police fax received a pamphlet signed by "Muslims." This leaflet, which was also left in all mailboxes in workplaces and homes, called for "settling accounts in the name of God and the Prophet."
"THEY COMPLETED THE INVESTIGATION OF THE MASSACRE IN ONLY 20 DAYS."
When did the Sivas massacre trial first begin?
The General Prosecutor's Office of Sivas completed the investigation of the massacre, which was attended by 15,000 demonstrators, within a short period of 20 days and opened a case against 78 accused on 07/22/1993 in the High Criminal Court of Sivas. In this case, the defendants were accused of killing 35 persons by starting a fire, facilitating and instigating the said act by aiding and abetting. In addition, another case was filed against 102 accused in the Sivas Criminal Court of First Instance for resisting an officer-in-charge and violating Law No. 2911 on Meetings and Demonstrations. Since there was no State Security Court (DGM) in Sivas, 94 defendants were charged with violating Articles 7/1-2 of the Anti-Terrorism Law No. 3713 at the Kayseri DGM. The prosecution did not mention the political nature of the attack, the fact that it was fundamentalist in nature, or that it was aimed at violating the Constitution, nor did it make any allegations as to which organisation(s) the defendants belonged to. There was no terrorist organisation behind the action carried out by 15,000 people. As the government representatives stated, the massacre was carried out by "an ordinary group of people who had been provoked."
"WE WERE THE ADVOCATES OF THOSE WHO LOST THEIR LIVES"
What was it like on the first day of the hearing?
Hundreds of defense lawyers were present at the trial. Our number was also in the hundreds, but we encountered various obstacles from the first day. They did not allow us to attend the first hearing on the grounds that our request to participate in the trial had not been approved. What I call "we" were the lawyers of those who lost their lives or were injured. Eventually, we managed to get into the hearing.
"THE SIVAS MASSACRE WAS CARRIED OUT BY A COALITION OF ORGANIZATIONS AFFILIATED WITH FUNDAMENTALISM."
And what was your response and defense in the face of these events?
As intervening lawyers, we filed a motion requesting that the ban be lifted, and stated that we would not attend the hearings otherwise. Our request was rejected. We followed the hearings from the outside until the day of the verdict. We prepared and presented a defense on the merits. In this text, under the title "The Sivas massacre was perpetrated by a coalition of reactionary organisations", we presented to the court the names of the people who participated in the action and the religious-reactionary organisations to which they were affiliated or of which they were members: Hezbollah, the Islamic Front of Greater East Akincılar (IBDA-C), the Union of Islamic Societies and Congregations (Black Voice), the Islamic Movement, the Aczimendis, the Süleymancıs, the Nurcus, the Fetullahists, the Med-Zehrists, the Naqshis, the Menzilists, the Iskender Pasha Mosque Circle, the Ismail Aga Mosque Circle and the foreign-based organisations with this incident should be investigated. Immediately after the incident, a magazine called Taraf, the mouthpiece of the IBDA_C, referred to the Sivas massacre as "Glorious Sivas Slaughter- The Closest Step to Revolution."
"DEFENDANTS THREW COINS AT THE JUDGE'S BENCH"
On 12/26/1994, the court sentenced 26 defendants to death penalty according to Article 450/6 of the Turkish Penal Code and reduced this penalty according to Articles 65/3 and 51/1 of the Turkish Penal Code No. 765 and reduced it to 15 years of heavy imprisonment. 37 defendants were acquitted. 60 defendants were sentenced to three years imprisonment each, in accordance with Article 2911. According to the court, the action had no political motive. 35 persons were burned once again in the courtroom. In view of the seriousness of the action, it was a punishment as a reward. In return for this reward, the defendants threw coins, lighters, pens and pencils from their pockets into the panel of judges' faces as thanks.
How many of the suspects of Sivas massacre were tried? How many of them were arrested?
The defendants who were not released during the trial and who were convicted under Article 146/1 of the Penal Code are still in prison, as their sentences have been changed to "aggravated life imprisonment" due to the amendment of the law. We have no official or unofficial information on how many of the other defendants have served their sentences. Some of the defendants have fled abroad and most of them have not been extradited to Turkey to date. Those who were convicted under Article 146/3 of the Turkish Penal Code, or those against whom a case was filed under this article, returned to Turkey on their own after the statute of limitations expired and escaped with impunity. All requests submitted through the Ministry of Justice for the extradition of the defendants were rebuffed.
"VAHIT KAYNAR CANNOT BE RETURNED TO TURKEY"
What about the suspects who were at large?
One of the defendants is Vahit Kaynar. He was arrested in Poland on a red bulletin while the case was pending. We learned that while he was living in great wealth in Germany, he was caught by chance in Poland, where he was on a tourist trip. Days passed. The Ministry of Justice could not complete his file and send him to Poland in time. What could have caused these files to be delayed for so long? The accused, who was detained, was released. Which judicial body will send him back here? His conviction was pronounced on 05/04/2001. The statute of limitations has not yet expired but what is interesting is that Germany, where the accused lives permanently, has not extradited him. According to them, Kaynar has not committed any human rights violations. Burning 35 people to death is apparently not a human rights violation.
"ERCAKMAK WAS PROTECTED LIKE ALL THE OTHER FUGITIVES."
In 2009, six defendants who had been detained while being sought were added to Ercakmak's file, which had been separated. We, as lawyers, and the interveners were not notified of the ongoing trial. The case reaches the stage of an opinion on the merits and the prosecution asks for the acquittal of all the defendants on the grounds that the statute of limitations had expired. A member of the press, who happened to be following the case, called me and asked me if I was aware of the case. I was not aware of it. Ercakmak's case is not yet time-barred. How did this request come about? Ultimately, from this moment on, we have joined the process and we affirm that there can be no statute of limitations also for the other defendants, since the act constitutes a crime against humanity.
ERCAKMAK'S FUNERAL CAME OUT OF THE HOUSE WHERE IT WAS CLAIMED HE WAS NOT PRESENT
Was it not Ercakmak who tried to push Aziz Nesin off the fire ladder?
Yes, Ercakmak was the member of the city council who pushed old Aziz Nesin off the firemen's ladder when he was trying to get out of the burning hotel. 18 years went by without him being caught. We had a tip-off that he was in Germany. Our extradition requests to the German authorities for him and 15 other people were always rejected. Some time after we joined the case against Ercakmak, we were informed that he was in France. While the accused was wanted in France under a red bulletin, the police continued their routine and searched his house in Sivas. Numerous minutes written by police officers were submitted stating that "they had searched his house and had not found him". However, Erçakmak's funeral came out of the house where he was said to be "unfound". He was buried in secret. When and how did he come to Turkey, was he always in Turkey, or how did he hide in Turkey for 18 years?
"THE SIVAS MASSACRE IS A CRIME AGAINST HUMANITY"
The Sivas trial continues in absentia against Murat Songur, Eren Ceylan and Murat Karataş, who are currently living in Germany. To date they have not been extradited. We keep going back and forth to the empty seats of the defence. Including these three defendants, 15 people are wanted. Nine of them are sentenced to life imprisonment under Article 146/1 of the Turkish Penal Code, which has been finalized. The finalization is dated 05/04/2001. According to our domestic law, the sentence is subject to statute of limitations. The sentences of the other three were annulled as they were expected to get 146/1. According to our domestic law, the sentences are subject to the statute of limitations in 2023. We maintain that this is a crime against humanity and we do not consider that the dismissal of the case due to the statute of limitations is in accordance with the law.
"THE FAMILIES OF THE VICTIMS ARE RESISTING NOT BECAUSE THEY WANT THEIR LOVED ONES BACK, BUT BECAUSE THEY WANT TO PREVENT FURTHER MASSACRES"
29 years have passed since the massacre, what do you have to say in conclusion?
This is the 29th year of the massacre. The families have followed the trial insistently from day one. The democratic mass organizations, especially the Alevi organizations, appropriated the case and followed it throughout. They became more organized in this process. They have resisted not for the return of their relatives, but so that there will be no new massacres. But this is not the case: the massacres continue. So do the trials. With similar fates... But one day the suffering will surely end.
*Esra Ciftci was born in Istanbul as the daughter of a family from Dersim. She completed her primary and secondary education in Istanbul. While studying psychology at Istanbul University, she stepped into journalism. She worked as an editorial board member and columnist in different newspapers, and conducted research on children victims of migration and war. She continues to work on women in prison and conducts special interviews for +Gercek and GercekNews.