A nearly two-decade trial regarding the deaths of 33 artists and intellectuals, along with two hotel workers and two assailants, in 1993 was dropped on Tuesday because the statute of limitations had run out, amid a protesting crowd in front of the courthouse.
On July 2, 1993, 33 people who were attending a conference on Alevi poet Pir Sultan Abdal died at the Madımak Hotel in Sivas when an angry mob set the building on fire. The ruling was announced by the Ankara 11th High Criminal Court after lawyers for the co-plaintiffs delivered their closing statements in Tuesday's hearing. Angry crowds outside the courthouse protested. Riot police intervened rather forcefully, using tear gas to disperse the crowd. Some in the crowd dismantled the cobblestones on the street and used them to attack police officers. When some groups wanted to march to Kızılay Square in protest, police used water cannons on the demonstrators to stop them. Some of the protestors were seen vandalizing bus stops, traffic lights and billboards. At least one press member, Milliyet photographer Serdar Özsoy, was injured during the incidents, which quickly turned into clashes between protestors and the police.
Some passersby who wanted to flee the scene to escape the tear gas were denied entry onto a public bus by the bus driver. Clashes between the police and protestors in front of the building lasted for three hours before the crowd could be effectively dispersed.
The court said the public cases against suspects Cafer Erçakmak and Yılmaz Bağ were dropped due to the fact that the two defendants had died, while the cases against Şevket Erdoğan, Köksal Koçak, İhsan Çakmak, Hakan Karaca and Necmi Karaömeroğlu were dropped on the grounds that too much time has passed. Presiding Judge Dündar Örsdemir, reading the verdict, said he agreed with arguments that statutes of limitations should not apply to crimes against humanity but that the offenders were not public or civil agencies. “Hence the decision to drop the cases,” he said.
Some deputies who had followed the trial as well as relatives of those who died in the massacre were among the angry crowds outside the court building.
Şenal Sarıhan, a co-plaintiff lawyer, said they would be appealing the ruling. She noted that the judge’s statement that the Sivas massacre indeed constituted a “crime against humanity” was an important development. “We will continue our legal struggle. We waited hopefully for 19 years that they would be punished by the law. We didn’t respond to them by burning down hotels or throwing stones like they did,” she said.
Zeynep Altıok Akatlı, daughter of the poet Metin Altıok who died at Madımak, tweeted her feelings from the courtroom seconds after the ruling was announced. “Applying statute of limitations because they are not public officials. Case dropped. Murderers free.” In her next tweet she wrote, “I was expecting this verdict, but I can’t get up from my seat.”
Thousands were outside the courtroom, including Rakel Dink, the wife of journalist Hrant Dink, who was assassinated outside his newspaper’s office in 2007.
Speaking to the press after the announcement, Republican People’s Party (CHP) Deputy Chairman Sezgin Tanrıkulu said, “We see this as a disgrace for the judiciary, and we condemn it.” CHP Denizli deputy İlhan Cihaner said, “The verdict is illegal.”
Gültan Kışanak, a deputy chairwoman of the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) said, “The verdict doesn’t help heal the wounds in hearts. Someone might have closed this case, but those who protect democracy will not allow this case to be closed.”
CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu said the verdict was a disgrace for Turkey, while speaking at his party’s parliamentary group meeting on Tuesday. “In the Middle Ages, people were burned at the stake. People were burned [in Sivas]. Some of those who killed got married, served in the military, had weddings, even sent their children to school, but they were never found, never captured,” he said, referring to some of the suspects who, it later emerged, engaged in numerous official transactions -- including completing their compulsory military service and getting married -- and continue on with their lives without any difficulties.
Kılıçdaroğlu said the verdict was unacceptable, and he accused the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) of having protected the offenders. “AK Party deputies were [the defendants’] lawyers,” he said. Some of the lawyers who defended the suspects are currently in Parliament as AK Party deputies.
“I wonder if Mr. Prime Minister will say, ‘Oh this is great. It was dropped on the statute of limitations, and so we are finally rid of this trouble.’ I am confident that this is what he is thinking.”