Tens of thousands of Turks and Azerbaijanis took to the streets in İstanbul on Sunday to stage what they called “an unprecedented massive rally” to mark the 20th anniversary of one of the most tragic massacres in modern history.
A small group of protesters were holding banners and chanting racist slogans against Armenians during the rally, which organizers said cast a shadow over the peaceful nature of the march. The slogans caused huge outrage among Turkish public.
A statement released by the Turkish Interior Ministry on Wednesday said it is impossible to justify “some slogans and banners,” during the rally, referring to humiliating banners against Armenians. The statement said necessary legal proceedings were launched to find out these people and groups, adding that İstanbul Governors’ Office continue works to identify these people and their residence address.
The statement noted that the Khojaly rallies across the country are being organized by civil society organizations and that no any political party supported or contributed in organization of these demonstrations.
Turkish Interior Minister İdris Naim Şahin made an impassioned speech at the rally, which organizers said was attended by an estimated 100,000.
Azerbaijani authorities say 613 Azerbaijanis were brutally killed and hundreds are still missing when Armenian troops rushed into the village of Khojaly on Feb. 26, 1992. The attack appalled Azerbaijanis and became a symbol of Armenian aggression against Azerbaijan.
The statement said the shared aim of demonstrators in Khojaly rallies was to condemn the brutal killings of 613 innocent Azerbaijani civilians by Armenian army 20 years ago. The statement also strongly condemned misrepresentation of Şahin’s remarks at the rally. It said the minister’s statements were taken out of the context and misquoted.
"Murderers, cowards spilled the blood of 613 people, including innocent women and children," Şahin said in an address to the protesters in İstanbul. "This bloodshed will not remain unpunished."
The statement confirmed Şahin’s remarks, in which he said perpetrators of Khojaly massacre must be punished but it said the minister stressed that this punishment will come in the form of justice and through legal ways.
The statement said Turkish Interior Ministry will continue supporting rights, law and peace and will stand against hate speech and discrimination.
One of the organizers of the rally told Today’s Zaman that the primary aim of the march was to remember the victims of the Khojaly massacre and the demonstrators demanded the punishment of those who were responsible in this brutal incident that claimed the lives of hundreds of Azerbaijanis.
He added that organizers were planning to hold a peaceful rally that would underline universal values but there were some racist slogans and banners that aimed at individuals and hence casting a shadow over the goal of the rally.
The organizer, however, stressed that “those who were blaming us for similar incidents although we were totally against these slogans and don’t share their views, don’t say a single word about Armenia’s leadership who was responsible for the Khojaly massacre but trying to make an impression in an ill-intentioned fashion that the rally was directed at Turkey’s Armenian community, something that is not true.”
Private Cihan news agency reported on Wednesday that a Turkish nationalist group, Genç Atsızlar (Young Followers of Atsız), named after ultranationalist Turkish writer Nihal Atsız, was responsible for the provocative anti-Armenian placards and slogans punctuating Sunday's mass commemoration of the Khojaly massacre.
The group, which organized their gathering on the social-networking platform Facebook, had planned to wage attacks on a number of institutions, including the office of the Agos newspaper and the French Consulate General, but were intercepted by police who had received a tip-off as to the group's plans before they could carry out the attacks.
Approximately 30 members of the group travelled to İstanbul from Bursa and Ankara on Sunday where tens of thousands of Turks and Azerbaijanis were out in force to mark the Khojaly massacre. The group’s intention was not, however, to commemorate the victims of the massacre but to provoke anti-Armenian sentiments at the rally by distributing placards bearing inflammatory messages and chanting racist slogans such as “Murderer Armenians” and “You are all Armenian, you are all bastards.”
Having received a tip-off as to the group’s plans, the police intervened and arrested 41 protestors, five of whom were female, before any physical attacks took place. The police are now in the process of investigating how the group is financed, what organizations it is affiliated with and who is involved in its organization. The Genç Atsızlar stronghold is thought to be in Bursa.
The Human Rights Association (İHD) released a statement on Tuesday condemning the sentiments expressed by the group at the rally and requesting that an investigation be conducted into the group’s activities.