A nearly two-decade trial regarding the deaths of 33 artists and intellectuals along with two hotel workers and two assailants in 1993 allegedly as the result of an attack by an angry mob protesting the arrival of atheist writer Aziz Nesin for an Alevi festival in Sivas, might be dropped due to the statute of limitations on time, which will mean the closure of a case that many say has not ever been thoroughly investigated.
On July 2, 1993, 37 people were killed inside the Sivas' Madımak Hotel when an angry mob set the building on fire. Seven of the suspects have been at large, but two of them, Cafer Erçakmak and Yılmaz Bağ, have been confirmed dead. The other five are likely to walk free as the Ankara 11th High Criminal Court will decide whether to drop the case on the grounds that too much time has passed in its next hearing scheduled for March 13.
However, many, including Felicity Party (SP) member Temel Karamollaoğlu, who was the mayor of Sivas at the time from the Welfare Party (RP), who have been subject to various accusations at the hands of the media say there is more to Sivas than meets the eye. They also complain that an important body of evidence indicating that the massacre was masterminded and orchestrated by shady groups inside the state, such as the terrorist Ergenekon network, has gone unchecked.
There have been claims that bullets were found in some of the bodies during the autopsy. There were also reports that Erdal İnönü, who was the deputy prime minister at the time and the chairman of the Social Democratic People's Party (SHP), phoned military units to intervene, but his orders were ignored.
Karamollaoğlu, whose role in the incidents was questioned by the media but has never faced any legal charges, told Today's Zaman that there were many shady points in the Sivas investigation which were left out. “The Pir Sultan Abdal festival has always been held in the village of Banaz for the past 29 years. In that year, they decided to organize it in the city center.
Aziz Nesin, who was the target of angry reactions at the time, was invited. In the opening ceremony, the Socialist International anthem was played and everyone stood up, including the governor. I saw groups of people of the Aczmendi sect, something that I had never seen in Sivas before. They appeared in the city two days ahead of the festival,” he noted, saying the organization appeared to be suspiciously different from the festivals in previous years.
He, like the lawyers of the co-plaintiffs in the case, asserts that the detentions after the incident were unusually fast. “They rounded up 37 people and gave them the death penalty. Perhaps, they were just people who got carried away with the excitement but there is no evidence that they caused the deaths.” He said his being targeted by the media in the aftermath of the massacre was also a purposeful act.
Karamollaoğlu said that if the trial is dropped due to the statute of limitations, this would mean the suspects, some of whom he says might have been falsely accused, will never have the chance to vindicate themselves. He also said that bringing the truth behind the Sivas incident would benefit Turkey. “Their purpose was to create a Sunni-Alevi conflict. That didn’t happen in Sivas, but the deaths that occurred during the incident brought the issue to a whole new level. Tension between Sunnis and Alevis was born,” he said, adding: “So in one respect, it was successful. They certainly created that kind of tension.”
He also said that although he was attacked by the media, the involvement of state bureaucrats and city officials was not questioned.
“There was no through investigation at all. There was a ceremony of the military’s Training Brigade in Sivas that day. There were families in town visiting the soldiers. That’s about 3,000-5,000 people. Even those people could have been in the crowd that day,” Karamollaoğlu said. “Nobody ever investigated the bullets that were said to have been found inside some of the bodies, both inside the hotel and outside.”
Ahmet Faruk Ünsal, head of the human rights group Association of Human Rights and Solidarity for Oppressed Peoples (MAZLUM-DER) also underlined the suspicious points that have taken place during the incident over the phone with Today’s Zaman: “We know that the gendarmerie sent only a small unit that did not match the size of the mob. There are bullet holes in the bodies of those that died; it is not clear where those bullets came from. Aziz Nesin’s arrival at such a fault line, which led to the provocation, is also one point. It should not be left to that statute of limitations because it is a dark stain on Sunni Muslims, and it will become permanent. If the state is willing to live with this stain, that’s up to the state, but Sunni Muslims should not allow this to happen.”
In response to a question on whether he believed a new investigation taking into account all the suspicious points in the incident could e launched, Ünsal said, “That will depend on campaigns we and the press will pursue to that end.”
Şenal Sarıhan, a lawyer for the victims’ families, who appeared on television on Saturday night also said the suspects were rounded up suspiciously fast. The trial process has also been fraught with scandals and difficulties. On July 22, 1993 -- about two weeks after the incident -- the Sivas Prosecutor’s Office filed charges against suspects Şevket Erdoğan, Köksal Koçak, İhsan Çakmak, Hakan Karaca, Yılmaz Bağ and Necmi Karaömeroğlu demanding the death penalty, which was still in place in Turkey at the time. All of these suspects, but Erçakmak, could have been captured. Most recently, he was reported to have been buried after dying on July 10, 2011 in Sivas. Other records indicate that at a time when he was being sought internationally on a red notice alert, Erçakmak got married on July 27, 1999 at the Altınyayla Municipality. He started his compulsory military service on May 22, 1997 and received a driver’s license in 2000. There are also records indicating that another one of the suspects, Yılmaz Bağ, got married only 14 days after the Sivas massacre. According to official records, he died on Dec. 25, 2006. In another scandal, the wife of one of the suspect’s became pregnant at the time when he was in jail. A DNA test confirmed he was the father, indicating, according to Sarıhan, that the suspects were given special treatment, as Turkey has no scheme for conjugal visits.
In the latest hearing on Dec. 6, 2011 Prosecutor Hakan Yüksel demanded the dismissal of the case for the five Sivas suspects who have been at large -- Erdoğan, Koçak, Çakmak, Karaca and Karaömeroğlu -- on the grounds of the statute of limitations.
According to Sarıhan, what happened in Sivas is a crime against humanity, and as such, a statute of limitations should not apply to this trial. “The court should rule on March 13 that as a crime against humanity, limitations on time do not apply to this case,” she said.
Head of the Human Rights Association (İHD) Öztürk Türkdoğan said it would be a heavy burden for the judiciary and the Turkish state to allow the case to fall victim to the statute of limitations. “It is completely possible for the court to overrule the statute of limitations on time basing its verdict on Article 7 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), which defines three major crimes including crimes against humanity,” he noted.
“What happened in Sivas is a massacre -- a crime against humanity -- make no mistake about that,” he added. The İHD president also noted that only a fair trial would be able to reveal the real perpetrators.
Meanwhile, the Pir Sultan Abdal Association and the Keçiören district branch of the Freedom and Solidarity Party (ÖDP) on Monday marched in protest of the possibility of the Sivas trial timing out and a recent incident in Adıyaman, where red marks were painted on the doors of Alevi homes in the city.
The group, with members holding torches in their hands, walked from the Pir Sultan Abdal Association’s office in Keçiören to the ÖDP building in the same district. ÖDP Ankara Provincial leader Cevap Özdemir, who made a press statement for the group said although 20 years have passed since the massacre, the real perpetrators behind it could neither be captured nor tried. Özdemir said exclusion and hate were the cause of the massacre, and accused the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government of fanning conflict between different religious denominations. He also accused the government of ignoring Alevi demands.