Effort to prosecute Ottoman war criminals

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After World War I, the effort to prosecute Ottoman war criminals was taken up by the Paris Peace Conference (1919) and ultimately included in the Treaty of Sèvres (1920) with the Ottoman Empire. The main effort went to establishing an Inter-Allied or International Tribunal on Malta to try the so-called "Malta exiles", Ottoman officials held as prisoners-of-war by the British on Malta. The proposed trials are sometimes referred to as the Malta Tribunals. The chief crimes of which the Ottomans were accused were mistreatment of prisoners-of-war and the Armenian genocide. In the end no tribunals were held, because of the lack of forensic evidence and international judicial norms.

The Ottoman government made a separate effort to prosecute war criminals in a series of courts martial in 1919–20, but these failed on account of political pressure.


Allied Reactions, 1915–17[edit]

Following the reportage by US Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, Henry Morgenthau, Sr., of the Armenian resistance to Ottoman forces at the city of Van, The Triple Entente formally warned the Ottoman Empire on 24 May 1915 that: "In the view of these ... crimes of Turkey against humanity and civilization ... the Allied governments announce publicly ... that they will hold personally responsible ... all members of the Ottoman Government and those of their agents who are implicated in such massacres."[1]

Turkish courts martial, 1919–20[edit]

The initial prosecution of war criminals was established between 1919-1920 by the Turkish Committee of Union and Progress which charged and tried several former leaders and officials for subversion of the constitution, wartime profiteering, and the massacres of both Greeks and Armenians.[2] At the same time the British Foreign Office conducted its own investigation into alleged war crimes, debating whether the process was adequately dealt with by Turkish courts martial or should be conducted by an international tribunal.[3]

On August 4, 1920, the British Cabinet decided that: "The list of the [Maltese] deportees be carefully revised by the Attorney General with a view to selecting the names of those it was proposed to prosecute, so that those against whom no proceedings were contemplated should be released at the first convenient opportunity."[4] The Attorney General wrote to the Foreign Office that the "British High Commissioner at Istanbul should be asked to prepare the evidence against those interned Turks whom he recommends for prosecution on charges of cruelty to native Christians."[5] The Turkish Government resisted ceding authority to an international or inter-allied tribunal,[6] arguing that the Armistice of Mudros did not lift the sovereign rights of the Ottoman Empire.


Legal foundation[edit]

In 1918 an American list of 11 "outlaws of civilization" was drawn up to be targeted for "condign punishment":

The list included the three leading Young Turk leaders, comprising the Ittihad triumvirate. A similar, but larger list, was prepared in 1917 in France by Tancrede Martel, an international law expert, who argued that the men he indicated deserved to be tried as common criminals by ordinary civil and criminal courts of the Allied countries because of the type and scope of the atrocities they were accused of having perpetrated. In its final report, completed on March 29, 1919, the commission on Responsibilities through Annex 1, table 2, identified thirteen Turkish categories of outrages liable to criminal prosecution".[7]

The British Foreign Office demanded 141 Turks be tried for crimes against British soldiers, and 17 for the crimes against Armenians during World War I.[8]

The Allied authority to proceed with any prosecutions was created as part of the Paris Peace Conference, 1919, with the establishment of "The Commission on Responsibilities and Sanctions", which was chaired by U.S. Secretary of State Robert Lansing. The Commission's work saw several articles added to the Treaty of Sèvres to effect indictments against the acting heads of government of the Ottoman Empire, Sultan Mehmed VI and Damat Adil Ferit Pasha. The Treaty of Sèvres gave recognition of the Democratic Republic of Armenia and developed a mechanism to bring to trial those accused of "barbarous and illegitimate methods of warfare... [including] offenses against the laws and customs of war and the principles of humanity".[1]

Article 230 of the Treaty of Sèvres required the Ottoman Empire:

... to hand over to the Allied Powers the persons whose surrender may be required by the latter as being responsible for the massacres committed during the continuance of the state of war on territory which formed part of the Ottoman Empire on August 1, 1914.

As a signatory to the treaty, the Ottoman Empire specifically recognized the right of the Allies to convene international tribunals to conduct war crimes trials.[9]

By 1921 the British High Commission had gathered a body of information from its Greek and Armenian sources about the Turkish prisoners held at Malta, and about 1000 others, all alleged to have been directly or indirectly guilty of participation in massacres.[10] The Allies had "a mountain of documents" related to the Armenian Genocide, but these were mostly general and did not clearly implicate specific individuals.[11]

On March 31, 1921, the British Foreign Secretary Lord George Curzon telegraphed British Ambassador to the US Sir Auckland Gedes, instructing him to pursue the collection of information for the "purposes of prosecution":

There are in hands of His Majesty's Government at Malta a number of Turks arrested for alleged complicity in the Armenian massacre ... There is considerable difficulty in establishing proofs of guilt ... Please ascertain if United States Government are in possession of any evidence that would be of value for purposes of prosecution.[12]

On July 13, 1921, the ambassador replied:

I regret to inform Your Lordship that there was nothing therein which could be used as evidence against the Turks who are being 'detained for trial at Malta'. The reports seen ... made mention of only two names of the Turkish officials in question and in these case were confined to personal opinions of these officials on the part of the writer, no concrete facts being given which could constitute satisfactory incriminating evidence ... I have the honour to add that officials at the Department of State expressed the wish that no information supplied by them in this connection should be employed in a court of law ... Having regard to this stipulation and the fact that the reports in the possession of the Department of State do not appear in any case to contain evidence against these Turks ..., I fear that nothing is to be hoped from addressing any further enquiries to the United States Government in this matter.[13]

—Sir A. Gedes

Suspension of prosecution[edit]

As a result of lacking evidence, initial British efforts to launch prosecutions were abandoned.[14] British Admiral Sir John Michael de Robeck, who had been second-in-command of Allied naval forces at the Dardanelles, commented: "It would be hard under these conditions to convict most of the exiles before an Allied court."[15]

British Foreign Secretary Lord Curzon said the subsequent release of many of the Turkish prisoners was "a great mistake", and wrote:

The less we say about these people [the Turks detained at Malta] the better...I had to explain why we released the Turkish deportees from Malta skating over thin ice as quickly as I could. There would have been a row I think...The staunch belief among members [of Parliament is] that one British prisoner is worth a shipload of Turks, and so the exchange was excused ...".[16]

In relation to prisoner exchange Article 2 under the Agreement For the Immediate Release of Prisoners reads:

"The repatriation of Turkish prisoners of war and interned civilians now in the hands of the British authorities shall commence at once, and shall continue as quickly as possible. This will not apply, however, to persons whom it is intended to try for alleged offences in violation of the laws and customs of war, or for massacres committed during the continuance of the state of war in territory which formed part of the Turkish Empire on 1st August, 1914..." [17]

According to European Court of Human Rights judge Giovanni Bonello the suspension of prosecutions, the repatriation and release of Turkish detainees was amongst others a result of the lack of an appropriate legal framework with supranational jurisdiction, because following World War I no international norms for regulating war crimes existed. Also the release of the Turkish detainees was accomplished in exchange for 22 British prisoners held by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.[18]


Further information: Operation Nemesis

Separate Turkish domestic prosecutions resulted in the convictions and sentencing to death of many of the masterminds of the Armenian genocide. As many of the principal architects of the genocide had managed to escape prior to sentencing, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation decided at its 9th General Congress, which convened in Yerevan from September 27 to the end of October 1919, to pursue an assassination campaign against those it perceived to be responsible. A task force, led by Shahan Natalie, working with Grigor Merjanov, was established to assassinate Talaat Pasha, Pipit Jivanshir Khan, Said Halim Pasha, Behaeddin Shakir Bey, Jemal Azmi, Jemal Pasha, Enver Pasha, and others, including several Armenians.

Some of those accused as war criminals led politically influential lives in the nascent Turkish state. Mustafa Abdülhalik Renda, for instance, who had "work[ed] with great energy for the destruction of the Armenians",[19] later became the Turkish Minister of Finance and Speaker of the Assembly and, for one day, following the death of Kemal Atatürk, President. General Vehip Pasa, and various German sources, also implicated Abdülhalik in the burning to death of thousands of people in Mus Province.[20]

Armenian historian Vahakn N. Dadrian commented that the Allied efforts at prosecution were an example of "a retributive justice [that] gave way to expedience of political accommodation".[21]

Peter Balakian — referring to the post-war Ottoman military tribunals, none of which was held in Malta — commented that "The trials represent a milestone in the history of war-crimes tribunals." Although they were truncated in the end by political pressures, and directed by Turkey's domestic laws rather than an international tribunal, the Constantinople trials (Turkish Courts-Martial of 1919-20) were an antecedent to the Nuremberg Trials following World War II.[22]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b William S. Allen, The Nazi Seizure of Power: The Experience of a Single German Town 1922–1945, Franklin Watts; Revised edition (1984). Also see: William A. Schabas, Genocide in International Law: The Crimes of Crimes, Cambridge University Press, 2000, pp. 16–17
  2. ^ Taner Akçam, Armenien und der Völkermord: Die Istanbuler Prozesse und die Türkische Nationalbewegung (Hamburg: Hamburger Edition, 1996), p. 185.
  3. ^ Dadrian V.N. in Genocide as a problem of national and international law, p.281–291; Dadrian V.N. (1986), "The Naim Andonian documents on the world war I destruction of Ottoman Armenians: the anatomy of a Genocide". International Journal of Middle East Studies, Cambridge, Mass., 18(3)338–355; Helmreich P.C. op. cit., p.236. These sources uses the documents: Britain FO 371/5091, E 16080/27/44; 371/6509, E 5141 f.130; E 8562 f.13; E 10662 f.159; 371/7882, E 4425 f.182; as a source to reach their judgements
  4. ^ PRO-FO 371/5090/E.9934: Cabinet Officer to Lord Curzon of 12.8.1929M
  5. ^ PRO-FO 371/6499/E.1801: Law Officeres to Foreign Office of 8.2.1921
  6. ^ Vahakn N. Dadrian "The History of the Armenian Genocide: Ethnic Conflict from the Balkans to Anatolia to the Caucasus" page 308
  7. ^ Vahakn N. Dadrian "The History of the Armenian Genocide: Ethnic Conflict from the Balkans to Anatolia to the Caucasus" page 314
  8. ^ British foreign archive: FO 371/5091/E15109 Malta Internees, 8 November 1920
  9. ^ M. Cherif Bassiouni "Crimes Against Humanity in International Criminal Law" page 67
  10. ^ Vahakn N. Dadrian; The History of the Armenian Genocide: Ethnic Conflict from the Balkans to Anatolia to the Caucasus page 310.
  11. ^ Akcam, Taner. A Shameful Act. 2006, page 358.
  12. ^ FO 371/6500/E.3552: Curzon to Geddes. Tel No 176 of 31.3.1921.
  13. ^ FO 371/6504/E.8515: Craigie, British Charge d' Afaires at Washington, to lord Curzon, No.722 of 13.7.1921.
  14. ^ Vahakn N Dadrian "The key elements in the Turkish denial of the Armenian genocide: A case study of distortion and falsification" Citation is provided by Stammer can be found
  15. ^ from Taner Akcam "The Investigations and Prosecution of the War Crimes and Genocide" p 358 citation is provided by THOTH
  16. ^ British Foreign Office Archives, FO 371/7882/E4425, folio 182
  17. ^ British national Archives CAB 24/127
  18. ^ Turkey’s EU Minister, Judge Giovanni Bonello And the Armenian Genocide - ‘Claim about Malta Trials is nonsense’. The Malta Independent. 19 April 2012. Retrieved 10 August 2013
  19. ^ German Consul Walter Rössler quoted by Akcam, Taner. A Shameful Act. 2006, page 362.
  20. ^ Akcam, Taner. A Shameful Act. 2006, page 363.
  21. ^ Dadrian, History of the Armenian Genocide, pp. 310—11.
  22. ^ On April 24, the world must remember victims of Armenian genocide, Times Union[dead link]