Turkish courts-martial of 1919–20

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Turkish courts-martial of 1919–20 were courts-martial of the Ottoman Empire after the armistice of Mudros during the aftermath of World War I, at which the leadership of the Committee of Union and Progress and selected former officials were court-martialled with/including the charges of subversion of the constitution, wartime profiteering, and the massacres of both Armenians and Greeks.[1] The court reached a verdict which sentenced the organizers of the massacres, Talat, Enver, Cemal and others to death.[2][3]

The Turkish courts-martial were dismissed for their failure to prosecute the war criminals responsible for the Armenian Genocide. Sultan Mehmet VI sent the war criminals to Malta in a failed attempt that was used organized by the Allied Government, and coordinated by the British Government (named the Malta Tribunals or the Inter-Allied Trial attempt).John de Robeck noted the lack of standards of the Turkish court, whose "findings could not be held of any account at all".[4]) It was during the second stage of the Inter-Allied Trial attempt, when Ottoman war criminals were named and relocated from Constantinople's jails to the British colony of Malta on board of the SS Princess Ena Malta and the SS HMS Bembow (also known as the "Malta exiles"), where they were believed to be held for some three years while searches were made in the archives of Constantinople, London, Paris and Washington to find a way to prosecute them.[5] The European Court of Human Rights judge Giovanni Bonello claims that the detainees were released in 1921 after having no legal framework to prosecute war criminals, due to a legal vacuum in international law.[6] The trials formed a key argument in the Treaty of Sèvres, which resulted in the partitioning of the Ottoman Empire.


World War I[edit]

Following the reportage by US Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, Henry Morgenthau, Sr., of the Armenian resistance during the Armenian Genocide at the city of Van, the Triple Entente formally warned the Ottoman Empire on 24 May 1915 that:

In view of these new crimes of Turkey against humanity and civilization, the Allied Governments announce publicly to the Sublime Porte that they will hold personally responsible for these crimes all members of the Ottoman Government, as well as those of their agents who are implicated in such massacres".[7][8][9][10][11][12][13]

Surrender of Constantinople, November 1918[edit]

13 days after the Armistice of Mudros, a French brigade entered Constantinople on November 12, 1918. The first British Troops entered the city on November 13, 1918. Early in December 1918, Allied troops occupied sections of Constantinople and set up an Allied military administration. On October 30, 1918 Britain appointed Admiral Sir Somerset Gough-Calthorpe and Rear-Admiral Richard Webb as High Commissioner and Assistant High Commissioner of the defeated Ottoman Empire. His first task was to arrest between 160 and 200 war criminals from the Government of Tevfik Pasha on January 1919.[14] Among this group, he sent thirty of these war criminals to Malta (Malta exiles). Sir Somerset Gough-Calthorpe included only Turkish members of the Government of Tevfik Pasha and the military/political personalities. He set the harsh rules during the military occupation. His position was not shared with other partners. The French Government criticized the action on these war criminals, noting that "the Muslim Turk subjects were punished earlier than other nationalities such as Bulgarians, Austrians and Germans."[15] On February 1919, the Allied Forces were informed that the Ottoman Empire was in compliance with its full apparatus to the occupation forces. Any source of conflict would be investigated by a Commission which in the neutral Governments could attach two legal superintendents.[15] Sir Somerset Gough-Calthorpe's correspondence to the British Foreign Office noted that "The action undertaken for the arrests was very satisfactory, and has, I think, intimidated the Committee of Union and Progress of Constantinople".[16]


Establishment, April 28, 1919[edit]

A court session of the Turkish courts-martial of 1919–20. CUP's leaders, Enver, Djemal, Talaat, among others, were ultimately sentenced to death under charges of wartime profiteering, and massacres of both Armenians and Greeks.[17][18][19]

The message of Sir Somerset Gough-Calthorpe on the Military administration was received by the Sultan. There was no higher goal at the time than preserving the integrity of the Ottoman Institution. Hence, the Ottoman Government foistered the blame instead on a few members of the Committee of Union and Progress, which would ensure that the Ottoman Empire received a more lenient treatment during the Paris peace conference.[20][21] The Turkish courts were established while the Paris Peace Conference, 1919 was ongoing.

The courts-martial were also a stage for political battles. The trials helped the Liberal Union party root out the Committee of Union and Progress from the political arena.[5]

The Treaty of Sèvres was signed on the 10th of August 1920, including nations that constituted the Central Powers, who signed the treaty after their defeat at the end of World War I. Its ratification on 10 August 1920 marked the beginning of the partition of, and the ultimate annihilation of, the Ottoman Empire. "The Commission on Responsibilities and Sanctions" added several articles to the treaty demanding the acting government of the Ottoman Empire, Sultan Mehmed VI and Damat Ferid Pasha, should be summoned to trial. The treaty itself had four signatories for the Ottoman Empire: Rıza Tevfik, the grand vizier Damat Ferid Pasha, ambassador Hadi Pasha, and the minister of education Reşid Halis, who were endorsed by Sultan Mehmed VI.


After the people summoned to trial in an inquiry commission, invested with extraordinary powers of subpoena, arrest, et cetera, which the Ottoman's called the "Mazhar Inquiry Commission" was established. This organization secured Ottoman documents from many provinces of Ottoman Empire.

Legal matters[edit]

The tribunals were held under occupation, thus the judges were under the scrutiny of the occupying forces. Due process did not exist, and there were gross absences of legal rights; defenders and lawyers feared for their life. The Ottoman penal code did not acknowledge the right of cross-examination. Some Western authors claimed that these were matters of local jurisprudence and the verdicts had to be trusted. However, the validity of the evidence presented in these testimonials has been questioned owing to a lack of defendant rights. Historians familiar with Ottoman jurisprudence hold the process of these trials with suspicion, in regards to the aftermath of the World War I and the conditions set by the Armistice of Mudros, which influenced the outcome of these trials.[22]

According to European Court of Human Rights judge Giovanni Bonello, the Turkish government never came round to hand over the incriminating documents used by the military courts.[6]

In some cases hearsay was an issue as direct evidence has never been presented (one direct evidence regarding Talat Pasha was claimed to be "questionable" (the signature, the code/number of the document, and the missing stamp). During the trials, testimonies were not subjected to cross-examination, or some of the materials were presented as "anonymous court material" (i.e., not sponsored by a witness, as most were not allowed to be present during the trial for being classified as enemy combatants).[23]

When the Turkish trials were staged, the High Commissioner at Constantinople, Sir Somerset Gough-Calthorpe, was replaced by John de Robeck, the Commander-in-Chief of the Mediterranean. The Turkish courts-martial were dismissed by De Robeck and were relocated towards the failed "Inter-Allied Trial attempt", rather than being held in a Turkish court whose "findings cannot be held of any account at all." (John de Robeck[4])


Following the Armistice of Mudros, the Paris Peace Conference established "The Commission on Responsibilities and Sanctions" in January 1919. The US Secretary of State Lansing summoned the representatives of the Ottoman Empire, Sultan Mehmed VI and Damat Ferid Pasha, to trial. Under the pretext of trials, war criminals of the Ottoman Empire were sent to on board of the SS Princess Ena Malta and the HMS Benbow during the Occupation of Constantinople by the Allied Government. By November 1920 there was a total of 144 prisoners. This prompted Mustafa Kemal Ataturk to order the arrest of 20 British officers in Anatolia, which would later play a major role in deciding the faith of the Turkish detainees in Malta. Among them was Colonel Rawlinson, a relative of Lord Curzon and brother of Lord Rawlinson.

The "Malta exiles" were held in a prison in Malta but were acquitted after a failed tribunal attempt to prosecute the Ottoman war criminals, and subsequently released in exchange of British prisoners of war, following a legal vacuum of international judicial norms at the time - which also affected the Istanbul trials conversely - that did not allow the British Government to prosecute them.

The last Turkish criminals who were exchanged reached Inebolu on October 31, 1921. One final note worth mentioning is the statement made by Lord Curzon in Parliament which Dr Bonello unearthed from the Foreign Office Archive:

Deeply embarrassed by the exchange of the hostages Lord Curzon minuted : “The less we say about these people (the Turks released for exchange) the better … I had to explain (to Parliament) why we released the Turkish deportees from Malta, skating over thin ice as quickly as I could … The staunch belief among Members (of Parliament) is that one British prisoner is worth a shipload of Turks, and so the exchange was excused”.

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 the 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.[6]


At the Armenian Revolutionary Federation's 9th General Congress, which convened in Yerevan from September 27 to the end of October 1919, the issue of retribution against those personally responsible for organizing the Genocide was on the agenda. 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, Cemal Pasha, Enver Pasha, as well as several Armenian collaborationists, in an secret operation codenamed Operation Nemesis.

Revisionist controversy[edit]

There is a controversy from denialist sources about the translations into Western language (mostly English and German) of the verdicts and accounts published in newspapers. Gilles Veinstein, a professor of Ottoman and Turkish history at Collège de France estimates that the translation made by former Armenian historian Haigazn Kazarian is "highly tendentious, in several locations".[24] Turkish historians Erman Sahin and Ferudun Ata accuse Taner Akçam of mistranslations and inaccurate summarizes, including the rewriting of important sentences and the addition of things not included in the original version.[25][26][27] Taner Akçam did not respond.[citation needed]


  1. ^ Akçam, Taner (1996). Armenien und der Völkermord: Die Istanbuler Prozesse und die Türkische Nationalbewegung (in German). Hamburg: Hamburger Edition. p. 185. 
  2. ^ Herzig, edited by Edmund; Kurkchiyan, Marina (2005). The Armenians past and present in the making of national identity. Abingdon, Oxon, Oxford: RoutledgeCurzon. ISBN 0203004930. 
  3. ^ Andreopoulos, ed. by George J. (1997). Genocide : conceptual and historical dimensions (1. paperback print. ed.). Philadelphia, Pa.: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press. ISBN 0812216164. 
  4. ^ a b Copy of Public Record Office, Foreign Office, 371/4174/136069 in Şimşir, Bilâl N. (1999), The Deportees of Malta and the Armenian Question, Foreign Policy Institute, p. 8 ; also p. 121 uses the same document as Dadrian, Vahakn (2003). The History of the Armenian Genocide. Berghahn Books. p. 342. ISBN 1-57181-666-6. 
  5. ^ a b Detlev Grothusen, Klaus (197). Die Türkei in Europa: Beiträge des Südosteuropa-arbeitskreises der… (in German). Berghahn Books. p. 35. 
  6. ^ a b c 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
  7. ^ 106th Congress, 2nd Session, House of Representatives (1915), Affirmation of the United States Record on the Armenian Genocide Resolution, The Library of Congress .
  8. ^ 109th Congress, 1st Session, Affirmation of the United States Record on the Armenian Genocide Resolution (Introduced in House of Representatives), The Library of Congress .
  9. ^ H.RES.316, Library of Congress, June 14, 2005 . 15 September 2005 House Committee/Subcommittee:International Relations actions. Status: Ordered to be Reported by the Yeas and Nays: 40–7.
  10. ^ "Crimes Against Humanity", British Yearbook of International Law (23), 1946, p. 181 .
  11. ^ Original source of the telegram sent by the Department of State, Washington containing the French, British and Russian joint declaration, Armenian Genocide .
  12. ^ William S. Allen, The Nazi Seizure of Power: The Experience of a Single German Town 1922–1945, Franklin Watts; Revised edition (1984).
  13. ^ William A. Schabas, Genocide in International Law: The Crimes of Crimes, Cambridge University Press, 2000, pp. 16–17
  14. ^ Public Public Record Office, Foreign Office 371/4172/13694 in Şimşir, Bilâl N (1999). The Deportees of Malta and the Armenian Question. Foreign Policy Institute. p. 11. 
  15. ^ a b Public Record Office, Foreign Office, 371/4172/28138 in Şimşir, Bilâl N. (1999). The Deportees of Malta and the Armenian Question. Foreign Policy Institute. p. 13. 
  16. ^ Public Record Office, Foreign Office, 371/4172/23004 in Şimşir, Bilâl N. (1999). The Deportees of Malta and the Armenian Question. Foreign Policy Institute. p. 79. 
  17. ^ Heller, Kevin Jon; Simpson, Gerry, eds. (2013). The hidden histories of war crimes trials (First edition. ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 296–300. ISBN 0199671141. 
  18. ^ Herzig, edited by Edmund; Kurkchiyan, Marina (2005). The Armenians past and present in the making of national identity. Abingdon, Oxon, Oxford: RoutledgeCurzon. ISBN 0203004930. 
  19. ^ Andreopoulos, ed. by George J. (1997). Genocide : conceptual and historical dimensions (1. paperback print. ed.). Philadelphia, Pa.: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press. ISBN 0812216164. 
  20. ^ Dadrian, Vahakn N (1991), "The Documentation of the World War I Armenian Massacres in the Proceedings of the Turkish Military Tribunal", International Journal of Middle East Studies (23), p. 554 .
  21. ^ Dadrian, Vahakn N (1997), "The Turkish Military Tribunal's Prosecution of the Authors of the Armenian Genocide: Four Major Court-Martial Series", Holocaust and Genocide Studies (11), Oxford Journals, p. 31 .
  22. ^ Yilmaz, Altug (1962). The Turkish Code of Criminal Procedure. London: Sweet and Maxwell. p. 232. ISBN 9998061628.  Yilmaz Altug
  23. ^ Heck to State Department, Feb. 7, 1919, U.S. National Archives, RG 59, 867.00/81 (M 820, roll 536, fr. 440)
  24. ^ "Trois questions sur un massacre", L’Histoire (in French), April 1995 .
  25. ^ Sahin, Erman, "A Scrutiny of Akçam's Version of History and the Armenian Genocide", Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs (PDF) (28:2), p. 308 .
  26. ^ "The Armenian Question", Middle East Policy (Review Essay) XVII (1), Spring 2010, pp. 149–57 .
  27. ^ Ferudun Ata, “An Evaluation of the Approach of the Researchers Who Advocate Armenian Genocide to the Trials Relocation,” in The New Approaches to Turkish-Armenian Relations, Istanbul, Istanbul University Publications, 2008, pp. 560-561.

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