Malta exiles

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Malta exiles (Turkish: Malta sürgünleri) (between March 1919 – October 1920) is the term used by Turkey for war criminals (including high-ranking soldiers, political figures and administrators) of the Ottoman Empire who were selected from Constantinople prisons and sent into exile to the Crown Colony of Malta after the armistice of Mudros, in a failed attempt of prosecution that occurred during the Occupation of Constantinople by the Allied forces.

The Allied Government sent the war criminals to Malta in a prosecution attempt coordinated by the British forces. 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 starting in 1919, 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.[1]

The competing Ankara government was strictly opposed to trials against war criminals. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk reasoned about the detainees in Malta on the occasion of the congress in Sivas 4 September 1919: "...should any of the detainees either already brought or yet to be brought to Constantinople be executed, even at the order of the vile Constantinople government, we would seriously consider executing all British prisoners in our custody." From February 1921 the military court in Constantinople begun releasing prisoners without trials.[2]

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, therefore contrary to Turkish sources, no trials were ever held in Malta. The release of the Turkish detainees was accomplished in exchange for 22 British prisoners held by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.[3][4]

Prosecution in Malta[edit]

Political developments in Turkey relating mainly with the rise of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk forced the British to a hurried change of plans. Rear-Admiral Richard Webb took the decision to transfer the prisoners somewhere beyond the reach of popular uprisings in Istanbul, as an attack by rioting crowds on Seriaskeriat and Bekir Aga prisons, where the political detainees were in custody, could not be ruled out. Webb assumed responsibility not to inform the Turkish government of his intentions till after they had been carried out, relying on some undocumented wish of Damat Ferid Pasha to send the detainees to Malta. Calthorpe informed Lord Plumer, Governor of Malta, of the need to use Malta for their safe custody outside Turkey. Some 40 of the more important suspects rested safely in the hands of the authorities, but five more ‘black lists’ had been drawn up by the Armenian and Greek Section of the British High Commission. 67 detainees were placed on board of the SS Princess Ena which sailed at night on May 28, 1919. Those destined to stay in Malta included 41 politicians, half of whom had been considered responsible for the Armenian atrocities and the other half “as a precautionary war measure”. Another 14 officers suspected of improper treatment of British prisoners-of-war joined them too. A new wave of arrests followed the storming of the Turkish Chamber of Deputies by the British troops, and 30 important political figures were deported to Malta on SS HMS Benbow, where they arrived on 21 March 1920. More Turkish deportees trickled to Malta and by November 1920 there was a total of 144, held in a local prison. This prompted Mustafa Kemal 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.

British military courts could try three of the seven offences (breach of armistice terms, hindering its execution, and ill-treatment of British POWs), but only in the occupied territories, not in Malta. All the other offences, including Armenian massacres, were not enforceable following a legal vacuum of international judicial norms at the time that did not allow the British Government to prosecute them. The Attorney General clearly showed his reluctance to be drawn into any political wrangle and that, as far as he was concerned, only the eight prisoners accused of ill-treating allied POWs had any legal relevance, who were exchanged unconditionally afterwards with British prisoners of war held in the Ottoman prisons. For reasons never explained, the British authorities do not seem to have ever considered using in Malta any of the – mostly documentary – evidence on Armenian atrocities of which Turkish prisoners had been accused and convicted by Turkish military courts shortly after the armistice – substantial and disturbing documents. 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. In the end, no trials were ever held in Malta.[3][4]


The first war criminal who had escaped was Ali İhsan Sâbis, a commander at the Iraq front of the Ottoman Empire during the First World War who took part in the Armenian Genocide. Ali İhsan Sâbis organized mass killings of unarmed Armenian soldiers in the Ottoman army as well as Christian civilians in the Iranian-Ottoman border region (near Lake Urmia). He escaped on 29 March 1919.

On 28 May 1919, there was a large round-up of about thirty persons by the government of Constantinople that covered thirty people in absentia, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. On 2 June 1919 came the turn of the members of the Council of Kars. The exiles from Kars to Malta comprised 11 persons, eight Turks, including the Republic's president Cihangirzade Ibrahim Bey, two ethnic Greeks and one Russian, all members of the Council. On 21 September 1919, a dozen personalities who had been in utmost prominence during the Second Constitutional Era in the Ottoman Empire were also exiled. The names included the former Grand Vizier Said Halim Pasha (who was at first sent to Moudros), his brother Abbas Halim Pasha, the writer and Pan-Turkic ideologue Ziya Gökalp and others. The British military that was stationed in the Caucasus after the First World War discharged the Ninth Ottoman Army. Its servants taken away from their duty; among these were Yakup Sevki Subası (No. 120), Mehmet Rıfat (No. 129) and Mürsel Bakû (No. 137). Numbers 60-70 were from the 9th Ottoman Army and members of the Council of Kars.

The 145 personalities arrested and exiled included mainly high ranking officials of the Ottoman Empire and soldiers convicted of war crimes. Some of the decisions for arrests involved people who had escaped, including the Three Pashas, who had escaped with the help of Ahmet Izzet Pasha, an Ottoman official of Albanian ethnicity. After the British occupation of Kars, the members of the Council of Kars (Kars Surası), an Ottoman administration that had set up the unrecognised South West Caucasian Republic following the removal of the Ottoman troops from that city after the Armistice of Mudros, were arrested for war crimes. The Kars government was disbanded in April 1919, and its prominent members were arrested and sent to İstanbul during the posterior courts-martial and then to the prisons in Malta, while the region of Kars was temporarily handed over to the First Republic of Armenia, only to be returned to Turkey later on.


On March 16, 1921, the Turkish Foreign Minister and the British Foreign Office signed an agreement in London. In exchange for the 22 British prisoners in Turkey, Britain would set free 64 Turkish prisoners from Malta, without bringing them to trial. These excluded those it was intended to prosecute for alleged offences in violation of the laws and customs of war or for massacres committed in any part of the Turkish Empire after war had broken out; the tribunal effectively attempt failed to materialize. Lord Plumer in Malta arranged for the release of the 59 remaining prisoners and they sailed in two batches, 17 on the RFA Montenol and 42 on HMS Chrysanthemum, and so 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. Giovanni Bonello unearthed from the Foreign Office Archive:[4]

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".


The Malta exiles included the following people:

Name Roundup date Roundup ID Function in the Ottoman Empire Aftermath
Ali Fethi Okyar May 28, 1919 26 80
Hasan Fehmi Bey May 28, 1919 26 88 Sinop deputy
Sükrü Kaya May 28, 1919 27 38 Civil inspector
Mustafa Kemal Atatürk May 28, 1919 Commander of the Turkish National Movement
Ahmet Ağaoğlu September 21, 1919 27 64
Kara Hisar-i Sâhib deputy, ideologue of the Committee of Union and Progress, author
Mahmud Kâmil Pasha September 21, 1919 27 58 Former Fifth Army commander
Ziya Gökalp September 21, 1919 27 59 Ergani-Maden deputy, Pan-Turkic ideologue of the Committee of Union and Progress
Rauf Orbay March 22, 1920 27 76 Former Minister of Navy, Sivas deputy
Cevat Çobanlı March 22, 1920 27 73
Ali Çetinkaya 27 March 1920 27 87 Former Afyon deputy
Süleyman Nazif 27 March 1920 27 84 Former Musul and Baghdad governor
Abdülhalik Renda June 7, 1920 former Bitlis Governor
Kâzım Orbay Colonel, Enver Pasha's brother-in-law
Yunus Nadi Abalıoğlu Journalist, owner of Yeni Gün newspaper

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Detlev Grothusen, Klaus (197). Die Türkei in Europa: Beiträge des Südosteuropa-arbeitskreises der… (in German). Berghahn Books. p. 35. 
  2. ^ Taner Akçam: A Shameful Act: The Armenian Genocide and the Question of Turkish Responsibility, Metropolitan Books, New York 2006 ISBN 978-0-8050-7932-6, p. 354
  3. ^ a b Bonello 2008.
  4. ^ 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

Further reading[edit]