Turkish courts-martial of 1919–1920

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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.[1][2][3]

Turkish courts-martial of 1919–20 were courts-martial of the Ottoman Empire that occurred soon after the Armistice of Mudros, in the aftermath of World War I. The leadership of the Committee of Union and Progress and selected former officials were charged with several charges including subversion of the constitution, wartime profiteering, and the massacres of both Armenians and Greeks.[4] The court reached a verdict which sentenced the organizers of the massacres – Talat, Enver, and Cemal – and others to death.[1][2]

Since there were no international laws in place under which they could be tried, the men who orchestrated the genocide escaped prosecution and traveled relatively freely throughout Germany, Italy, and Central Asia.[5] This led to the formation of Operation Nemesis, a covert operation conducted by Armenians during which Ottoman political and military figures who fled prosecution were assassinated for their role in the Armenian Genocide.[6]

The Turkish courts-martial were forced to shut down during the resurgence of the Turkish National Movement under Mustafa Kemal. Those who remained serving their sentences were ultimately pardoned under the newly established Kemalist government on 31 March 1923.[7]


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".[8][9][10][11][12][13][14]

The front page of the Ottoman newspaper İkdam on 4 November 1918 after the Three Pashas fled the country following World War I. It reads: "Their response to eliminate the Armenian problem was to attempt the elimination of the Armenians themselves."[15]

In the months leading up to the end of World War I, the Ottoman Empire had undergone major restructuring. In July of that 1918, Sultan Mehmed V died and was succeeded by his half-brother Mehmed VI. The Ministers of the Committee of Union and Progress, including the Three Pashas who ran the Ottoman Government between 1913 and 1918, had resigned from office and fled the country soon afterwards. Successful Allied offensives in Salonika posed a direct threat to the Ottoman capital of Constantinople.[16] Sultan Mehmed VI appointed Ahmed Izzet Pasha to the position of Grand Vizier and tasked him with the assignment of seeking an armistice with the Allied Powers and ending Ottoman involvement in the war.[17]

On 30 October 1918, an armistice was signed between the Ottomans, represented by the Minister of the Navy Rauf Orbay, and the Allies, represented by British Admiral Sir Somerset Gough-Calthorpe. The armistice essentially ended Ottoman participation in the war and required the Empire's forces to stand down although there still remained approximately one million soldiers in the field and small scale fighting continued in the frontier provinces into November 1918.[16]

Surrender of Constantinople[edit]

In November 1918, Britain appointed Admiral Sir Somerset Gough-Calthorpe as High Commissioner and Rear-Admiral Richard Webb as Assistant High Commissioner in Constantinople.[18] A French brigade later entered Constantinople on November 12, 1918, and the British Troops first entered the city on November 13, 1918. Early on December in 1918, Allied troops occupied sections of Constantinople and set up a military administration.

The US Secretary of State Robert Lansing summoned the representatives of the Ottoman Empire, Sultan Mehmed VI and Grand Vizier Damat Ferid Pasha (a founding member of the Freedom and Accord Party or Liberal Union Party). The Paris Peace Conference established "The Commission on Responsibilities and Sanctions" in January 1919.

On January 2, 1919, Gough-Calthorpe requested from the Foreign Office authority to obtain the arrest and handing over of all those responsible for the incessant breaches of the terms of the Armistice and the continued ill-treatment of Armenians. Calthorpe got together a staff of dedicated assistants, including a notable anti-Turkish Irishman, Andrew Ryan, later Sir, who in 1951 published his memoirs. In his new role as the chief Dragoman of the British High Commission and Second Political Officer, he found himself in charge of the Armenian question. He proved instrumental in the arrest of a large number of the (later to be) Malta deportees. These fell broadly into three categories: Those still breaching the terms of the armistice, those who had allegedly ill-treated Allied prisoners-of-war and those responsible for excesses against Armenians, in Turkey itself and the Caucasus. Calthorpe asked for a personal interview with Reshid Pasha, Ottoman Minister of Foreign Affairs, to impress on him how Britain viewed the Armenian affair and the ill-treatment of POWs as "most important" deserving "the utmost attention". Two days later Calthorpe formally requested the arrest of seven leaders of the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP). While between 160 and 200 people were arrested, another 60 suspected of participating in the massacre of Armenians remained at large.[18]



A session of the Turkish courts-martial on 3 April 1919.

The courts-martial were established on April 28, 1919 while the Paris Peace Conference, 1919 was ongoing. An inquiry commission was established, called the "Mazhar Inquiry Commission", which was invested with extraordinary powers of subpoena, arrest, et cetera, through which the war criminals were summoned to trial. This organization secured Ottoman documents from many provinces of the Ottoman Empire.[citation needed] Sultan Mehmet VI and Grand Vizier Damat Ferid Pasha, as representatives of the Ottoman Empire during the Second Constitutional Era were summoned to the Paris Peace Conference. On 11 July 1919, Damat Ferid Pasha officially confessed to massacres against the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire and was a key figure and initiator of the war crime trials held directly after World War I to condemn to death the chief perpetrators of the genocide.[19][20][21]

The Ottoman Government in Constantinople (represented by Damat Ferid Pasha), foisted the blame on a few members of the Committee of Union and Progress and long-time rivals of his own Freedom and Accord Party, which would ensure that the Ottoman Empire received a more lenient treatment during the Paris Peace Conference.[22][23] The trials helped the party (also called the Liberal Union party) root out the Committee of Union and Progress from the political arena.[24] On 23 July 1919, during the Erzurum Congress, General Kâzım Karabekir was issued a direct order from the Sultanate to place Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and Rauf Orbay under arrest and assume Kemal's position as Inspector-General of the Eastern Provinces. He defied the government in Constantinople and refused to carry out the arrest.[17]:248

At that time Turkey had two competing governments in Constantinople and Ankara. The government in Constantinople supported the Turkish trials with more or less seriousness depending on the current government. While Grand Vizier Damat Ferid Pasha (4 March - 2 October 1919 and again 5 April - 21 October 1920) stood behind the prosecuting body, the government of Grand Vizier Ali Riza Pasha (2 October 1919 – 2 March 1920) barely made a mention of the legal proceedings against the war criminals.[25] The trials had also blurred the crime of participation in the Turkish National Movement with the crime of the Armenian Genocide, and ultimately resulted in increasing support for the government in Ankara that would be led later on by Atatürk.[26]


The court sat for nearly a year, from April 1919 through March 1920, although it became clear after just a few months that the tribunal was simply going through the motions. The judges had condemned the first set of defendants (Enver, et al.) when they were safely out of the country, but the Tribunal, despite making a great show of its efforts, had no intention of returning convictions. Admiral Sir Somerset Gough-Calthorpe protested to the Sublime Porte, took the trials out of Turkish hands, and removed the proceedings to Malta. There an attempt was made to seat an international tribunal, but the Turks bungled the investigations and mishandled the documentary evidence so that nothing of their work could be used by the international court.[27]

According to European Court of Human Rights judge Giovanni Bonello, 'quite likely the British found the continental inquisitorial system of penal procedure used in Turkey repugnant to its own paths to criminal justice and doubted the propriety of relying on it'. Or, possibly, the Turkish government never came round to hand over the incriminating documents used by the military courts. Whatever the reason, with the advent of power of Ataturk, all the documents on which the Turkish military courts had based their trials and convictions, were ‘lost’.[18] Admiral John de Robeck replaced Admiral Gough-Calthorpe on August 5, 1919 as "Commander in Chief, Mediterranean, and High Commissioner, at Constantinople".[27] In August 1920, the proceedings were halted, and Admiral John de Robeck informed London of the futility of continuing the tribunal with the remark: "Its findings cannot be held of any account at all." [28]

An investigative committee started by Hasan Mazhar was immediately tasked to gather evidence and testimonies, with a special effort to obtain inquiries on civil servants implicated in massacres committed against Armenians.[29] According to genocide scholar Vahakn Dadrian, the Commission worked in accordance with sections 47, 75 and 87 of the Ottoman Code of Criminal Procedure. It had extensive investigative powers, because it was not only limited to conduct legal proceedings and search for and seize documents, but also to arrest and imprison suspects with assistance from the Criminal Investigation Department, and other State services.[30] In a course of three months, the committee managed to gather 130 documents and files pertaining to the massacres, and had them transferred to the courts-martial.[31]

Turkish courts-martial also has on agenda some cases of some Ottoman high-ranking officials, who were assassinated by agents of "Committee of Union and Progress" (CUP) in 1915, for disobeyed criminal orders of central government to deport and completely eliminate Armenian civilian population of the Ottoman empire.


On July 5, 1919, the court reached a verdict which sentenced the organizers of the massacres, Talat, Enver, Cemal and others to death.[1][2] The military court found that it was the intent of the CUP to eliminate the Armenians physically, via its Special Organization. The pronouncement reads as follows:[32]

The Court Martial taking into consideration the above-named crimes declares, unanimously, the culpability as principal factors of these crimes the fugitives Talaat Pasha, former Grand Vizir, Enver Efendi, former War Minister, struck off the register of the Imperial Army, Cemal Efendi, former Navy Minister, struck off too from the Imperial Army, and Dr. Nazim Efendi, former Minister of Education, members of the General Council of the Union & Progress, representing the moral person of that party; ... the Court Martial pronounces, in accordance with said stipulations of the Law the death penalty against Talaat, Enver, Cemal, and Dr. Nazim.

The courts-martial officially disbanded the CUP and confiscated its assets and the assets of those found guilty. Two of the three Pashas who fled were later assassinated by Armenian vigilantes during Operation Nemesis.

Detention in Malta and aftermath[edit]

Ottoman military members and high-ranking politicians convicted by the Turkish courts-martial were transferred from Constantinople prisons to the Crown Colony of Malta on board of the SS Princess Ena and the SS HMS Benbow by the British forces, starting in 1919. Admiral Sir Somerset Gough-Calthorpe was in charge of the operation, together with Lord Curzon; they did so owing to the lack of transparency of the Turkish courts-martial. They were held there for three years, while searches were made of archives in Constantinople, London, Paris and Washington to find a way to put them in trial.[33] However, the war criminals were eventually released without trial and returned to Constantinople in 1921, in exchange for 22 British prisoners of war held by the government in Ankara, including a relative of Lord Curzon. The government in Ankara was opposed to political power of the government in Constantinople. They are often mentioned as the Malta exiles in some sources.[34]

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, due to a legal vacuum in international law; therefore contrary to Turkish sources, no trials were ever held in Malta. He mentions that the release of the Turkish detainees was accomplished in exchange for 22 British prisoners held by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.[34][18]


An exhibition dedicated to Operation Nemesis at the genocide museum in Yerevan, Armenia

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, Javanshir Khan, Said Halim Pasha, Behaeddin Shakir Bey, Jemal Azmi, Cemal Pasha, Enver Pasha, as well as several Armenian collaborationists, in a secret operation codenamed Operation Nemesis.

Purging of evidence[edit]

A WikiLeaks cable classified and signed by David Arnett on July 4, 2004[35] at the Consulate General of the US in Istanbul states the following:

According to Sabanci University Professor Halil Berktay, there were two serious efforts to purge the archives of any incriminating documents on the Armenian question. The first took place in 1918, presumably before the Allied forces occupied Istanbul. Berktay and others point to testimony in the 1919 Turkish Military Tribunals indicating that important documents had been "stolen" from the archives. Berktay believes a second purge was executed in conjunction with Ozal's efforts to open the archives by a group of retired diplomats and generals led by former Ambassador Muharrem Nuri Birgi.

According to the cable, ambassador Muharrem Nuri Birgi was effectively in charge of destroying evidence during the 1980s.[36] During the process of eliminating the evidence, ambassador Birgi stated in reference to the Armenians: "We really slaughtered them."[35][36] Others, such as Tony Greenwood, the Director of the American Research Institute in Turkey, confirmed that a select group of retired military personnel were "going through" the archives. However, it was noted by a certain Turkish scholar that the examination was merely an effort to purge documents found in the archives.[35]


There is a controversy by revisionist 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".[37] Turkish historians Erman Şahin and Ferudun Ata accuse Taner Akçam of mistranslations and inaccurate summaries, including the rewriting of important sentences and the addition of things not included in the original version.[38][39][40]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Herzig, edited by Edmund; Kurkchiyan, Marina (2005). The Armenians past and present in the making of national identity. Abingdon, Oxon, Oxford: RoutledgeCurzon. ISBN 0203004930.CS1 maint: extra text: authors list (link)
  2. ^ a b c Andreopoulos, ed. by George J. (1997). Genocide : conceptual and historical dimensions (1. paperback print. ed.). Philadelphia, Pa.: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press. ISBN 0812216164.CS1 maint: extra text: authors list (link)
  3. ^ 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.
  4. ^ Akçam, Taner (1996). Armenien und der Völkermord: Die Istanbuler Prozesse und die Türkische Nationalbewegung (in German). Hamburg: Hamburger Edition. p. 185.
  5. ^ Power, Samantha. "A Problem from Hell", p. 16-17. Basic Books, 2002.
  6. ^ Bartrop, Paul R.; Jacobs, Steven Leonard (2014). Modern Genocide. ABC-CLIO. p. 89. ISBN 1610693647.
  7. ^ von Voss, Huberta (2007). Portraits of hope : Armenians in the contemporary world (1st English ed.). New York: Berghahn Books. p. 320. ISBN 1845452577.
  8. ^ 106th Congress, 2nd Session, House of Representatives (1915), Affirmation of the United States Record on the Armenian Genocide Resolution, The Library of CongressCS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link).
  9. ^ 109th Congress, 1st Session, Affirmation of the United States Record on the Armenian Genocide Resolution (Introduced in House of Representatives), The Library of Congress.
  10. ^ H.RES.316, Library of Congress, 14 June 2005. 15 September 2005 House Committee/Subcommittee:International Relations actions. Status: Ordered to be Reported by the Yeas and Nays: 40–7.
  11. ^ "Crimes Against Humanity", British Yearbook of International Law, 1946, p. 181.
  12. ^ Original source of the telegram sent by the Department of State, Washington containing the French, British and Russian joint declaration, Armenian Genocide.
  13. ^ William S. Allen, The Nazi Seizure of Power: The Experience of a Single German Town 1922–1945, Franklin Watts; Revised edition (1984).
  14. ^ William A. Schabas, Genocide in International Law: The Crimes of Crimes, Cambridge University Press, 2000, pp. 16–17
  15. ^ Bedrosyan, Raffi (7 January 2016). "The Implications of Turkey's Renewed War on the Kurds". Armenian Weekly.
  16. ^ a b Findley, Carter Vaughn. Turkey, Islam, Nationalism, and Modernity. Yale University Press, 2010, p. 215
  17. ^ a b Lewis, Bernard. The Emergence of Modern Turkey. Oxford University Press, 1968, p.239
  18. ^ a b c d 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. ^ Gunnar Heinsohn: Lexikon der Völkermorde. Reinbek 1998. Rowohlt Verlag. p. 80 (German)
  20. ^ RECOGNIZING THE 81ST ANNIVERSARY OF THE ARMENIAN GENOCIDE. United States Government Printing Office. Retrieved 21 January 2013
  21. ^ Armenian Genocide Survivors Remember. Queens Gazette. Retrieved 21 January 2013
  22. ^ 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, p. 554.
  23. ^ 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, Oxford Journals, p. 31.
  24. ^ Detlev Grothusen, Klaus (197). Die Türkei in Europa: Beiträge des Südosteuropa-arbeitskreises der… (in German). Berghahn Books. p. 35.
  25. ^ 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. 296
  26. ^ 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. 351
  27. ^ a b Shadow of the Sultan's Realm: The Destruction of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East, Daniel Allen Butler, Potomac Books Inc, 2011, ISBN 978-1597974967, p.211-212
  28. ^ Public Record Office, Foreign Office, 371/4174/136069 in Dadrian, Vahakn (2003). The History of the Armenian Genocide. Berghahn Books. p. 342. ISBN 1-57181-666-6.
  29. ^ Kieser, Hans-Lukas (2006). Turkey Beyond Nationalism Towards Post-Nationalist Identities. London: I.B. Tauris & Co. p. 119. ISBN 978-0-85771-757-3.
  30. ^ Dadrian, Vahakn N. (2004). The history of the Armenian genocide : ethnic conflict from the Balkans to Anatolia to the Caucasus (6th rev. ed.). New York: Berghahn Books. p. 320. ISBN 1-57181-666-6.
  31. ^ Kevorkian, Raymond (2015). "The Origins and Evolution of the Armenian Genocide". Armenian General Benevolent Union Magazine. 25 (1): 15.
  32. ^ Libaridian, Gerald J. (2007). Modern Armenia people, nation, state. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Publishers. pp. 134–5. ISBN 1412813514.
  33. ^ Türkei By Klaus-Detlev. Grothusen.
  34. ^ a b Bonello 2008.
  35. ^ a b c https://wikileaks.org/cable/2004/07/04ISTANBUL1074.html WIKILEAKS. 04ISTANBUL1074, ARMENIAN "GENOCIDE" AND THE OTTOMAN ARCHIVES
  36. ^ a b Barsoumian, Nanore (10 September 2011). "WikiLeaks: Stepping Out of Ottoman Archives, Diplomat Says 'We Really Slaughtered Them!'". The Armenian Weekly.
  37. ^ "Trois questions sur un massacre", L’Histoire (in French), April 1995.
  38. ^ Şahin, Erman, "A Scrutiny of Akçam's Version of History and the Armenian Genocide", Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs (PDF), p. 308.
  39. ^ "The Armenian Question", Middle East Policy (Review Essay), XVII, Spring 2010, pp. 149–57.
  40. ^ 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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