July 2, 2013, was the twentieth anniversary of the Sivas Massacre, known in Turkey as the ‘Madımak Massacre”. In 1993, thirty-seven distinguished individuals who were writers, poets and thinkers - most of whom were Alevi - and 2 hotel personnel were murdered by a mob of Islamic extremists when the hotel was set on fire. This event is carved into Turkish collective memory as being one of the primary brutal attacks on free speech and human rights in Turkey’s recent history.
Procedural problems during the trials
The legal hearings started in 1993 and the final verdict was given in 2001. Under charges of “attempting to establish a religious state by changing the constitutional order”, 33 were sentenced to death and another 91 were handed varying prison sentences. The death sentences were later converted to life imprisonment due to changes in the law. But as early as 2004, following exoneration and discharges, the number of imprisoned defendants was down to 33.
Cafer Erçakmak, a member of Sivas City Council at that time, was one of the key figures in the investigation. He and seven others managed to escape in 1997 when the Court of Appeals reversed the verdict. Later, it became clear that Erçakmak had married in Sivas on the 27 July 1999, gone on military service on the 22 May 1997, and even applied to the police for a driver’s license.
Either way, the ‘search’ for these individuals was only finalised on 13 March 2012 when the courts decreed that the Madımak Trials had lapsed due to time and declared a statute of limitations. That day, Erdoğan stated, “May this bring good fortune”. The next day, protesters who were outraged at the verdict were tear gassed and dispersed.
AKP’s response to Madımak
Returning to the present, whilst protesters were staking their claims on the streets in major cities throughout June, Prime Minister Erdoğan went around the country holding “Respect for the National Will” rallies. On June 23 in Erzurum, Erdoğan apologised to the Alevi community for the Sivas massacre. Or rather, he made the point that whereas the CHP were in charge at the time, he was still apologising for their wrongdoings. That same day, Alevis in Istanbul were protesting for freedom of speech and their human rights.
Under the surface rhetoric of which Erdoğan is a master, the AKP as a political body does not act like a party that has learnt the lessons of Madımak, or that truly understands the predispositions of the minorities that it claims to protect. On July 1, Sezgin Tanrıkulu, an MP from the CHP put forward notice of a motion to lift the ‘statute of limitation’ when it comes to cases of felonious homicide, torture and child rape. The motion was rejected because voted down by the AKP.
Besides, a large number of lawyers that were attorneys to the defendants of the Madımak Massacre are a part of the AKP’s upper hierarchy: eight are MPs and many are within local politics, not to mention those who went on holding esteemed positions on judicial boards. It isn’t wrong per se for lawyers to defend clients on trial for heinous acts. But the high concentration of such figures within AKP ranks or high-up in parallel tracks points to a structural problem.
After all, Madımak is not just another trial. The rift that this politically fuelled massacre opened between the religious and secular segments of society, and the reluctant attitude of the government to conduct a proper investigation, are part and parcel of the same structural problem. Thus, the close proximity between the lawyers of the defendants and the AKP understandably leads many to question the AKP’s sincerity.
It is not only the symbolic importance of Madımak, but also the motives behind the massacre that require us to learn lessons from the tragedy. The potential for tension rising between the ‘religious’ and ‘secular’ of Turkey in the wake of the Gezi protests is worth bearing in mind. From this perspective, neither Erdoğan nor the AKP has learnt the necessary lesson.
Every other statement made by Erdoğan incessantly depicts the protesting ‘terrorists’/‘looters’ as disrespectful of religious values. His false attack on the protesters for “drinking in the Mosque” which started on 3 June 2013 is one such example. The müezzin of the mosque in question countered Erdoğan’s statements on two occasions. Once before he was ‘relieved’ of his duty at the mosque, and once after. Other statements by Erdoğan such as , “if there are thousands on the streets, we have a 50% that we are holding back” or attempts to generally undermine the protests through campaigning around the clock to get as many AKP supporters to his rallies are actions that can only polarise the population.
As was the case with the LGBT parade on the 30th June, or the large scale protests that took place in western Turkey over a Kurdish protest incident all the way in the east (Lice), the momentum of the Gezi spirit has resulted in strong support for all issues and causes that relate to advocacy of basic rights and freedoms.
In the case of commemorating Madımak, a 10,000 strong crowd marched along the streets of Kadıköy (Anatolian side of Istanbul) chanting, “we will not forget Madımak, we will not let you forget Madımak”. The inhabitants of Kadıköy have been explicitly supportive of the protests and shown this once again by joining in the march from their balconies by clapping/ making noise as the convoy went past. Once the march was concluded, the crowd moved on to the nearby forum (Yoğrutçu Park) for the daily discussion. Smaller protests were organised in Sivas, Ankara, İzmir, Eskişehir, Urfa and Tunceli.
The main item on the agenda in the ‘agora style’ park forums over the last days has undoubtedly been Madımak. The forums have served as the rally point for marches that move onto central squares across the nation. Many identities walked side by side to commemorate Madımak. Confrontational statements that have become the AKP’s way of doing politics (both in terms of voters and parties) will only exacerbate the rift that is widening between all minorities, seculars, leftists and nationalists on the one side, and the partisan supporters of the AKP on the other.