A court in Ankara ruled to dismiss the case on the Sivas Massacre, where 35 people lost their lives in a hotel set on fire by an Islamist mob, on the grounds that the statute of limitations had run out.
Only three fugitive suspects were on trial in the case, which had previously been separated from the main case. While many believe Murat Sonkur, Eren Ceylan and Murat Karataş to be in hiding in Germany, at least one other fugitive suspect appeared to never have left Turkey. Cafer Erçakmak died of old age in his Sivas home back in 2011.
Dozens of men were sentenced to death in the main case, which charged some 120 people with crimes against the constitutional order and concluded in 2002. However, the victims’ lawyers are unsure how many perpetrators are actually behind bars as the Justice Ministry has not answered their inquiries.
“There should be 30 people behind bars, but we have not received concrete information despite asking time and again,” lawyer Şenal Sarıhan told BBC Turkish.
Sentences of the convicts were commuted to life in prison without parole after Turkey removed the death penalty. According to Sarıhan, German courts had refused to extradite some nine people with finalised convictions in the main case citing capital punishment in the country, but the convicts were not returned to Turkey after it was removed.
“They allowed the murderers to escape, and if that wasn’t enough, they have started to release the jailed murderers, keeping their promise to the fundamentalist pro-Sharia organisations,” Pir Sultan Abdal Association Chairman Cuma Erçe said in a protest following the ruling.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had recently pardoned one of the convicts, which caused outrage and led to comments that the pardon was a signal to the court to dismiss the case.
“All lawyers argued that the case was a crime against humanity, and as such, would not be subject to statutes of limitation,” lawyer Deniz Aksoy told Sol Haber.
Rights defenders and Alevi community leaders for decades called for recognition for the 1993 Sivas Massacre, which was among the worst attacks against the minority faith.
In July 1993, a group of artists and literary figures were targeted in an arson attack by an angry mob of religious extremist groups in their hotel while they were in Sivas visiting a festival organised by Pir Sultan Abdal Association, named after the legendary 16th century Alevi folk hero and bard. Thirty three visitors lost their lives, as did two workers in the now infamous Madımak Hotel.
The mob of about 15,000 people had gathered around the hotel against writer Aziz Nesin, who had announced his disbelief in the Muslim holy book and his intention to translate Salman Rushdie’s novel the Satanic Verses. Without intervention by security forces, the riled up crowd started chanting slogans in favour of Sharia law and calling for Nesin’s death.
Witness reports place Hayrettin Gül, who received the presidential pardon last week, among the mob shouting, “Burn it up”. Another receiver of Erdoğan’s pardon, Ahmet Turan Kılıç, was seen shouting, “This secular order will fall” and “Long live Sharia”, while others in the crowd chanted “Aziz the Devil”, “Sivas will be Aziz’s grave”, and “Hellfire”.
During the final hearing, Erçe told the court that the Pir Sultan Abdal Association was called to the witness stand for the first time in 30 years.
Judges involved in the case had “stood with the murderers instead of victims”, Erçe said. “Justice was delayed here, and that is why the Gazi Massacre, Roboski Massacre, Maraş Massacre, Suruç Massacre happened.”
“The rights of families of the victims have been violated. We want to know the truth,” lawyer and human rights defender Öztürk Türkdoğan said. “There is nothing stopping the extradition of the suspects abroad. The only requirement is a court order. But the government does not want this incident to be brought to light, because when it is, many in the government will have to face their past.”
After the hearing, lawyer Mehmet Duman told reporters that the case was the government “bringing the opposition in line with the political interests of the government and the regime it represents”.
“Impunity is in line with the intimidation of the dynamic factions of society,” Duman added. “This is a message to society via the law, parts of which are used to legitimise impunity itself.”