The Sivas Massacre, an arson attack staged by radical Islamists on mostly Alevi intellectuals inside the Madımak Hotel that killed 33 intellectuals and two hotel personnel, was commemorated on its 24th anniversary on Sunday in Sivas province. Families of the victims and representatives of Alevi institutions were joined at the commemoration ceremony by deputies from Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP).
The massacre had taken place after Friday prayers, when the mob broke through police barricades to surround the Madımak Hotel, where artists, writers and musicians had gathered to celebrate the life of 16th-century Alevi poet Pir Sultan Abdal on July 2, 1993. The protestors were angered by the presence of Aziz Nesin, a humor writer who had translated and published extracts from Salman Rushdie’s controversial The Satanic Verses. The hotel was set alight, and the fire claimed 35 lives, including those of musicians, poets, tourists and hotel staff, while assembled police did nothing to intervene. Aziz Nesin was able to escape only because attackers initially failed to recognize him.
The assault took place over eight hours without any intervention by the police, military or fire department. Alevis and most intellectuals in Turkey argue that the incident was triggered by the local government as flyers and leaflets were published and given out for days before the incident. The Turkish government refers to the Sivas Madımak Hotel incident as an attack on intellectuals but refuses to see it as an incident directed towards Alevis.
The event was seen as a major assault on free speech and human rights in Turkey, and significantly deepened the rift between religious and secular segments of the society. A day after the incident, 35 people were arrested. Then the number of detainees increased to 190. A total of 124 out of the 190 defendants were charged with “attempting to establish a religious state by changing the constitutional order” and were indicted on charges. The first hearing of the case, publicly known as the Sivas Massacre Trial, Ankara State Security Court No. 1, was held on 21 October 1993.
On 26 December 1994 a verdict was reached in the case of the 124 defendants. After lengthy court proceedings, the State Security Court sentenced the 33 defendants to death on 28 November 1997 for their roles in the massacre; 31 of these sentences were upheld in a 2001 appeal.
When Turkey overturned the death penalty just over a year later in 2002, the sentences were commuted. Each defendant received 35 life sentences, one for each murder victim and additional time for other crimes. These 31 convicts are currently the only ones still serving time for the crimes; the other defendants were paroled early or released after completing their sentences.
Sivas Governor Davut Gül Barut, Sivas Mayor Sami Aydın, Cumhuriyet University Rector Prof. Dr. Alim Yıldız, Cem Association head Erdoğan Döner and lawmakers from the CHP and the HDP laid carnations at a memorial built inside the Madımak Hotel, which is currently used as a science and culture center.
“In 1993, not only the Madımak Hotel and the people were burned, but also Turkey itself and all of humanity were burned and are still burning. That is why we say ‘justice.’ That is why we are marching for ‘justice.’ Without justice being ensured in the Madımak case, justice cannot prevail in Turkey,” said CHP deputy Sezgin Tanrıkulu, one of the people who laid carnations at the Madımak Hotel.
“It is disgraceful to differentiate people based on religious or ethnic identities on behalf of humanity. May God rest in peace those whom we lost in the Sivas massacre,” wrote the CHP chairman Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu on his Twitter account on July 2.
“This is an incident committed against the unity and brotherhood of our nation and state. The target of this incident is the Turkish Republic. The victims are the Turkish Republic, the families [of the victims], the whole nation and above all Sivas and Sivas residents,” Governor Gül was said. “Malicious powers have initiated such provocations in the past, do so today, and will do so in the future,” Gül noted.
“We desire that such events do not repeat themselves again but Sivas should wipe away this shame. It should do so with Sivas residents. Pain can be addressed through sharing and we should share this pain with all Sivas residents. … We should come together so this pain will diminish,” said Cem Association head Döner, who also spoke during the commemoration event.
Widespread security measures were taken in the province before and during the commemoration with the attendance of 3,000 police officers. Police stopped and searched vehicles carrying people from outside the province and checked the identities of people entering the city.
Meanwhile, Turkish Parliament Speaker İsmail Kahraman has rejected a parliamentary question by main opposition CHP deputy Zeynep Altıok on the Sivas massacre, in which 34 Alevi intellectuals were burned to death in 1993 inside the Madımak Hotel.
In a tweet on Saturday, Altıok shared her questions on the Madımak massacre, which will be commemorated on Sunday, and a letter from Kahraman’s office declining to pass them to Justice Minister Bekir Bozdağ to answer. According to the letter from the parliament speaker, Altıok’s question was rejected due to “personal and lengthy content.”
In the parliamentary question, Altıok queried the whereabouts of seven out of 38 people who were convicted at the trial. A Turkish court in 2005 reversed its decision to release 13 men convicted in the proceedings; however, seven are still at large.
The Madımak Hotel, which became a symbol of discrimination faced by Turkey’s Alevi population, was expropriated in 2010 and turned into a science museum. The families of many of those who died in 1993 have demanded it be turned into a “museum of shame.”
Among those killed in the Madımak Hotel arson attack were poets Metin Altıok, Behçet Aysan and Uğur Kaynar, writer Asım Bezirci and Dutch anthropologist Carina Cuanna, as well as popular Alevi musicians Muhlis Akarsu and Nesimi Çimen. Nesin, the renowned writer and humorist, was rescued by firefighters – but nevertheless was beaten by his saviors as they escaped the burning building.
July 2, 2017