By Ayhan Ozer*
In 1919, British officials deported some 140 Turks to Malta to be tried on various charges of war crimes. The following article explains the proceedings until all deportees were returned to their homeland upon lack of evidence.
During the years of 1919-1920, when victorious British armies occupied the Ottoman capital Istanbul, hundreds of Turkish officials and officers were arrested in Turkey, without any serious inquiry. Then groups of hurriedly selected prisoners were taken from prison by the British military police and deported to the Mediterranean island of Malta. About one hundred forty persons, altogether, were deported to Malta by the British authorities.
Nearly all the deportees were prominent members of the Turkish society at the time. Former Grand Vizier, speaker of Parliament, Sheikh-ul-Islam, Chief of General Staff, State Ministers, Members of Parliament, Senators, Army Commanders, Governors, University Professors, editors, journalists and others were among the deportees of Malta.
They were accused lightly and roughly of three categories of “offences”:
- failure to comply with Armistice terms,
- ill-treatment of British prisoners of war, and
- outrages to Armenians both in Turkey and Southern Caucasus.
The last category of “offence”, directly related to the Armenian allegations, was particularly interesting, and the British documents on the subject are illuminating. The Malta episode of early 1920’s give us, indeed, a true idea about much controversial Armenian deportation and alleged “outrages” in Turkey during World War I.
The British High Commissioner at Istanbul, Admiral de Robeck, was aware that the Turkish deportees accused of Istanbul outrages to Armenians were arrested and deported not on known facts, but merely on the statements of some unreliable informers and anti-Turk intriguers. It was impossible, therefore, to sustain definite charges against the deportees before a Court of Law. Admiral de Robeck reported to Lord Curzon on September 1919, the following:
“The deportees were selected from a list of persons considered dangerous … The selection was necessarily made very hurriedly, and it was impossible to rely on known facts…”
“It is obvious that in these circumstances it might be very difficult to sustain definite charges against these persons before an allied tribunal. It is not politically desirable that any of them should be sent back to Turkey at present…” (1)
It seems that from the very beginning the British Government doubted much whether these Turkish prisoners at Malta were in fact guilty or not. The British authorities were not unaware that the stories of Armenian massacre were a part of wartime propaganda and were still much exploited against Turkey at conference tables during the armistice period.
But to make propaganda and to prosecute people before a serious tribunal were indeed quite different things. The responsible British authorities were, therefore, hesitating to accuse formally the deportees at Malta. On the contrary, they were contemplating their release as soon as possible. Thus, Mr. Winston S. Churchill, the Secretary of State for War, proposed to the Cabinet on July 19th, 1920, the release of Turkish prisoners at Malta “at the first convenient opportunity”. (2)
Upon this, the question of Turkish prisoners at Malta was discussed, for the first time, at the British Cabinet. At the same time the Law Officers of the Crown were consulted on the subject. The Law Officers informed the Cabinet by a memorandum dated 4th August 1920 that they were dealing only with few Turkish deportees accused of ill-treatment of British prisoners of war. No material or evidence ever existed about alleged Armenian massacre. Therefore, the Law Officers of the Crown abstained from accusing anyone of Turkish deportees of such a crime. (3)
On August 4th, 1920, the British Cabinet decided that “The list of the deportees be carefully revised by the Attorney General with a view to selecting the names of those it was proposed to prosecute, so that those against whom no proceedings were contemplated should be released at the first convenient opportunity.” (4) And the Attorney General wrote to the Foreign Office that the “British High Commissioner at Istanbul should be asked to prepare the evidence against those interned Turks whom he recommends for prosecution on charge of cruelty to native Christians. ” (5)
The new British High Commissioner at Istanbul Sir H. Rumbold replied “that none of allied, associated and neutral Powers had been asked to supply any information, that very few witnesses were available and that Armenian Patriarchate had been the main channel through which information had been obtained. He said: “Under these circumstances the Prosecution will find itself under grave disadvantages.” Further he added: “The American government in particular, is doubtless in possession of a large amount of documentary information…” (6) His colleague at the High Commission, Sir Harry Lamb was more precise and wrote:
“No one of the deportees was arrested on any evidence in the legal sense.
“The whole case of the deportees is not satisfactory…
“There are no dossiers in any legal sense. In many cases we have statements by Armenians of differing values…
“The Americans must be in possession of a mass of invaluable material…” (7)
To sum up, there was no evidence at all to prove that such a crime as alleged “Armenian massacre” was ever committed in Turkey. Therefore it was impossible to produce any dossier in the legal sense against anyone of Turkish deportees at Malta. And the Law Officer of the Crown and H.M. Attorney General refused to involve themselves with the alleged case of “Armenian massacre” and he also carefully avoided to pronounce the word “massacre” which was so freely used by allied war-time propaganda machine and still uttered by some politicians as well as by few members of the British Foreign Office. “From the political point of view it is very desirable that these people (i.e. Turkish deportees) should be brought to trial” insisted one member of the British Foreign Office. And they decided to ask the assistance of the State Department.
On March 31st, 1921, Lord Curzon telegraphed to Sir A. Gedes, the British Ambassador in Washington, the following:
“There are in hands of His Majesty’s Government at Malta a number of Turks arrested for alleged complicity in the Armenian massacre.
“There is considerable difficulty in establishing proofs of guilt…
“Please ascertain if United States Government are in possession of any evidence that would be of value for purposes of prosecution.” (8)
A member of the British Embassy in Washington visited the State Department on July 12th, 1921, and he was permitted to see a selection of reports from American Consuls on the subject of Armenian question. The Embassy returned the following reply:
“I regret to inform Your Lordship that there was nothing therein [in American archives] which could be used as evidence against the Turks who are being detained for trial at Malta. The reports seen… made mention of only two names of the Turkish officials in question and in these case were confined to personal opinions of these officials on the part of the writer, no concrete facts being given which could constitute satisfactory incriminating evidence.
“I have the honour to add that officials at the Department of State expressed the wish that no information supplied by them in this connection should be employed in a court of law.
“Having regard to this stipulation and the fact that the reports in the possession of the Department of State do not appear in any case to contain evidence against these Turks… I fear that nothing is to be hoped from addressing any further enquiries to the United States Government in this matter.” (9)
It was a disappointing result for some officials of British Foreign Office. One of them, Mr. W.S. Edmonds, minuted: “It never seemed very likely that we should be able to obtain evidence from Washington. We are now waiting for the Attorney General’s opinion…”
Some obstinate British officials were still insisting for prosecution of innocent Turkish detainees accused of imaginary “Armenian massacre”. In view of lack of evidence in legal sense they decided to use political argument. The Foreign Office wrote to H.M. Procurator General on May 31st, 1921, that:
“From political point of view, it is highly desirable that proceedings should take place against all of these persons… on the other hand, it is equally desirable to avoid initiating any proceedings which might be expected to prove abortive. In these circumstances, His Lordship (Lord Curzon) would be very grateful if the Attorney-General would be so good to favour him with an opinion…” (10)
The Attorney-General’s Department returned the following reply;
“…It seems improbable that the charges made against the accused will be capable of legal proof in a Court of Law.
“Until more precise information is available as to the nature of the evidence which will be forthcoming at the trials, the Attorney-General does not feel that he is in a position to express any opinion as to the prospect of success in any of the cases submitted for his consideration.” (11)
Upon the receipt of this reply, Mr. W.S. Edmonds minuted again: “From this letter it appears that the changes of obtaining convictions are almost nil… It is regrettable that the Turks have confined as long without charges being formulated against them…” (12)
From now on, the Turkish detainees at Malta were not considered as “offenders” for prosecution, but rather as “hostages” for exchange against British prisoners in Anatolia. Sir H. Rumbold, the High Commissioner in Istanbul, wrote:
“Failing the possibility of obtaining proper evidence against these Turks which would satisfy a British Court of Law, we would seem to be continuing an act of technical injustice in further detaining the Turks in question. In order, therefore, to avoid as far as possible losing face, in this matter, I consider that all the Turks… should be made available for exchange purposes.” (13)
And then, all Turkish deportees at Malta, embarked on board HMS “Chrisanremum” and RFA “Montenal” on afternoon of the 25th October, 1921, arrived at Inobolu on October 31st, and landed safely on Turkish soil. All Turkish deportees were released and repatriated without being brought before a Tribunal. On the other hand, all British prisoners in Anatolia who were handed over to their authorities reached Istanbul on November 2nd. The episode of the deportees of Malta thus ended.
In conclusion, one can say that these prominent Turks, accused of Armenian persecution, were arrested and deported without any serious investigation. There was, from the very beginning, a great deal of doubts whether the accused were in fact guilty or not. From political point of view, it was “highly desirable” for the British Government that at least some of these deportees should be brought to trial. The British Foreign Office has left no stone unturned in order to prove that an “Armenian massacre” actually took place in Turkey, and consequently some of these detainees were guilty. But all efforts in this connection ended with a complete failure.
There was no evidence, no witness, no dossier, and no proof. The Armenian Patriarchate in Istanbul furnished nothing serious. The Ottoman capital city Istanbul was under allied occupation and all Ottoman State archives were there easily accessible to the British authorities. The Ottoman government was very docile and cooperative. Yet the British High Commission in Istanbul was unable to forward to London any evidence in legal sense. There was nothing in British archives which could be used as evidence against the Turkish detainees. The American State Department was unable to assist the British Government with evidence against these Turks. It is safe, therefore, to say that the alleged “Armenian massacre” was nothing but an imaginary product of a ruthless war-time propaganda campaign carried out against the Turks.
What actually took place in Turkey during World War I was not a “massacre” but a displacement of population. The Armenian minority in eastern Turkey revolted against the Ottoman State at a most critical time in modern Turkish history. In April 1915, the Russian armies launched an offensive against Van, in the east, and the Allied troops landed on Gallipoli peninsula, in the west. At that critical moment, Armenian bands were fighting against the Turks, together with invading Russian armies. The Ottoman Government then decided in May 1915 to remove insurgent Armenian minority from war zone to the Syrian province of the Empire. According to Boghos Noubar, the President of Armenian National Delegation at Paris, some 6 to 700.000 people were deported from Anatolia. (14) Thousands of Armenians perished during those years of war, food shortages, famine and large-scale plague; Turkish casualties in the same period being estimated much more higher.
The Armenian casualties were first misrepresented and distorted by vindictive Armenian nationalist leaders. Then Allied Intelligence services, spread stories of imaginary “massacre”, for the sake of their own purposes. The Prime Minister of former Armenian Republic in Transcaucasia, Howhannes Katchaznouni, wrote the following:
“In the fall of 1914 Armenian volunteer bands organised themselves and fought against the Turks because they could not refrain themselves fighting. This was an inevitable result of a psychology on which the Armenian people nourished itself during an entire generation…
“We had created a dense atmosphere of illusion in our minds. We had implanted our own desire into the minds of others; we had lost our sense of reality and carried away with our dreams. (15)
The so-called “Armenian massacre” was, originally, nothing but the creation of that “dense atmosphere of illusion” in vindictive Armenian minds, then, the same Armenians tried to implement it into the minds of others. But, all political attempts to prove that an Armenian massacre actually took place in Turkey, failed completely in the presence of dignified British jurists. From that respect the Malta episode of early 1920’s was indeed illuminating and conclusive.
*Ayhan Ozer is an engineer by profession; he holds an MSc degree from the Technical University of Istanbul.