Study of Armenian Genocide Trials Relies on Irrefutable Documentation


By Daphne Abeel

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

This is an important book. Vahakn Dadrian and Taner Akçam, one Armenian, one Turkish, both noted scholars of the Armenian Genocide, have written a study of the Genocide trials conducted in the waning days of the Ottoman Empire, that documents irrefutably the facts. Using a multiplicity of sources, they have chronicled in meticulous detail the criminal prosecution of the perpetrators by means of the Ottoman Special Military Tribunal.

In particular, the courts martial, which took place over a period of three years (1919-1922) point to the powerful role played in the Genocide by the top leaders of a militarized political party, namely the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP).

The trials, which were an unusual occurrence, being an instance of prosecution by the Ottomans of their own citizens, took place for two basic reasons: the widespread outrage aroused by the knowledge of the terrible crimes in the international community and pressure from the Allies, notably the British.

Get the Mirror in your inbox:

Of the greatest importance during the Special Military Tribunal was the presentation and use of documents in evidence that pointed to undeniable facts of an organized mass murder enacted against the Ottoman Empire’s Armenian population. During the trials, the witnesses on the stand were asked to confirm and authenticate many secret, coded messages and telegrams bearing their own signatures. These documents were procured in pretrial proceedings by the ministries of Interior and Justice, and once attested to by the witnesses, they were pronounced — “it conforms to the original.”

As Dadrian and Akçam state in their introduction,  “These crucial documents are bound to be of considerable help in the task of lifting the fog that continues to obscure the catastrophe of 1915 and the circumstances surrounding it.”

While many archives and documents remain inaccessible, particularly to Turkish readers and researchers, European and American archives are open to scholars and Akçam and Dadrian have made extensive use of German, Austrian, American, Russian, French and British materials.

After 1922, when Istanbul as capital of the Ottoman Empire passed under the jurisdiction of the new nationalist government set up in Ankara, many of the court martial archives disappeared, and, according to the authors are likely housed with the chief of staff in Ankara. The trials themselves abated under the new government headed by Kemal Ataturk.

Most important as Akçam and Dadrian assert repeatedly is that many defendants were offered the chance to examine documents that bore their signature and to authenticate them.

One of the most shocking and specific sources, which the authors quote, is a coded telegram, signed by the head of the Erzerum Special Organization, Bahaeddin Sakir Bey, to the Governor General of Marmuetulaziz. It reads, in part, “Are the Armenians driven from there being liquidated? Are the troublemakers whom you reported as being driven forth and banished, being destroyed or are they merely being driven out and sent away? Please give an honest report, my brother.”

Although many defendants had the charges against them dismissed, the death penalty was often pronounced on CUP officials, such as Talaat who escaped to Berlin, only to be later assassinated by an Armenian youth, many were convicted and sentenced to death or to long terms in prison.

The trials were significant for several reasons — not only were they a precursor to the later Nuremburg trials, but because many of the verdicts were supported almost entirely by Muslim testimony.

Dadrian and Akçam have performed an enormous service to all other scholars seeking authentication of the Armenian Genocide. In addition to their researches in archival, judicial and parliamentary documents from several countries, they have also compiled an extensive bibliography from Turkish, English, German, French and Armenian sources.

They have also surveyed and recounted the coverage of the trials in the Istanbul press of the time. Much although not all testimony was gathered from Muslim witnesses. At Trabzon’s municipal hospital, Ali Saib, director of Trabzon’s Health Services, was accused of murdering Armenians through the use of gas and poison. A colleague, Dr. Ziya Bey, provided a written report that implicated Saib in the crime, stating that Saib Bey, using poison, had injected children by syringe and later removed the bodies by stuffing them in baskets. Remarkably, the court later acquitted the defendant.

Finally, the authors have provided the full texts in English of the indictments and verdicts. In the Key Indictment trial against the leading CUP members, the verdict reads in part, “That these massacres were carried out under the [express] orders and with the knowledge of Talaat, Enver and Cemal Beys is [attested to] by the following coded message: In Talaat Bey’s coded telegram dated 21 Temmutz 1331 (3 August 1915 to the Governors General of Diyarbakir and Mamuretulaziz and to the District Governors of Urfa and Zor ordering that the bodies of the dead remaining on the roads not be thrown into ravines, rivers or lakes, and instead be interred and their remaining possessions burnt.”

This book stands as a monument of original scholarship on the facts of the Genocide. The wealth of specific citations, the multiplicity of sources surveyed make this volume an invaluable and fundamental source for any future study.

Dadrian, a noted Genocide scholar, is the author of The History of the Armenian Genocide: Ethnic Conflict from the Balkans to Anatolia to the Caucasus. He has taught at the State University of New York and is a director of Genocide Research at the Zoryan Institute.

Akçam, born in Turkey, is the first Turkish scholar to have acknowledged the historicity of the Armenian Genocide. The author of many books, he is associate professor of history and the Kaloosdian/Mugar Chair in Armenian Genocide Studies at the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Clark University.

Judgment at Istanbul: The Armenian Genocide Trials. By Vahakn N., Dadrian and Taner Akçam. Berghahn Books. New York. Oxford. 2011. 363 pp. ISBN 978-0-35745-251-1


Get the Mirror-Spectator Weekly in your inbox: