Judge Giovanni Bonello rubbished the claim made by Turkey’s EU Affairs Minister, Egemen Bagis, that his country was acquitted of the responsibility of the Armenian Genocide in 1915, because no such trial ever took place in Malta.
Though the Turkish Minister was right saying that over 100 Turks were deported to Malta by the British in 1919 to be charged with war crimes, including the Armenian genocide, the lack of concrete evidence and an appropriate legal framework with supranational jurisdiction resulted in the Turkish detainees being repatriated and freed in exchange for 22 British prisoners held by Mustafa Kemal (Ataturk)..
This important but seemingly forgotten chapter of modern colonial history was treated by Judge Bonello in one of his volumes in the Histories of Malta series published by Fondazzjoni Patrimonju Malti.
Following a story carried yesterday by this newspaper quoting the remarks made by the Turkish EU Minister regarding the Armenian Genocide which he referred to as an ‘incident’, Dr Bonello alerted The Malta Independent to clarify that these remarks are simply “nonsense”. He referred us to volume nine of the Histories of Malta series which dedicates a particular chapter titled ‘The “Malta Trials” and the Turkish-Armenian Question’ to this controversial issue.
Dr Bonello explains that following World War I no international norms for regulating war crimes existed. He claims that it was only through a series of engineered coincidences that WWI did not end in the “Malta Trials” the way WWII led to the Nuremberg Trials. He defined the legal vacuum encountered in 1919 as “a legal nightmare, a terra incognita that for a first time challenged legal minds to figure out solutions to phenomena unfamiliar before in the history of warfare and its aftermath.” Although events that took place in Malta at the time feature quite prominently in Turkish histories, according to the author they remain completely unknown or ignored in Malta.
The first steps in dealing with the Armenian question
According to the Turkish Foreign Policy Institute following the armistice imposed by the Allies on October 30, 1918 Britain appointed Admiral Sir Somerset Arthur Gouch Calthorpe and Rear-Admiral Richard Webb as High Commissioner and assistant High Commissioner of the defeated Ottoman power. On January 2, 1919, Calthorpe requested from the Foreign Office authority to obtain the arrest and handing over of all those responsible for the incessant breaches of the terms of the armistice and the continued ill-treatment of Armenians.
Calthorpe got together a staff of dedicated assistants, including a notable anti-Turkish Irishman, Andrew Ryan, later Sir, who in 1951 published his memoirs. In his new role as the chief Dragoman of the British High Commission and Second Political Officer, he found himself in charge of the Armenian question. He proved instrumental in the arrest of a large number of the Malta deportees.
These fell broadly into three categories: Those still breaching the terms of the armistice, those who had allegedly ill-treated Allied prisoners-of-war and those responsible for excesses against Armenians, in Turkey itself and the Caucasus.
Calthorpe asked for a personal interview with Reshid Pasha, Minister for Foreign Affairs, to impress on him how Britain viewed the Armenian affair and the ill-treatment of POWs as “most important” deserving “the utmost attention”.
Two days later Calthorpe formally requested the arrest of seven leaders of the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP). While between 160 and 200 people were arrested, another 60 suspected of participating in the Armenian massacre remained at large.
Calthorpe had already set in motion the transfer of the prisoners, or at least some 50 to 60 of them, to Malta. He informed Lord Plumer, Governor of the island, of the need to use Malta for their safe custody outside Turkey. By then, some 40 of the more important suspects rested safely in the hands of the authorities, but five more ‘black lists’ had been drawn up by the Armenian and Greek Section of the British High Commission.
It is significant to note also that the French government at the time had various objections, including to the extradition to Malta of the Turkish detainees.
These steps, France insisted “far from having the appearance of justice” risked leaving the impression of vengeance by the victors.
First detainees arrive in Malta
Meanwhile political developments in Turkey mainly with the rise of Mustafa Kemal (later the charismatic Ataturk) forced the British to a hurried change of plans. Admiral Webb took the decision to transfer the prisoners somewhere beyond the reach of popular uprisings in Istanbul, as an attack by rioting crowds on Seriaskeriat and Bekir Aga prisons, where the political detainees were in custody, could not be ruled out. Webb assumed responsibility not to inform the Turkish government of his intentions till after they had been carried out, relying on some undocumented wish of Ferid Pasha that the detainees be sent to Malta.
67 detainees were placed on board SS Princess Ena, of whom 12 leading politicians and ex-Ministers were to be landed at Mudros, and 55 in Malta. An additional 11 joined the deportees heading for Malta. These had been arrested following rioting in Kars, and had no connection with war crimes. The exiles ended in Salvatore, Polverista and Verdala Barracks, vacated a year previously by the prisoners of war of the Central Powers. The Princess Ena sailed at night on May 28, 1919. Those destined to stay in Malta included 41 politicians, half of whom had been considered responsible for the Armenian atrocities and the other half “as a precautionary war measure”. Another 14 officers suspected of improper treatment of British prisoners-of-war joined them too.
Legal complexities start to arise
The author explains that it was at this stage that legal complexities started to surface. No law existed to regulate the matter. British military courts could try three of the seven offences (breach of armistice terms, hindering its execution, and ill-treatment of British POWs), but only in the occupied territories, not in Malta. All the other offences, including Armenian excesses, loomed large as legal no man’s land and had best be left for determination in accordance with a future peace treaty.
At the Paris Peace Conference a legal basis, vague and quite flimsy, had anyway been established. Compared to the Nuremburg Charter, a ghost of a legal basis.
Meanwhile more Turkish detainees were deported to Malta raising the number living here to over 100. At that stage it was already clear that no one knew what to do exactly with them and awareness was growing that “it might be very difficult to sustain definitive charges against many of these persons before an allied tribunal”.
A new wave of arrests followed the storming of the Turkish Chamber of Deputies by the British troops, and 30 important political figures were deported to Malta on HMS Benbow, where they arrived on 21 March, 1920. More Turkish deportees trickled to Malta and by November 1920 there was a total of 144. This prompted Mustafa Kemal to order the arrest of 20 British officers in Anatolia, which would later play a major role in deciding the faith of the Turkish detainees in Malta. Among them was Colonel Rawlinson, a relative of Lord Curzon and brother of Lord Rawlinson.
Following a secret memo circulated by Winston Churchill, secretary of State for War, the British cabinet decided on a revision of the list of detainees by the Attorney General. Those against whom no criminal prosecutions appeared possible “were to be released at the first convenient opportunity”.
In these circumstances Lord Plumer in Malta found himself at a complete loss as to what line to pursue. He mentioned the 115 Turkish prisoners (the others were not technically Turkish or had been released) who belonged to the highest social classes. They had all invoked loudly the basic British constitutional principle that they should be considered and treated as innocent until found guilty. They all denied the charges, attributing them to malicious misinformation by their political enemies, Greeks, Armenians and to mistaken identities. All their petitions, Plumer added, had remained unanswered, and they had never been given any opportunity to defend themselves against whatever accusations. They requested a list of the charges to be brought against them, together with a summary of the evidence. Plumer supported all their requests.
Rumbold, on the other hand, argued against telling the prisoners anything – only that they would eventually be charged with massacre and deportations, or cruelty to POWs.
Crown contemplates the exchange of POWs
By march 1921 Lord Curzon informed Rumbold that the crown contemplated an exchange of POWs as there was no point in keeping those against whom no criminal charges would be pressed. Initially Rumbold maintained that at least some of the Malta deportees should be retained and prosecuted. On March 16, 1921, the Turkish Foreign Minister and the British Foreign Office signed an agreement in London.
In exchange for the 22 British prisoners in Turkey, Britain would set free 64 Turkish prisoners from Malta. These excluded those it was intended to prosecute for alleged offences in violation of the laws and customs of war or for massacres committed in any part of the Turkish Empire after war had broken out.
The level of proof available against those detained in Malta remained crucial. No evidence relating to them was held in either London or Malta, and all hopes relied on what the High Commissioner in Constantinople could produce.
Rumbold forwarded what evidence he had about each of the 56 deportees he believed could be prosecuted. It became obvious that this was mostly based on a ‘presumption of guilt’ theorem: high government officials had to be presumed to have known about, and acquiesced to, the massacres. The British authorities were well aware that what they had available would fail the test of any criminal court.
The Attorney General clearly showed his reluctance to be drawn into any political wrangle and that, as far as he was concerned, only the eight prisoners accused of ill-treating allied POWs had any legal relevance For reasons never explained, the British authorities do not seem to have ever considered using in Malta any of the – mostly documentary – evidence on Armenian atrocities of which Turkish prisoners had been accused and convicted by Turkish military courts shortly after the armistice – substantial and disturbing documents.
Quite likely the British found the continental inquisitorial system of penal procedure used in Turkey repugnant to its own paths to criminal justice and doubted the propriety of relying on it. Or, possibly, the Turkish government never came round to hand over the incriminating documents used by the military courts. Whatever the reason, with the advent of power of Ataturk, all the documents on which the Turkish military courts had based their trials and convictions, were ‘lost’. Conveniently, add Armenian historians.
Faced by this concerted dearth of hard evidence, the politicians again resorted to the Attorney General who also washed his hands. The government took the hint. “From this letter (the Attorney General’s) it appears that the chances of obtaining convictions are almost nil”.
Exchange at Inebolu on the Black Sea on October 31, 1921
As the obstacles to trial by an international court became more obviously insurmountable, Sir Lindsay Smith, judge of the supreme court minuted: “the only alternative therefore is to retain them as hostages only, and to release them against British prisoners”.
The negotiators, however, received secret instructions to include ‘the eight’ too if this were to ensure the release of all the British prisoners held by Mustafa Kemal. The Turkish government delegated Hamid Bey, of the Ottoman Red Crescent, to bargain with the British. He made it clear that Turkey only supported an all-for-all deal that included ‘the eight’.
Rumbold reserved to give an answer by October 1. The envoys further discussed the mechanics of the exchange in an Anatolian port. The lot fell on Inebolu on the Black Sea. Prisoners from both sides would reach the port on the same day. The British at this stage agreed to let go ‘the eight’ unconditionally.
Lord Plumer in Malta arranged for the release of the 59 remaining prisoners and they sailed in two batches, 17 on the RFA Montenol and 42 on HMS Chrysanthemum. They reached Inebolu on October 31, 1921.
One final note worth mentioning is the statement made by Lord Curzon in Parliament which Dr Bonello unearthed from the Foreign Office Archive.
Deeply embarrassed by the exchange of the hostages Lord Curzon minuted : “The less we say about these people (the Turks released for exchange) the better … I had to explain (to Parliament) why we released the Turkish deportees from Malta, skating over thin ice as quickly as I could … The staunch belief among Members (of Parliament) is that one British prisoner is worth a shipload of Turks, and so the exchange was excused”.
Dr Bonello concludes this particular chapter highlighting the fact that the Armenian Genocide controversy lingers on after almost 100 years with the prospects of a solution very meagre.