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A Turkish legal system serving the dispossession of Armenians


Standpoint of Turkey 

A Turkish legal system serving the dispossession of Armenians

Ümit Kurt


Ümit Kurt

Turkish historian 

In this article, Ümit Kurt explains that, under the Turkish Ottoman and Republican periods, a series of laws and decrees concerning the administration of the property left by the Ottoman Armenians who were deported in 1915 was published. These laws and statutes were known as the "Laws on abandoned property" and the majority of these texts was issued in the Republican period. According to the historian, the Republic of Turkey and its legal system has in a sense been built on the spoliation of cultural , social, economic and Armenian wealth, and the elimination of the presence of Armenians on Turkish territory.

A series of laws and decrees were issued in the Ottoman and Turkish Republican periods concerning the administration of the belongings left behind by the Ottoman Armenians who were being deported in 1915. These laws and statutes were known as the Abandoned Properties Laws.  The majority of the relevant laws and regulations were issued in the Republican period. The Republic of Turkey and its legal system in a sense were built upon the seizure of Armenian cultural, social and economic wealth, and the removal of the Armenian presence.

During the 1913 to 1918 period, the properties of two large Ottoman communities, Greeks and Armenians, were seized through special laws connected to a central policy which removed these people from their homes.[1] The policies carried out against each of them did have some differences. However, these dissimilarities were not formulated within the framework of ethnic and religious differences but were determined by the changing policies followed by the Committee of Union and Progress government in different periods and circumstances. Careful distinctions were made not only between Greeks and Armenians, but also within each of these communities through laws and decrees.

As an example, the two categories pertaining to Greeks in the 1913 to 1918 period can be mentioned. The first category includes the Ottoman Greeks who were the subject of population exchange conferences between the Ottoman Empire and Greece at the beginning of World War I. The exchange of Greek property was to be administered according to the principle of reciprocity. Although this agreement did not enter into force because of the war, the seizure and use of the properties of Ottoman Greeks falling into this category was still different from that of the remainder of the Greek masses in the Empire. The second category includes Greeks deported to internal regions from coastal areas during the later years of the war.

In this way there were two separate political practices enacted toward the Ottoman Greeks. On the one hand there were the Greeks forcibly deported to Greece, and on the other hand, those driven from coastal cities to interior regions. In order to rectify the resultant confusion, in the regulation called “Directive on the Manner of Filling Out Tables on the Exchange of Migrants”[2] a distinction was made between the two groups of Greeks, and the differences in the administration of the goods of these two different categories and to what attention had to be paid were specially delimited.

An administration of goods specific to the Armenians only

The administration of Armenian goods confiscated in May 1915 was treated as a matter distinct from the administration of the aforementioned Greek properties and in written communications sent to the provinces it was specially requested that attention be paid to their differences.[3] The most important difference was that the Greek goods were not subject to certain liquidation. Orders were ceaselessly sent to the provinces to call attention to this point.[4] It was desired that the properties left behind by the Greeks going to Greece be exchanged with those left by Muslims coming from that same country. Moreover, it was expected that the Greeks deported to internal districts for military considerations would eventually return. Liquidation was not carried out for this reason.      

Similar developments were observed at the end of 1919. Among the Greeks, distinctions were going to be made between those subject to the 1923 Turkish-Greek Population Exchange Convention and those who were not subject to it. The situation of many Greeks who settled in Istanbul and its environs from Anatolia in the 1918-1922 period, while Istanbul Greeks were not to be subject to the exchange, was even taken into consideration in the laws.  These people who came to Istanbul later were also included among the Greeks subject to the exchange (in order to create the possibility of seizing their goods). It was attempted to clarify any confusions that might arise in the situations discussed above through special decrees.[5]       

It is necessary to mention several elements particular to the Armenian Genocide in connection with the confiscation of Armenian property.[6] First, the only group of people whose goods were being subject to liquidation in the 1913 to 1918 period was the Armenians who were being deported. The property of the Armenians who were not being deported was not confiscated. In various telegrams sent to the provinces, it was specially specified that only the goods of people being expelled should be liquidated: “The non-Muslims who are not being transported [continue to] possess their movable and immovable properties. The property of Armenians… being transported and the other non-Muslims who were being deported together with them at that time [is] subject to liquidation”.[7] In addition, if Armenians who stayed in the places where they were located and were not deported had properties in other regions, those properties were not touched. This occurred, for example, with Armenians living in Istanbul.[8] 

Secondly, because the confiscation of the Armenians’ property did not take place on the basis of a racist ideology, unlike the case of the Jews in Nazi Germany, no discussion of lifting the citizenship of the Ottoman Armenians took place during the deportations and genocide. Moreover, if Armenians were not removed from citizenship specifically by a decision of the Council of Ministers or through their own individual resignations, their citizenship was preserved until as late as 1964.  

Thirdly, while the material wealth of the Armenians was being seized, it did not take place in the form of confiscation; that is, it was not said that the goods or their equivalent values would not be returned to their owners. On the contrary, everything, the goods and/or their value, would be administered by the state in the name of their owners, and everything was organized according to the principle that the goods and/or their equivalent worth would be returned to their true owners, though when this would actually occur was uncertain. The choice of this path was due to the manner of organization of the genocide and its ideological justifications. But this characteristic was not suitable for explaining the need for confiscation of the goods. However, on the other hand, the forcible seizure of goods not in the form of confiscation but through the preservation of the rights of the Armenians to their ownership created internal tension and contradiction.

A contradictory legal system 

The state accepted that the true owners of the properties taken were the Armenians, and adopted the principle that their equivalent values would be given to the latter. The tension or contradiction lies here: on the one hand there is a state which does not wish to be accused of usurping goods by force, and the language of the Abandoned Properties Laws was set accordingly. However, on the other hand, the same state wished to destroy the bases of existence of the Armenians, and institutionalize and render official the usurpation. The present legal system was founded upon this tension and contradiction.      

The law was used in a dual manner for the removal of the economic foundations of the survival of the Armenians. First, in 1915, the Armenians were legally forbidden any sort of right of disposal over the goods they left behind. Secondly, although the law formally granted them the right to the value of their properties, not a single step was taken to reimburse them. None of the promised laws and regulations were issued.

In an entire period of the Ottoman Empire and the Republic of Turkey, the laws and decrees issued in connection with Abandoned Properties were intertwined with the principal of the goods and/or their values being given back to the Armenians. However on the other hand, this procedure of restitution was not arranged in any manner, and the same legal system was used according to the principle of not giving the Armenians even a single inch. Especially in the Republican period, in the rare case when some Armenians who somehow survived or their heirs were able to ask for their properties or their equivalent values, they only got lost in the corridors and passages of the existing legal system.

Acts and decrees to rob the Armenians.

In order to understand how the Abandoned Properties laws and decrees were constructed as an important part of the Genocide, it is necessary to study them on three different features. First, according to which principles were the Armenians going to be settled in the new places to which they were deported? Second, were the goods they left behind, or their equivalent values, given to them; and if they were indeed returned, how did this take place? Third, who used the properties which were left behind, and how?

When we examine the laws and decrees concerning these three different aspects, we are confronted with an interesting picture. For the first aspect, that is, the topic of how the Armenians were going to be settled in their new locales, the laws and decrees almost do not play any role. This was dealt with only in one decree issued at the very beginning of the deportations, in an extremely limited matter, while in later laws and decrees it was not mentioned at all. It was as if such an issue did not exist. As for the second issue, a general principle was only repeated several times—that is all. It was accepted that the true owners of the properties were the Armenians, and the state was administering these properties in their names. However, when and how these properties or their equivalent values would be given to their true owners was not discussed in any way, and no arrangement was going to be made concerning this issue.

This absence at the first two levels shows us something: the Ittihadists in their mental world and practical politics considered that the Armenians from the moment they were deported from their homes ceased to exist. And making any sort of arrangements for a community considered non-existent was unnecessary. With such attributes, these extant laws are the best evidence to rebut the official Turkish state thesis concerning the Armenian deportations. According to the official thesis, the aim of the Armenian deportations was to settle the Armenians in a new region and give the equivalent value of the goods left behind to them. If there were such a goal, then there also existed laws and regulations appropriate to it. Indeed, the February 1918 report cited above openly accepted that the equivalent value of the goods was not given and no arrangements had been made in this regard.        

A similar situation existed for the period of the Republic. Of course issues at the first level concerning the relocation of the Armenians were absent. The Armenians had been to a great degree annihilated; those surviving (if not assimilated in Anatolia) remained outside of the borders of the new state. As far as the second level of issues was concerned, the laws and decrees issued were like those of the Ittihadist period, repeating the same general rule. The true owners of the properties were Armenians; the properties or their equivalent values would be given back to the latter. The state was administering these properties or revenues in their names only because of the absence of the Armenians. Nevertheless, in order to be able to give back the goods, the Armenians had to be present together with their properties as of 6 August 1924. This was the principle accepted in the Lausanne Treaty.        

From Turkey’s point of view, the serious problem was what would happen if the surviving Armenians wanted to return, or if their heirs tried to ask for their goods back. This was the fundamental issue that had to be solved in the Republican period, and the theme of the greatest test and “success” of the legal system that was being created. In order to prevent the Armenians from taking back their belongings, an elaborate legal system was formed, with all the details thought out and any holes or gaps coming to view filled in, similar to the refinement of a silkworm spinning its cocoon.         

The biggest goal of this system was to erect a barricade in front of the Armenians who might enter the country en masse or as individuals, and demand their properties. There were some situations where it would be impossible to prevent their entry legally. In these instances there was no hesitation in transgressing the law. The internal tension and contradiction of laws and decrees could be observed throughout the Republican period.        

While the first two levels to be studied are absent, the main topic of the laws and decrees of the Ottoman and Republican eras is connected with the third level; that is, how will the Armenian moveable and immovable properties left behind be liquidated? If they are sold, how will they be sold? If they are to be distributed, to whom and according to which rules will they be distributed and how should they be registered? The primary goal of the laws and decrees is, by seizing all the movable and immovable property of the Armenians, to eliminate the physical foundations of Armenian existence in Anatolia. Thus, the removal of the physical and cultural existence of the Armenians is intrinsic to the Turkish legal system. This is why we call the system a “genocidal regime.”

[1] We were unable to find documents among the laws and decrees especially concerning Assyrians (or, to use a broader term, Syriac Christians). What happened to the properties of the Assyrians is not clear, at least from Ottoman laws and decrees, so that we are unable to deal with this topic in the present study. It is most probable that their goods met the same fate as those of the Armenians, and the same laws were applied to them, but this is a topic requiring more research.

[2] For the exact text of the regulation, see BOA, Third Department of General Security of the Interior Ministry 2/26-A, 1 October 1330 [14 October 1914].

[3] On the differences in administration of Armenian and Greek properties during the war years, see Taner Akçam, Ermeni Meselesi Hallolunmuştur: Osmanlı Belgelerine Göre Savaş Yıllarında Ermenilere Yönelik Politikalar, İletişim Yayınları, İstanbul, 2008, pp. 127-129. For a more detailed work on this subject, see Ahmet Efiloğlu, Raif İvecan, “Rum Emval-i Metrukesinin İdaresi,” History Studies 2/3, 2010, pp. 125-146.

[4] As examples, the following documents can be examined: BOA, Cipher Office of the Interior Ministry 72/229, 73/69, 74/69 and 89/113.

[5] The report prepared by the Directorate of Tribal and Immigrant Settlement of the Interior Ministry (henceforth IAMM) dated 16 January 1332 (29 January 1917) and titled “Memorandum about People Being Transported to Other Places Due to Extraordinary Conditions and Necessities and Their Abandoned Properties” discussed in detail the various policies the Committee of Union and Progress regime implemented concerning the properties of different groups. The report discusses four different groups, Armenians, Greeks, Syrian families (Arabs), and Bulgarians, and summarizes the different practices concerning their goods (BOA/Sublime Porte Documents Office [henceforth BEO] 4505/337831).

[6] Here we want to definitely specify that we are extracting these points from the decrees of the central government. However, it is necessary to examine separately how these decrees were actually implemented in the provinces.

[7] BOA, Cipher Office of the Interior Ministry, the Directorate of Tribes and Immigrants of the Interior Ministry [henceforth AMMU], cipher telegraph to Diyarbakır Province, 10 November 1332 [23 November 1916]. Another telegraph sent to Sivas said, “The property of those exempt from deportation due to conversion to Islam or other reasons and being kept in their places is not subject to liquidation.” (BOA, Cipher Office of the Interior Ministry, 61/253, Interior Ministry Directorate of General Security, cipher telegram to Sivas province, 25 February 1331 [9 March 1916]).

[8] The fourth article of the Regulation dated 13 June 1926 only concerns this topic, and is connected to the ruling that the belongings in other regions of people not being removed from their homes cannot be touched. The article specifically mentions Istanbul.  Thusly, there is a decision of the Council of Ministers of 1 August 1926 which declares that the property of Istanbul Armenians “not fleeing and disappearing in any direction” which are in places like Kartal and Pendik outside of the borders of the city of Istanbul should not be seized as abandoned properties, and if they have been, this was illegal (Prime Ministry Republican Archives [henceforth BCA]/General Directorate of Land Settlement [henceforth TİGM] 030_0_18_01_01_020_49_014). We owe special thanks to Sait Çetinoğlu for calling our attention to the documents in the Republic Archives which are used in this work.


Armenian genocide : recognition and reparations


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