1922: Cemal Azmi, the butcher of Trabzon

Add comment April 17th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1922, a Turkish official implicated in the Armenian genocide had a death sentence enforced upon him … by an assassin’s bullet.

Cemal Azmi, wartime governor of the Black Sea littoral of Trabzon,* was the point person in his region for the murder of some 50,000 Armenians. One distinctive twist in Trabzon (though by no means confined to that locality) was the prevalent use of drowning for cost-effective wholesale murder.

The Italian consul in Trabzon, Giacomo Gorrini — a veteran diplomat who hereafter would become consumed by the Armenian community’s travails until his death in 1940 — gave a heartbreaking account. His accounts of systematic mass drownings were corroborated by many other witnesses, including Turkey’s wartime German allies.

The passing of the gangs of Armenian exiles beneath the windows and before the door of the Consulate; their prayers for help, when neither I nor any other could do anything to answer them; the city in a state of siege, guarded at every point by 15,000 troops in complete war equipment, by thousands of police agents, by bands of volunteers and by the members of the “Committee of Union and Progress”; the lamentations, the tears, the abandonments, the imprecations, the many suicides, the instantaneous deaths from sheer terror, the sudden unhingeing of men’s reason, the conflagrations, the shooting of victims in the city, the ruthless searches through the houses and in the countryside; the hundreds of corpses found every day along the exile road; the young women converted by force to Islam or exiled like the rest; the children torn away from their families or from the Christian schools, and handed over by force to Moslem families, or else placed by hundreds on board ship in nothing but their shirts, and then capsized and drowned in the Black Sea and the River Deyirmen Dere — these are my last ineffaceable memories of Trebizond, memories which still, at a month’s distance, torment my soul and almost drive me frantic.

According to the tribunal that tried him in absentia in 1919, Governor Azmi personally ordered many such mass drownings. He also used the Red Crescent hospital to lodge young Armenian girls for his use as sex slaves, only to have them killed late in the war to tie up loose ends. To complete his cycle of deadly sins, Azmi also took liberal advantage of the looting opportunity afforded by the speedy vanishing of Armenian subjects.

Azmi absconded rather than face postwar prosecution but his symbolic death sentence gained bodily force via Armenian revolutionaries’ Operation Nemesis: a campaign to assassinate the chief authors of the genocide.

Nemesis’s most famous targets were the “Three Pashas” who ruled the Ottoman Empire during World War I. (They successfully murdered two of the three.) But Azmi was on the list as well, and on April 17, 1922, a pair of Armenian hit men gunned him down on the Berlin’s Uhlandstrasse along with another genocidaire, Behaeddin Shakir. The assassins weren’t even arrested.

* Centuries before, Trabzon’s Byzantine precursor, Trebizond, had been the last redoubt of the vanishing Roman Empire.

** Vahakn Dadrian, “Children as Victims of Genocide: The Armenian Case,” Journal of Genocide Research, 2003, 5(3). The same author has written widely on the Armenian genocide, including but not limited to Azmi’s conduct in Trabzon; also see his “The Turkish Military Tribunal’s Prosecution of the Authors of the Armenian Genocide: Four Major Court-Martial Series” (Holocaust & Genocide Studies, 1997 11(28) and “The Armenian Genocide as a Dual Problem of National and International Law” (University of St. Thomas Journal of Law and Public Policy, 2010, 4(2)).

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Armenia,Borderline "Executions",Death Penalty,Germany,History,Murder,Ottoman Empire,Politicians,Public Executions,Shot,Summary Executions,Turkey,War Crimes

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1919: Mehmed Kemal, for the Armenian genocide

3 comments April 10th, 2010 Headsman

Ninety-one years ago today,* the tottering Ottoman Empire hanged one of its officials in Istanbul for his role in the mass slaughter of its Armenian minority during the First World War.

Kemal Bey’s hanging in Bayezid Square occurred in the immediate aftermath of the Great War. Here, on its last legs, the remains of a sultanate splintered apart in the war instituted tribunals for wartime offenses by the Young Turks who had run the government during the war — a sop to the British occupying forces making worrying noises about international trials for much bigger fish.

Much testimony at the trial pointed to the governor’s fervor for massacres; an Armenian priest who survived the slaughter later wrote that a Turkish officer had told him that Kemal “made a vow on the honor of the Prophet: I shall not leave a single Armenian alive in the sanjak of Yozgat.”

A response to the New York Timesreport of the hanging noted that “his part was that of an executioner. The originators of the plan to exterminate the Armenians were primarily Enver, Tallat, and Djemal.”

These “Three Pashas” who had driven Ottoman policy during the war had fled abroad. They would be condemned to death in absentia, and though none would hang, neither would they outlive Mehmed Kemal by as much as four years.

They were among the many unpunished perpetrators of the slaughter hunted down by Armenian assassins. The latter two were avenged by Operation Nemesis; Enver Pasha died in battle in Tajikistan during the Russian Civil War.

Though overshadowed in historical import by those three, our day’s principal is distinguished as the first person executed for “crimes against humanity.”

This novelty, combined with the trial’s victor’s-justice character, were immediately controversial, and remain so in the fraught politicking around the genocide. (This genocide-denialist paper describes, on page 13, the rowdy funeral scene that erupted the next day, also attested** by annoyed British officials.)

Events would soon outstrip these tribunals and lay waste to all parties’ plans for the Ottoman carcass, incidentally leaving the Armenian issue permanently unresolved.

The month after Mehmed Kemal swung, western allies went one dismemberment too far by backing the irredentist Greek state’s landing at Smyrna — an intervention that was to backfire catastrophically for the Greeks, and help birth the Turkish Republic.

* A few secondary sources say April 12 rather than April 10, but the earlier date appears much better attested.

** e.g., a diplomatic note cited in The Burning Tigris, p. 337: “Not one Turk in a thousand will think that any other Turk deserves to be hanged for massacring Christians.”

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Crimes Against Humanity,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Notable for their Victims,Occupation and Colonialism,Ottoman Empire,Political Expedience,Politicians,Public Executions,Turkey

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