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Thousands remember victims on 20th anniversary of Turkish massacre

By Gul Tuysuz, CNN
July 3, 2013 -- Updated 0500 GMT (1300 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The Madimak Massacre happened on July 2, 1993
  • 37 people were killed when a mob set their hotel on fire
  • Most were members of the Alevi sect
  • Commemorations happened in Sivas, Ankara, and Istanbul

Ankara, Turkey (CNN) -- Tens of thousands of people gathered across Turkey on Tuesday to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Madimak Massacre, in which 37 people, mostly members of the Alevi sect, were killed when an angry mob set fire to their hotel.

The largest memorial took place in the central Anatolian province of Sivas, the scene of the July 2, 1993, massacre.

Demonstrators carried photographs of the victims and chanted, "Murderers will answer for their crime."

"We have not forgotten and we will not let it be forgotten," they said.

Most of those killed in the inferno were Alevis, members of a Muslim sect that combines traditional Shiite doctrine with Anatolian Sufi practices.

They were attending a conference at the Madimak Hotel when the mob set fire to the building.

At least 37 people died, 33 of them conference attendees. Two hotel workers and two others implicated in the arson also died.

There were 125 suspects who went on trial in 1993 for the massacre; 85 of them were sentenced the next year, and the rest were released. A higher court overturned the verdict.

In 1997, suspects were tried again, and 33 were convicted and sentenced to the death penalty; another 14 were sentenced to up to 15 years in prison. The death sentences were commuted to life in prison when Turkey abolished capital punishment in 2002.

As many as eight suspects are still wanted by the Turkish government for the crime.

Thousands of people gathered Tuesday in the Turkish capital of Ankara to commemorate the massacre, with a small group later marching to Kizilay Square, where Alevi demonstrator Ethem Sarisuluk was killed, allegedly by a police bullet, at the height of anti-government protests that began in late May.

Demonstrators held a moment of silence to remember the Madimak victims, then lit candles and placed flowers where Sarisuluk was shot.

Security forces stood by with water cannon during the demonstration.

"We weren't expecting the police to let us march here," said demonstrator Burhan Coban, 26. "But we wanted to commemorate the 20th-year anniversary of the Sivas Massacre here where Ethem was killed."

In Istanbul, the commemorations were organized by various Alevi groups, labor unions and the Taksim Solidarity Platform, an umbrella organization that launched the anti-government protests in late May and early June at the city's Gezi Park.

The Turkish government blames the protests on an unknown foreign conspiracy, with one deputy prime minister pointing to the Jewish diaspora.

"There are those inside and outside the country who are jealous and envious of Turkey's growth," Besir Atalay, a deputy prime minister, told reporters Monday on camera. "They are all uniting. On the one side, the Jewish diaspora. You have seen the foreign media's attitude over the events of Gezi Park. How quickly they bought it and how quickly and widely they started broadcasting before any evaluation."

The Chief Rabbinate of Turkey and the Turkish Jewish Community issued a statement of concern Tuesday about the remarks and said they are trying to get more details.

"But in any case, based on the fact that Turkish Jewish citizens as well as other Jewish people living all around the globe may be affected and pointed as a target of such a generalization, we wish to express our concerns, and share our apprehension and worry of the consequences that such perceptions can cause," the statement said.

Atalay's office said the comments were taken out of context, according to the semi-official Anatolian news agency.

"In the speech, there was no intention, no signal, or expression aimed at our Jewish citizens in Turkey or Jewish people in other countries," Atalay's office said in a statement.

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