Armenian land: the case of Diyarbakır’s most valuable soil

In the heart of Turkey’s southeastern province of Diyarbakır, a 400-acre plot of land filled with wheat and barely has been attracting attention as citizens have been entrenched in a decades-long legal battle over its rightful ownership.

Because the land is located in the city, realtors have estimated that each acre is valued at 1 million Turkish lira. Aside from a railway that passes through the middle of the plot and a couple of buildings, there’s been no other construction on the land.

The history of the land dates back to the Armenians who fled or were killed during the 1915 Armenian Genocide. It is said that a significant parcel of the land belongs to Şurupçu Agop Efendi, an Armenian man who supposedly lived in Diyarbakır before the genocide but has never been heard from since.

However, during the cadastral survey study that began in Diyarbakır in 1950, the land, which was registered with a title deed in several peoples' names, brought along with it several years of legal struggles. Cadastral surveying is the process of establishing boundaries for the legal creation of properties.

The first lawsuit was filed in 1954 by Hüseyin Uluğ and Ahmet and Mehmet Arcak in Diyarbakır’s Civil Courts of First Instance alleging that their 350 acres of the land was only shown as 147 acres on paper.

Then Nuri Özbostancı and his heirs claimed that the plaintiffs in the case resorted to completing their land registration with fake documents while their own names were registered during the cadastral survey works in the 1950s. Özbostancı wanted the case to be thrown out.

The court that decided the case in 1964 ruled to revise the land registry. However, a year later, the Supreme Court overturned the decision on the grounds that the Cadastral Court had the authority to take over the case.

Meanwhile, several people and institutions claiming to be the rightful owners also turned to the courts. The Treasury claimed that the land should be given to them since it had belonged to non-Muslims who were fugitives, lost, or whose whereabouts were unknown.

According to Neymetullah Gündüz, an attorney with nearly 40 years of experience in Diyarbakır, the legal basis for the Treasury to seize property from non-Muslims stems from Ottoman history.

"In 1915, the Law on Liquidation was enacted in order to confiscate the property of non-Muslims. According to this law, which is still in force, if the non-Muslim Ottoman citizen was a fugitive, if they were wanted or if the person has used weapons against the state, their citizenship was taken away, and their goods were seized and transferred to the Treasury,” Gündüz explained.

In addition to the Treasury, other institutions such as the General Directorate of Highways, State Railways, and the Diyarbakır Metropolitan Municipality also became involved in the case, increasing the number of plaintiffs to 180.

In 1987, the Diyarbakır Civil Court of First Instance decided not to issue a ruling for land registration cases that had different date, instead merging these cases in the Diyarbakır Cadastral Court.

The Cadastral Court ruled against the plaintiffs in 2006 by stating that their land registry records did not fully meet the conditions in obtaining immovable property. As part of its ruling, the court cancelled the deeds and agreed with the Treasury that the land and property once belonging to non-Muslims who were fugitives, missing, or whose whereabouts were unknown now belonged to the state.

Title deeds

The deeds for the 440 acres of land was to be given to the Treasury. However, the legal department of the Supreme Court intervened and disregarded the decision of the local courts and stated that the location of the boundaries claimed in the case should be researched more thoroughly.

The Diyarbakır Cadastral Court re-opened the case in 2018. The court ran contrary to its previous decision and rejected the lawsuit filed by the Treasury regarding its claim that the land belonged to non-Muslims. The court argued the claims made by the plaintiffs matched with the land registration records.

Thus, the court decided to reinstate the deed registries that had been cancelled to Nuri Özbostancı for 46,526 square metres of land, 189 acres to Salih Atilla Üçok, and 190 acres to Mehmet Arcak and to 25 other people in the case.

Then 15 acres of land were recorded on the registry and deeds were given to heirs who had the last name Özkoçak, Özbostancı, and Arman. Furthermore, 27 acres of land was given to the Turkish State Railways and 23 acres for roads.

The citizens who did not get the result they were hoping for will appeal, and the decision made by the Supreme Court will finalize this long-standing case.

Gündüz, who is experienced in cadastral survey cases, followed the suit on behalf of the Cemiloğlu family for three years. He told Ahval News that when the records for the title deed were made in 1862, very few Muslims aside from aristocratic families then had deeds as most belonged to the non-Muslim population.

Gündüz added that the government had ordinances such as the Law on Liquidation in place.

“This ordinance was widely applied in the region, and the property of Armenians, in particular, was confiscated. On top of this, there was a law numbered 1515 on the liquidation of those who lost their legal assets. With this law, the lands of Armenians and other non-Muslims that were empty were transferred into the names of other people," he explained.

According to Abdulbaki İzci, who is an attorney who followed the case for four years, one reason as to why the lawsuits were so complicated was due to the fact that the boundaries in the old land registries were not well defined. Instead, the boundaries of the land were described in vague terms by fields, gardens, roads, streams, and mountains around them.

“Because there are no coordinate points on the deeds, the boundaries are not fixed. Over time, the number multiplied, and the number of parties in the cases came to be in the thousands.”

Another reason the duration of the lawsuits spanned decades, Izci said, is that it sometimes takes years to notify parties of the court’s decision.

“Let’s say that a person who took part in the case 50 years ago died, and it’s unclear who that person even is. There is a name but no address or identification number. Or the plaintiff and the defendant are non-Muslims. We look into it, but we can’t find them anywhere; for this reason, it takes two to three years to notify them. Currently, many of our cases have been decided, but because notifications cannot be sent out, the lawsuit isn’t over.”

Many of the claimants who have been involved with the lawsuit since the beginning have passed away without seeing the result, Izci noted, adding:

"Some of my clients say 'my grandfather followed this case, but he didn't live long enough, my father followed it, but he left us too. Will I too not be able to see the end of it?' With the inclusion of the heirs of the deceased in the case, the number of people involved has ballooned."