The three great powers (Great Britain, France, and Russia), backed by Germany, Austria, and Italy, had demanded that Sultan Abdul Hamid II introduce the reforms in the “provinces inhabited by Armenians,” as stipulated by the Treaty of Berlin (1878) in what was called the Armenian Reform Program of May 11, 1895. The refusal of the sultan to carry the reforms led the Social Democratic Hnchakian Party to stage the demonstration of Bab Ali (Great Door or Sublime Porte) in Constantinople on September 30, 1895.
The party was represented in the Ottoman capital by the Board of Directors, that give instructions for nearly all party activity in Turkey with the approval of general headquarters at Geneva, and the Executive Committee, which directed the organization work according to the instructions of the Board of Directors.
The Executive Committee chose three men to supervise the demonstration after receiving the order from the Board of Directors. The leader was Garo Sahakian. After various discussions, the Board of Directors decided that the demonstration should be peaceful. Months of preparations were ended on September 28, when the Hnchakian Party presented a letter in French to the foreign embassies and to the Turkish government. The letter stated that the demonstration would be “of a strictly peaceful character” and would be aimed to express Armenian wishes with regard to the reforms. It added that “the intervention of the police and military for the purpose of preventing it may have regrettable consequences, for which we disclaim beforehand all responsibility.”
The demonstration took place two days later. The Turkish government had taken security measures; soldiers were posted on the streets around administrative buildings, and the police were alerted. Around noon, the Hnchakian leaders entered the Armenian Patriarchate, from where they led thousands of demonstrators to the palace of the Sultan.
Garo Sahakian, head of the demonstration, was to present the petition to the Sultan on behalf of both the Armenians of Constantinople and of the six Armenian provinces. The petition, written by the Hnchakian Board of Directors, complained against massacres, unjust arrests, Kurdish injustices, corruption of tax collectors, and the massacre in Sasun (1894). It demanded: (a) equality before the law; freedom of the press; freedom of speech; and freedom of assembly; (b) right of habeas corpus to all persons under arrest, and permission to Armenians to bear arms if the Kurds could not be disarmed; (c) a redrawing of the six Armenian provinces; (d) an European governor for the provinces; and (e) financial and land reforms.
Garo Sahakian and some demonstrators, after reaching the gates of Bab Ali, were denied entrance by the officer in charge, and Sahakian was seized by the zaptiehs (Turkish police). Brought before a Turkish official, he was imprisoned after delivering the petition. Fighting and violence had already broken out. Hundreds of demonstrators were arrested on that day and for several days ensuing. The prisons became crowded with wounded men and scores of dead bodies were collected from the streets of Constantinople.
The rioting and bloodshed in Constantinople alarmed the Turkish government and disturbed Europe. The Ottoman Council of Ministers assembled to discuss the situation, while some of the leading European papers gave much attention to the rioting in Constantinople. Finally, pressure by European governments induced Sultan Abdul Hamid to sign the Armenian Reform Program on October 17, 1895, about a month after the bloody demonstration. The Hnchakian Revolutionary Party considered this a great victory. However, this signature did not bring peace to Ottoman Armenians. Like so many decrees by the Sultan, this one too became a dead letter.