The Dersim region, predominantly populated by Kurdish Alevis, displayed remarkable resistance to the Ottoman state's centralization policies that began in the 19th century. Following the establishment of the republic in 1923, the Turkish state also considered the local culture and political autonomy of Kurdish Alevis to be a threat to its sovereignty. Seyîd Riza was one of the prominent figures in the region both as the head of the Hesênan tribe and as a religious and political leader.
Seyîd Riza hailed from the Ocak dynasty from which the leaders of the Hesênan tribe came and was a well-known religious leader having reached the rank of rehber, or guide, which is the highest rank in Alevism (Dersimi, 1952). In the political sphere, Seyîd Riza communicated and developed alliances with other important Kurdish figures of the time such as Alişêr of Koçgiri and Dr. Nuri Dersimi. In addition to being regarded as a religious leader in Dersim, he is also thought of as an important leader of the Kurdish movement in the early 20th century. Documents that have emerged in recent years uphold the understanding that Seyîd Riza stood in opposition to the policies concerning Dersim of both the Ottoman and subsequent Turkish state not only as a religious leader but also as a Kurdish leader. This understanding places Seyîd Riza as both an important leader of the Alevis in Dersim and a historic, oppositional figure who established relations with the Kurdish movement of the time operating within Kurdish regions as well as Istanbul and developed alliances in various localities.
The Turkish state conducted two military operations against the Dersim region in 1937–1938, in order to break the resistance there. The military operations saw the state commit large-scale human rights abuses against the people of Dersim. Although exact numbers are still unknown, 13,806 people were massacred in the conflict according to a statement made by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan during his tenure as prime minister. Researchers who have studied the Dersim massacre, however, assert that the number of those killed is much higher. In January of 1937, in order to put an end to the armed conflict and massacres, Seyîd Riza sent a son of his as an intermediary to meet with General Abdullah Alpdoğan, who was the inspector general for Dersim and commanded the operations. Seyîd Riza's son was killed and the massacres continued. As the year was drawing to an end, Seyîd Riza surrendered himself to Alpdoğan with the expectation that it would put an end to the massacres, having been promised that he would not be killed. The information about what happened next is based on testimony from İhsan Sabri Çağlayangil, who would serve as the minister of foreign affairs in the following years. Seyîd Riza and his retinue were executed in Elazığ following speedy show trials. The court read out the sentence to Seyîd Riza in Turkish, a language that he did not understand well.
After his execution, the human rights abuses only escalated, now with massacres committed by arial bombing. Sabiha Gökçen, the adopted daughter of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, was a pilot in the bombing operations. In the end, some of the remaining Kurdish Alevis in the region were exiled to western Turkey. During the course of the massacres and exile, Turkish soldiers adopted children whose parents had been killed and children who had been forcibly taken from their families. They then raised these Kurdish Alevi children as Turks according to Turkish culture in line with Sunni Islam. This act was the beginning of the story of Dersim’in Kayıp Kızları (The Lost Girls of Dersim) by Kazım Gündoğan and Nezahat Gündoğan, published in 2012.
The location of where Seyîd Riza's body is buried remains unknown, as the documents held by the Turkish military are still not available to the public. Seyîd Riza's grandchildren maintain their demand for an explanation of what was done to their grandfather's body and where he was buried. More recently, the Dersim massacre began to be a topic of discussion in the mainstream media after then CHP MP Onur Öymen spoke of the legitimacy of the massacre in the Grand National Assembly of Turkey in 2009. With the increase of discussions on the matter, the calls from Seyîd Riza's grandchildren for the state to reveal the historical truths began to be heard more widely, although the state has yet to give an official response.
Nuri Dersimi, Kürdistan Tarihi’nde Dersim, (Aleppo: Ani Matbaası, 1952).
Kazım Gündoğan & Nezahat Gündoğan, Dersim’in Kayıp Kızları, (İletişim Yayınları, 2012).
The erecting of a statue of Seyîd Riza in a park that bears his name was part of a project to commemorate him undertaken by the Municipality of Tunceli. The speech Tunceli Mayor Edibe Şahin gave at its opening in June of 2010, following the completion of the project exemplified the purposes for which the project was developed. According to Şahin, the main purpose of the monument was to call upon the state and concerned political parties to confront the past. She also said that with the monument, the Turkish state must learn that it’s impossible to resolve the Kurdish issue through violence. She added that the monument for Seyîd Riza is a sign of hope for a future in which statues of the dead no longer need to be erected.
The Turkish state for years has deliberately prevented discussions of its many abuses of Kurds and violations of the construction of monuments that symbolize the state's human rights abuses against the Kurdish population of Turkey. The people of Dersim have long been fighting both for the recognition of their ethnic identity and for the Turkish state to accept the suffering it has caused by its denial and assimilation policies. It is for these reasons that Seyîd Riza holds more importance for Alevi Kurds than just being a historical figure. The fact that Seyîd Riza can be commemorated in public is a significant, positive development for Kurdish Alevis due to him having been a religious leader executed by the state and as a symbol of the collective suffering experienced by Kurds in Turkey. The effect the statue has had is limited, however, as no further steps have been taken after then Prime Minister Erdoğan recognized the Dersim massacre as having happened and apologizing for it. Despite being a collective demand from the country's Kurdish Alevis, there is no development concerning the revelation of Seyîd Riza's place of burial. It should also be kept in mind that the government had promised to disclose state documents regarding the Dersim massacre, but has yet to take any steps to fulfil that promise.
Efforts to commemorate political figures who in the past the Turkish state had deemed guilty often lead to tensions between the individual or institution that undertakes the remembrance project and the state authority in its respective region. Unsurprisingly, the erecting of a statue of Seyîd Riza in the park that bears his name in Dersim became a great controversy and resulted in a lawsuit. Following the inauguration of the remembrance site, the Governorate of Tunceli sued the Municipality of Tunceli on the grounds that it was praising the crime and the criminal because it considered Seyîd Riza as the leader of an armed rebellion against the state. In 2019, Vatan Party Chairman Doğu Perinçek launched a campaign to remove Seyîd Riza's name from all streets and squares in Dersim, as well as the statue from the park. As part of the campaign, an application was filed with the Governorate of Tunceli, however the Municipality of Tunceli announced that it would not remove the statue. In 2021, a commemoration ceremony to be held in front of the statue of Seyîd Riza was blocked due to restrictions stemming from the Covid-19 pandemic. Mass participation in the project's design process and later stages was also relatively limited due to the varying political inclinations present in Dersim.