By Jon Hemming
ANKARA (Reuters) - Turkish police fired tear gas and water cannon to disperse hundreds protesting on Tuesday after a court dropped a case against five people charged with killing 37 writers and liberals in a 1993 hotel fire set by Islamist rioters.
The five have never been found and the opposition blamed Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan and his AK Party, which emerged from a series of banned Islamist parties, for a failure to launch a serious search.
"Some of the killers got married, did their military service, held weddings, sent their children to school, but could not be found," main opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu told his parliamentary party. "The AK Party is responsible for the failure to find the perpetrators of the Sivas massacre."
The judge at the Ankara court hearing ruled that the 1993 killings did not amount to crimes against humanity and therefore the statute of limitations applied as more than 15 years had passed.
"The administrative organs have made all the efforts they can in this case," Turkish media quoted Justice Minister Sadullah Ergin as saying in reaction to the verdict.
Kilicdaroglu said a number of the lawyers for the accused were AK Party parliamentarians.
"I am sure Prime Minister Erdogan is happy about it, I am sure he is relieved by the court ruling. This is an affront to humanity, and this is where the polarization of society starts," Kilicdaroglu said.
More than 30 suspects have been sentenced to death for the killings, but their sentences were commuted to life in prison.
The cases against two others charged with the killings were dropped on Tuesday because they had died. One of them, the prime suspect who was the local mayor from the same party to which Erdogan belonged, died last year near the scene of the fire.
Riots erupted in Sivas in July 1993 over the presence there of Turkish liberal author Aziz Nesin who translated Salman Rushdie's novel "The Satanic Verses". Nesin survived the fire, but many of the dead were fellow writers and poets.
NO CRIME AGAINST HUMANITY
More than 60 more people were injured in the blaze at the Madimak hotel and at least 17 more killed in riots in Istanbul against the killings.
Turkey, while championing pro-democracy protests in the Arab world, has jailed more than 100 journalists, hundreds more pro-Kurdish activists and several dozen prominent secularists in cases the opposition says are politically motivated.
"The statute of limitations has always been one of the ways to save the AKP. They always point to the path of the law, then delay it until the statute of limitations," wrote Yalcin Bayar, a columnist for the Hurriyet newspaper. "AKP supporters have saved themselves in many cases with the statute of limitations."
The Supreme Court of Appeals last year upheld life sentences against 25 members of Hizbullah, a Turkish Islamist militant group unrelated to the Lebanese group of the same name, then immediately freed them after ruling the courts had failed to complete the trial process within the allotted time.
Hizbullah killed and tortured to death dozens of mainly Kurdish victims in the 1990s and was linked to the "dirty war" carried out by the state at the time to try to quash Kurdish separatism in southeast Turkey.
(Editing by Robert Woodward)