Perhaps no issue is more revealing of the struggle for liberal democracy in Turkey than the assassination of Turkish Armenian journalist Hrant Dink and the trial of members of a likely state-linked organization that gunned him down on Jan. 19, 2007.
Almost five years to the date of what was a very calculated murder, the Istanbul court hearing the case of 19 defendants accused of participating in the conspiracy to slay Dink ruled on Jan. 17 that there was indeed no organization, no conspiracy. Instead, the court portrayed the assassination as a random act of violence carried out by two ultra-nationalist youths acting alone. The court did not even touch the issue of links between state officials and the organization that have been revealed in the five years following the assassination. For more on the verdict from Reporters Without Borders, click here.
Not a Random Act of Violence
Dink presaged his murder, telling friends before his murder "that his heart was a 'timid pigeon' waiting for bad things to happen (see June 26, 2008 post). Dink had begun receiving threats from ultra-nationalists in 2004 following an article he wrote for the Turkish Armenian paper Agos, over which he presided as editor. In the article, Dink claimed that Sabiha Gokcen, Ataturk's much beloved adopted daughter, was an Armenian orphan. The article earned him the scorn of then Chief of General Staff Yasar Buyukanit, who denounced the article as a crime against national unity.
Before 2006, Dink had been subject to numerous court cases because of his questioning of an ethno-national conception of Turkish identity and his writing on the 1915 massacre of tens of thousands of Armenians. Throughout his work, Dink tried to bridge divides between Turks, Armenians, and Turkish Armenians, challenging both Turkish and Armenian identity, polarizing approaches to the genocide issue, and the general recalcitrance of the two sides. He did this as only a Turkish Armenian could, and his thinking challenged fellow Turkish citizens and ethnic Armenians alike. Most of all, Dink represented the expression of difference -- not just being different, but expressing it, and doing so always as an individual guided by free thought and its commensurate dignities. His writing, and that he attracted so many fans, Turkish and Armenians, is a testament to where Turkey has come since its founding and the longing for liberalism shared by so many of its citizens.
Yet not all were so content with Dink's ideas, his constant challenging of Turkish state and society. In 2004, Dink began receiving numerous death threats. The gravity of their danger to Dink's life prompted the deputy director of security in Istanbul to order police in Bakirkoy, where he lived, and Sisli, where he worked at Agos, to make provide for his protection.
In February 2006, intelligence of the murder conspiracy to which he would soon fall victim made their way from police in Trabzon to Istanbul. The memo from security officials in Trabzon stated, and quite simply, that Yasin Hayal, a known ultra-nationalist in the Black Sea province, was going to kill Dink. Less than one year later, Hayal, acting alongside 17-year-old gunman Ogun Samast, gunned down Dink outside Agos's offices.
Yet it seems the memo, ranked "low priority" by Trabzon police chief Ramazan Akyurek, was not paid much attention, if any, by Istanbul police, and little action was taken by either authority nor the gendarme in Trabzon, who were also watching the conspirators, to halt the assassination. Akyurek has since been promoted to head the Board of Inspectors in the General Directorate for Security. Dink knew his death was coming, and so did members of the Istanbul and Trabzon police, as well as the Trabzon gendarme. Meanwhile, Nedim Sener, one of the journalists who took the Dink investigation seriously and documented what the police knew before the murder, has been jailed on charges of being linked to the Ergenekon terrorist organization.
Where Does the Government Fit In?
Indeed, the more than four-year trial of Dink's conspirators has been hindered from the beginning due to an inability, and perhaps unwillingness, to procure evidence from state security offices, as well as government agencies such as the Telecommunications Board (TIB), which only last December turned over evidence documenting phone conversations and text message exchanges between the conspirators. TIB, citing a 2007 provision by the Justice Ministry related to the use of phone records in criminal investigations, had refused to turn over evidence for more than four years following the murder. Video footage of the street on which Dink was shot was erased from cameras soon after the incident, another fact that has led to accusations against the police ranging from neglect to complicity.
As Hurriyet columnist Sedat Ergin points out, efforts, or lack thereof, to hold state officials to account for their role in the murder have given way to serious misgivings on the part of the Turkish public. In 2008, and administrative court acquitted police of neglect while failing to really delve into the events in the days and months before the murder, and in 2009, another effort to investigate the role of security officials was blocked by the Interior Ministry, which at the time and just as today, was controlled by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). The gendarme is the only state organ wherein an official has been found responsible for neglecting to prevent Dink's murder.
Though AKP government officials are always careful to point to the independence and integrity of judicial processes, the fact that the government now has firmer control of the judiciary has caused many critics, both of the government and the investigation into Dink's murder, to point their finger at the government. When the Dink investigation started in 2007, the government did not have the control over judicial organs, such as the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors (HSYK), that it currently wields. (Click here for a bit of insight as to how the AKP has gained more control through amending the constitution to give its elected representatives the ability to appoint members to this body and Turkey's high courts. See also this past post.) The HSYK is currently investigating the presiding judge in the case, Rustem Eryilmaz, as well as prosecutor Hikmet Usta, though on grounds that the two inappropriately spoke out publicly after the verdict rather than that they mishandled the case.
More cogent criticism centers on the government's relation to the police. As Milliyet columnist Metin Munir indicates (luckily, Hurriyet Daily News has translated this column into English, and so it can be read here), the real blame should be placed on the government's failure to prevent the police from hindering the investigation. According to Munir,
Nobody is blaming the government for not interfering with the judiciary; its guilt is in not intervening with the police, with the intelligence organization and in not demonstrating the necessary attention to bring out the truth. In Turkey, judges and prosecutors are not as strong and independent as, for example, in the United States, the United Kingdom or Italy.Mustafa Akyol, generally more sympathetic of the AKP, explains that this reluctance might be driven by the fact that many of the bureaucrats and police who neglected to properly investigate Dink's murder (and, my words, not his, but perhaps even cover up critical aspects of the killing) are now aligned with the AKP and have been appointed to key positions within the government. These include not only Akyurek, but also former Istanbul police chief Celalettin Cerrah, headed the Istanbul police at the time of Dink's murder. The government has never allowed Cerrah to be questioned in relation to the case, and in 2009, he was appointed a provincial governorship in Osmaniye. Similarly, the failure of the AKP to put pressure on TIB and the obstructive role of the Interior Ministry throughout the investigation give great cause for concern.
While in the West the prosecutor commands the police, in Turkey the police command the prosecutor. This is the truth in practical terms, especially in politically sensitive cases.
The judges are also bound to prosecute whatever is in the indictments presented to them. The government does not command the courts and prosecutors. But it does command the security forces. For this reason, it has its share of responsibility in the verdict the court has ruled. It could have put pressure on the police to provide that a more comprehensive and a stronger file be handed over to the prosecutor. It did not.
The government is still boasting about catching the murderer in 32 hours. This is not a matter to be proud of; it a matter to be ashamed of. Who was going to kill Dink and when it was going to happen were known by security forces days before the murder. If the incident was stopped at that time and the murder was prevented, then yes, it could have been a matter of which to boast. But it is not hugely ingenious to identify the assassin and then catch the killer.
This is what the government has to explain: Why isn’t the entire organization, the one for which the killer acted as a hit man, foiled and punished even if it is five years that have passed since the murder? What is the reason for the systematic reluctance on this matter?
A Chance for Redemption?
Soon after the verdict, Dink family lawyer Fethiye Cetin declared that the effort to unveil the truth behind Dink's murder had only just begun, and it is quite possible this is the case. An indignant Cetin has already appealed to the Supreme Court, which will likely render a decision in one year's time. Hikmet Usta, the Istanbul prosecutor charged with the case, has also made an appeal, joining Cetin in denouncing the court's inability to find evidence that the crime was the premeditated work of a criminal organization as a complete oversight of the facts presented.
While we are still waiting for the full opinion of the court, Eryilmaz has also curiously joined the fray. Eryilmaz, speaking to Vatan just two days after the verdict, said that the murder had to be organized -- that there had to be a mastermind between the assassination, and that this mastermind was not Hayal, a statement that seemingly ran contrary to his earlier ruling. Eryilmaz explained the verdict by pointing to a lack of evidence for any such organization, but apparently has no problem declaring their had to be one.
In the aftermath of the verdict, President Gul and Prime Minister Erdogan, for their part, urged the public to wait for the case to make its way through the appeals process, both assuring that justice would be delivered. With the TIB records now firmly in play, there is also talk of the possibility of a new investigation, or at least the potential for new evidence to come to the forefront. Condemnation of the verdict is near universal with nearly all Turkish newspapers giving extensive coverage to the story in the past two weeks to the point that the government has to pay attention.
Further, some AKP ministers, in particular Culture Minister Ertegrul Gunay, have strongly condemned the verdict. Gunay pointed to extant mechanisms within the state that are still capable of obstructing justice and silencing the truth while Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc, though at the same time speaking of the need for patience and to respect the appeals process, pointed to the image of Samast posing with police in Samsun (see above) as evidence of state involvement. Significantly, Arinc also spoke extensively of the symbolic power of the Dink assassination.
That said, delivering justice in the case will be a critical test for the AKP, which as noted above, has reasons to keep a tight lid on the role of the police during the investigation and prior to the murder. Just how all of this will play out is still very much up in the air, but the capacity to deliver justice for Dink, especially at a time when the government is facing heated criticism for its continued imprisonment of Sener and Ahmet Sik, as well as other prominent liberals charged on shoddy evidence in the context of the Ergenekon investigation, is a political imperative if it is to maintain any semblance to the liberal party it often attempts to portray itself, at least in the West. Most of the liberals are now gone from the party (for more, see Milliyet columnist Nuray Mert's English-language column in today's Hurriyet Daily News), but failing to provide a satisfactory result here could still have ramifications in how the West, particularly the European Union, perceive the party, as well as work to further ossify the opposition of liberals who have come to increasingly oppose the party in recent years.