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14 years on, justice still remains elusive in Dink murder case

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Alin Ozinian

Fourteen years ago, on Jan. 19, 2007, Turkish Armenian journalist Hrant Dink was assassinated in broad daylight on a busy street in Istanbul. Turkish nationalist Ogün Samast, only 17 at the time, shot Dink three times in the head.

In the past 14 years, a total of 77 people, including police officers and intelligence agents, have been accused of involvement in Dink’s murder. A series of trials have been held without a clear or satisfactory conclusion because of hidden links between the state and the masterminds of the murder committed by hit man Samast, who was sentenced to 22 years in prison in 2011 but could be eligible for parole in 2021.

The murder, the instigators of which still have not been exposed, sheds light on disturbing “deep state-government” relations and as well as how Turkey perceives its Armenian citizens’ security. The 14-year judicial process showed that state officials were long aware of the assassination plot but did nothing to stop it from being carried out.

Hrant was shot dead in front of the office of the Agos newspaper, which he founded in 1996 with the goal of creating awareness about Armenians and their problems in Turkey. As editor-in-chief of the bilingual Turkish-Armenian newspaper, Dink was the voice of Turkey’s Christian-Armenian minority, a group that has long been silenced by the state.

Turkish Minute spoke with Ümit Kıvanç, a journalist and writer who directed the documentary “From January 19 to January 19” in 2010. Kıvanç tried to explain the unsuccessful judicial process after the assassination of Dink in the documentary.

“Hrant was questioning the unquestioned parts of official history in Turkey by creating vibrations that were changing the perception of Armenians. His reasoning was agreeable to the people. The realness and softness in expressing his thoughts and most importantly, his approach — we can talk about our problems, we have to talk — was accepted in Turkey,” said Kıvanç.

Kıvanç believes Hrant made a major contribution to the expansion of the boundaries of tolerance and democracy in Turkey. “At the end of the day, democracy is a matter of tolerance in Turkey,” he said.

Doubtless, the murder of Dink was a strong reminder to the world of the Armenian genocide. The assassination was one of the last attempts of the Turkish state to silence the voices that struggle for democracy, equality and human rights. According to some critics, the murder was a continuation of the unfinished “punishment” of Armenians by the Turkish state.

Dink received many death threats for writing about the genocide of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire during World War I, in which 1.5 million were killed in massacres or died from starvation and disease in forced marches into the Syrian desert. Today, Turkey still denies that a genocide took place and claims many died under the conditions of war.

“Dink attempted to change a fundamental state policy and the way it was handled. This policy was denial of the genocide. When Hrant began to speak, that’s all there was: absolute and strongly defended denial,” said Ali Duran Topuz, editor-in-chief of the Duvar daily, in an interview with Turkish Minute.

“Hrant could not change the result, but he pointed to a solution — a debate in the public sphere — as one of the ways to change the answer. Thanks to Dink the Kurds also started to discuss the Armenian genocide by ridding themselves of the influence of the Turkish state. Kurds saw a new political attitude and new mechanisms in the struggle for their identity. Kurds found new ways to fight the hostility towards Kurds in Turkey, fueled by the state over the years. Kurds were also eyewitnesses to the cruelty of the state,” Topuz added.

In February 2004 the General Staff released a press statement that targeted Dink over a news report claiming that Sabiha Gökçen, the adopted daughter of Turkey’s founder Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, was Armenian. According to the military, Dink’s claims were “unhealthy” and “dangerous,” hence calling on the relevant authorities to act. The National Intelligence Organization (MİT) arranged a meeting with Dink.

MİT Istanbul bureau chief Hüseyin Kubilay Günay spoke with the Armenian journalist in the Istanbul governor’s office. Dink would later describe the meeting as an attempt to “teach me a lesson.”

Two days after the meeting, a nationalist group chanted racist slogans in front of the Agos offices and targeted Dink personally. While a series of criminal complaints were filed by various individuals and institutions against Dink in the following days, death threats also started to become more frequent.

Armenian academic Dr. Ohannes Kılıçdağı thinks Dink not only opened the ears of people who wanted to learn the reality and hear the voice of the “other” but also helped them to clear their conscience.

“We should see that Dink’s sincere character and openhearted style played a big role in changing people’s attitudes. His murder reversed what had been done in the name of democracy, but on the other hand, I don’t think that the results obtained from the process of change in Turkey were lost. Dink and Agos made a huge contribution to this process. At least, his words and thoughts got inside some minds and hearts. Today, as never before in Turkey, many people know what was done to the Armenians. It is Dink’s victory and his contribution,” Kılıçdağı told Turkish Minute in a phone interview.

According to Dr. Kılıçdağı, who is also a columnist for Agos, after Dink’s murder the intimidated Armenian community did not return to its former silence. “Above all, Agos continues to exist and still speaks loudly. Moreover, there are still Armenians who speak and write about our problems. One of the reasons they can still express themselves is the solidarity shown by the people of Turkey.”

Dink continued to be one of the main targets of the state after 2004. He was taken to court because of the views he expressed in 2005. He was accused of “offending Turkishness” and was given a six-month suspended sentence. More charges followed a year later, as well as new trials.

In his last article, published on the day he died, he wrote: “2007 will probably be a tough year for me. I feel like a dove, cautious, timid and almost too awake, but I know that in this country they don’t hurt doves.”

Tuba Çandar, a Turkish journalist and author of a biography titled “Hrant Dink: An Armenian Voice of the Voiceless in Turkey,” believes Hrant became the voice of the silenced Armenian minority in the country.

“He reminded the Armenians of the Armenian identity they were forced to hide and also told the Turks about the repression the Armenians were subjected to. Hrant’s main goal was to tell about 1915. It was a genocide of the Armenians, a people of these lands. The genocide is mentioned as ‘deportation’ in the history books. He changed the mentality in Turkey and told the truth hidden from us. First, he started to talk about the genocide in his Agos newspaper, later on TV discussion programs and at meetings and symposiums he attended with the intellectuals of the country,” she told Turkish Minute in an e-mail.

Çandar thinks that in addition to the Armenians, Dink tried to defend the rights of all Turkish citizens from different ethnic backgrounds. “He started to explain the problems of the Armenians to the Turks. Increasingly, he went beyond his own identity struggle. He started to discuss the Kurdish problem, the banning of headscarves in universities and young people’s right to an education. He became an active advocate of democracy and human rights.”

Following Dink’s death, a group called the “Friends of Hrant Dink” was formed in Turkey. The members of the group were always present at the trials, standing in front of the court building and carrying banners reading “For Hrant. For justice.” They are dedicated to shedding light on what they call a “state-backed assassination” and say, “Even if it takes us 95 years, we will not give up the search for the real killers.”

Massive protests took place throughout İstanbul in the days following Dink’s murder. A cast of thousands — Turks, Kurds, Armenians and others – marched at Dink’s funeral and chanted: “We are all Hrant Dink. We are all Armenians. The state is the killer. You are my brother, Hrant.” His assassination sent shockwaves not only through Turkey but around the world; support and solidarity towards the country’s Armenian minority were unprecedented.

The absence of a serious investigation has prompted people to gather every year on Jan 19. Thousands of protestors congregate in front of the Agos newspaper offices to commemorate Dink’s life and demand justice.

Çandar decided, after the murder, that people in Turkey deserved to learn about “the real Hrant Dink,” who was stigmatized as a traitor by the state. “Hrant Dink was my friend. I knew him, I knew his struggle against nationalism. He was killed in front of all of us because he was an Armenian intellectual from Turkey and wanted reconciliation between Armenians and Turks. They stigmatized him as the ‘Enemy of the Turks’ before our very eyes. I decided to write my book with the pain and shame of this. I wrote because people should know what kind of person he was. With my book, I wanted to keep him alive.”

Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) deputy Garo Paylan on Jan. 18, 2021 called for a parliamentary inquiry into the assassination. In his parliamentary motion Paylan said full light has not been shed on Dink’s murder and that the role of state officials in the murder has not been exposed. “Dink’s murder constitutes an organized crime. Public officials, employed in various state posts, took no action to the prevent the assassination,” said Paylan.

Many believe that the judicial authorities have not initiated an effective or sufficient prosecution of public officials who had some responsibility for the murder. After 14 years many believe the authorities did not implement the necessary protective measures and did not carry out an operation against the organization planning the murder and thus paved the way for Dink’s killing.

In 2010 the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) ruled that Turkish authorities failed to protect the life and freedom of expression of murdered journalist Dink. According to the judgment “none of the three authorities informed of the planned assassination and its imminent realization had taken action to prevent it.” The court also ruled that “no effective investigation had been carried out into the failures which occurred in protecting the life of Dink.”

The court ordered Turkey to pay Dink’s family 105,000 euros in compensation. The family also received 28,595 euros for the cost of legal proceedings. Rakel Dink, Dink’s widow, said they would donate the money to educational charities. After the ECtHR judgment, Turkey’s Foreign Ministry made a statement and said that “Turkey will not appeal the decision.”

Hrant’s family, friends and readers are still seeking justice, knowing that the authorities have no intention of solving the crime. People don’t believe a fair verdict came out of the trial and know it was not a trial based on the search for justice. Bureaucrats and lawyers are still trying to cover up the truth.

“In the first years, I attended one of the hearings of the Dink trial. While watching the hearing from the lawyers’ section, Hrant’s hit man was sitting in front of me and his instigators were reading their defense. What I saw there was ‘legal theatre,’ and I did not attend any more hearings. After the decision of the ECtHR in 2010, I stopped following the criminal proceedings closely,” said Çandar.

Dink, who dared to address a taboo subject in Turkey — the massacre of Armenians in 1915 — dreamed of a democratic, free Turkey in which all religious and ethnic minorities would enjoy equal rights and everyone would be allowed to express their thoughts.

Unfortunately, he paid with his life for this dream.

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