On March 20, two members of the Turkish Gendarmerie admitted receiving detailed intelligence regarding a plot to assassinate Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink and then, after Dink’s murder, trying to cover up their knowledge by lying to investigators.
The confessions came as two Gendarmerie officers, known by their initials as O. S. and V. S., went on trial for dereliction of duty after evidence emerged that the security forces in the eastern Black Sea city of Trabzon had been informed of the plot to assassinate Dink months in advance but had failed either to apprehend the plotters or attempt to protect Dink (Anadolu Ajans, CNNTurk, NTV, March 20).
On January 19, 2007, the 52 year-old Dink was shot dead outside the Istanbul office of the Agos newspaper where he worked as editor-in-chief and which serves Turkey’s dwindling Armenian community. Dink was killed by Ogun Samast, an unemployed, poorly-educated 17 year-old who had traveled from Trabzon to carry out the assassination. Minors are often used to carry out murders in Turkey as, under Turkish law, anyone under 18 they can only be sentenced to a maximum of a few years in jail. It later emerged that Samast had been a member of a ultranationalist gang with strong Islamist sympathies led by the then 24 year-old Yasin Hayal. Hayal and his associates were well known to the security forces in Trabzon and some of them worked as police informants. On March 20, the gendarmerie officers admitted that, in August 2006, one of Hayal’s relatives had warned them that Hayal was planning to kill Dink and had given him YTL 500 (around $400) to buy a gun for the assassination. The officers were also told that someone linked to the gang had carried out surveillance of Dink in Istanbul and even drawn up diagrams showing the route taken by Dink as he traveled from his home to the Agos office (Radikal, Milliyet, Sabah, Hurriyet, Cumhuriyet, March 21).
A soft-spoken advocate of reconciliation between Turks and Armenians, in February 2004 Dink wrote a series of articles in Agos calling for dialogue without any preconditions. He maintained that an insistence that Turkey should first recognize the tragic events of 1915 as a genocide was an obstacle to reconciliation. In an article he wrote in Agos, Dink called on Armenians to “cleanse their blood of the poison of genocide” and engage in dialogue with Turks.
However, the mere mention of the word genocide resulted in Dink being prosecuted under the notorious Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code, which makes it a criminal offence to denigrate the concept of “Turkishness.” In October 2005, Dink was convicted and given a suspended prison sentence of six months. Even though he never served time in jail, the publicity surrounding his trial made Dink a hated figure for many Turkish ultranationalists. Extraordinarily, given the numerous calls for him to be killed in the Turkish ultranationalist press and Internet chat rooms and the telephoned death threats that Dink himself reported to the Istanbul police, and unlike almost any prominent Turkish Muslim who receives similar threats from extremists, Dink was not given police protection. When he was killed by Samast as he left the Agos office to pay some bills at his local bank, Dink was completely alone.
In their statements to the court, both O. S. and V. S. insisted that they had forwarded the intelligence of the plot to kill Dink to their commanding officer, Colonel Ali Oz, the head of the Gendarmerie in Trabzon. They claimed that Oz had not only failed to take action but, during the investigation that followed Dink’s murder, had instructed them to deny any prior knowledge of the plot to kill Dink.
When taken in isolation, it would be possible to attribute the cover-up simply as an attempt to hide incompetence. But, when combined with other evidence that has emerged since Dink’s murder, the conclusions are more disturbing. When Samast was captured, some of the arresting officers took photographs of him posed heroically in front of the Turkish flag. Ultranationalist publications and chat rooms buzzed with praise for the killing. There were even songs written in Samast’s honor and posted on YouTube.
There is little doubt that the majority of Turks, even many Turkish nationalists, were appalled by Dink’s murder. Indeed, one of the most moving tributes to him appeared in Yeni Cag, the main ultranationalist daily newspaper. On the evening of January 19, 2007, thousands of Muslim Turks joined with Armenians to march through the center of Istanbul chanting “We are all Dink” and “We are all Armenians.” On January 19, 2008, Muslim Turks also dominated the numerous ceremonies held to remember Dink on the first anniversary of his murder.
Nevertheless, the confessions by the two gendarmerie officers will reinforce suspicions that racial and religious prejudice remains a serious problem both in Turkish society as a whole and in the country’s security forces. Earlier this year, it emerged that, at the time of his death, Andrea Santoro, a Roman Catholic priest who was shot by Oguzhan Akdin, a 16 year-old youth with ultranationalist and Islamist sympathies, was under surveillance by the police on the ludicrous suspicion that he was plotting to facilitate the annexation of Turkey’s eastern Black Sea coast by Greece. On April 18, 2007, three Christian missionaries in the southeastern city of Mardin were tortured and then had their throats cut by a group of students from a hostel run by an Islamic foundation. During their trial, evidence has emerged that these students too were in contact with members of the local security forces. Lawyers acting for the families of the victims claim that they have been receiving numerous death threats, are being harassed by security officials and that key evidence – such as tape recordings of confessions detailing links between the accused and security officials – that was present at the beginning of the trial, has now disappeared.
There is no suggestion that any high-ranking members of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) were involved either in any of the killings or in the subsequent cover-ups. But neither does the government appear to understand the extent of religious and racial prejudice in Turkey or the need to amend legislation that fuels it. The effective protection of minorities is a prerequisite for Turkish accession to the EU, which has long pressed for the abolition of legislation such as Article 301 of the Penal Code (see EDM, January 8). However, since the beginning of the year, the AKP has preferred to focus almost exclusively on trying to push through legislation to lift the headscarf ban that prevents pious Sunni women from attending university (see EDM, February 11, February 25) and, most recently, on legislative changes to circumvent the party itself being outlawed following the public prosecutor’s application for its closure on March 14 (see EDM, March 17).