ISTANBUL—A Turkish court’s verdict on January 17, that there was no state involvement or organized plot behind the 2007 shooting of the Turkish Armenian journalist Hrant Dink is a travesty of justice, Human Rights Watch said Wednesday.
“The Istanbul court’s denial of the plot behind Hrant Dink’s murder flies in the face of evidence,” said Emma Sinclair-Webb, Turkey researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Five years after the killing, Turkey’s criminal justice system remains unwilling to probe state collusion in political assassinations.”
Istanbul Heavy Penal Court No. 14 acquitted all 19 defendants accused of being part of a criminal organization responsible for Dink’s murder on January 19, 2007. The court concluded that the crime was not the work of a criminal organization motivated by ideological aims and that there was no deeper plot behind the murder.
The court sentenced Yasin Hayal to aggravated life imprisonment, up to 40 years in prison, for planning and organizing Dink’s murder by 17-year-old Ogün Samast. The court also sentenced Ahmet İskender and Ersin Yolcu, as accessories to the murder, to 12 years and 6 months imprisonment and Salih Hacısalioğlu to 10 months for possession of unlicensed ammunition.
Erhan Tuncel, who faced the same charges as Hayal, was acquitted of any involvement and sentenced to 10 years and 6 months for an entirely separate crime in September 2004: the bombing of a branch of McDonald’s in Trabzon. Fifteen other defendants facing various charges in connection with the case were acquitted.
Samast, tried separately in a juvenile court, was convicted in July 2011, and sentenced to almost 23 years in prison for shooting Dink dead in the street in front of the Istanbul offices of the Agos newspaper, of which he was the founding editor. All the defendants are from the Pelitli district of Trabzon, in Turkey’s eastern Black Sea region.
“The court’s treatment of the murder as a straightforward crime committed in isolation by a few young men belies the evidence of their deep connections with the security forces,” Sinclair-Webb said. “It ignored the systematic failure by the Istanbul and Trabzon police and gendarmerie to take steps to try to prevent a murder they were repeatedly informed would happen,”
The final statement of the prosecutor in the trial pointed to the existence of a criminal network, with links to the ultranationalist Ergenekon gang, among whose alleged members are state officials and members of the security forces who are currently on trial for plotting a coup. The prosecutor indicated that the evidence to prove the Ergenekon gang connection had been destroyed. But the prosecutor’s investigation failed to follow many leads or to push for the inquiry to be broadened, Human Rights Watch said. The prosecutor, as well as lawyers for the Dink family, said they will appeal.
Tuncel had worked as an informer for both the Trabzon police and the gendarmerie. The Trabzon police and gendarmerie, and police in Istanbul, were repeatedly alerted to a plot to kill Dink, but failed to take measures to prevent it.
The prosecutor’s investigation failed to press for the prosecution of state authorities who repeatedly withheld evidence during the investigation and contaminated other evidence. Both the prosecutor and the court in turn failed at every stage to use the authority of the criminal justice system to secure the compliance of state authorities in a criminal investigation and murder trial proceedings.
Dink, the founding editor of the bilingual Turkish-Armenian newspaper Agos, was a courageous champion of open debate, dialogue, and cooperation among all communities in Turkey, and was committed to democratization and human rights. His killing was apparently politically and ethnically motivated. He was identified by his murderers as an Armenian who had been convicted in court for “insulting Turkishness.”
Dink had been prosecuted for an article in which he discussed Armenian identity. In July 2006, the General Penal Board of the Court of Cassation, Turkey’s court of appeal, upheld a six-month suspended sentence for that publication under Article 301 of the Turkish penal code that criminalized “publicly insulting Turkishness.” Dink was prosecuted again in September 2006, under the same provision, for using the term “genocide” in a statement made to the Reuters news agency to describe the massacres of Armenians in Anatolia at the end of the Ottoman Empire.
In September 2010, the European Court of Human Rights delivered a tough verdict against Turkey for failure to protect Dink’s life, failure to investigate his murder, and failure to uphold his right to freedom of expression.
“The government has a clear duty to implement the judgment of the European Court, to cooperate fully to ensure that the full circumstances of state collusion in Dink’s murder are thoroughly investigated and that state officials are not protected,” said Sinclair-Webb.