The pigeon sacrificed: Hrant Dink, and a broken dialogue

Vicken Cheterian
23 January 2007

The assassination of Hrant Dink in Istanbul on 19 January 2007 has had the effect of a tsunami. Never before has the killing of a journalist caused so much uproar in Turkey. Never before has such an event mobilised so many people; several thousand of them gathering spontaneously on the same day in downtown Istanbul, near the offices of the newspaper Agos where Hrant worked. Several thousand others demonstrated in Ankara, Izmir, and Malatya, the eastern town where Hrant Dink was born in 1954. The journalist's funeral in Istanbul on 23 January was attended by even larger crowds, united in grief and solidarity.

Only thirty-two hours after the murder, Turkish police arrested a teenager, born in 1990, identified as Ogün Samast, a school dropout from the city of Samsun on the Black Sea coast. Samast is reported to have confessed his crime: he had planned the assassination months before because he considered Hrant Dink to have insulted "the Turkish race". "I shot him after saying the Friday prayers. I'm not sorry ... I read news on the internet. He said 'I'm from Turkey but Turkish blood is dirty' and that's why I decided to kill him" (AFP, 21 January 2007).

Vicken Cheterian is a journalist and political analyst who works for the non-profit governance organisation CIMERA, based in Geneva

Also by Vicken Cheterian in openDemocracy:

"Arab media", in "Different truths: Iraq and the world's media" (16 April 2003)

Freedom's price

Yet, this teenager was not alone in killing Hrant Dink. To the friends of Hrant, there is something bigger involved: the political context in Turkey that created the pressure leading to this tragic death. Orhan Pamuk, Nobel prize winner and a friend of Hrant Dink, had the following to say: "In a sense, we are all responsible for his death. However, at the very forefront of this responsibility are those who still defend Article 301 of the Turkish penal code. Those who campaigned against him, those who portrayed this sibling of ours as an enemy of Turkey, those who painted him as a target, they are the most responsible in this."

Who was Hrant Dink? And who murdered him?

He was a citizen of Turkey of Armenian heritage. He was from a new generation of Armenians who did not fear Turkey, who wanted to live on the land of their ancestors and exercise all their rights, and who wanted to see Turkey a land where human rights and freedoms flourished. He firmly believed in, or hoped for, Turkey's integration into Europe, its values and institutions.

Hrant did not merely talk about freedom of speech, he exercised it. In 1996, he and a group of enthusiasts were instrumental in the creation of Agos, a bilingual weekly in Armenian and Turkish. In only a few years the circulation of Agos increased to 6,000. But its influence carried further; it was the place where Turkish and Armenian intellectuals and journalists met and engaged in dialogue.

Also in openDemocracy on Hrant Dink and Turkey:

Üstün Bilgen-Reinart, "Hrant Dink: forging an Armenian identity in Turkey"
(7 February 2006)

Anthony Barnett, Isabel Hilton, "Hrant Dink: an openDemocracy tribute" (19 January 2007)

Fatma Müge Göçek, "Hrant Dink (1954-2007): in memoriam"
(22 January 2007)

Gunes Murat Tezcur, "Hrant Dink: the murder of freedom"
(23 February 2007)

Soon, Hrant's exercise of freedom of speech forced him into a clash with Turkey's political system of "official truth". He was brought to trial twice under the infamous Article 301 of Turkish civil code for having "insulted Turkishness". By the time of his assassination a third court case against him for having qualified the repression of Armenians by Ottoman Turks in 1915-18 by its name: genocide.

A great sympathy and solidarity was expressed in Turkey in the wake of Hrant's death. Many who demonstrated chanted: "We are all Hrant Dink!" or "We are all Armenians!" - slogans reprinted on placards and banners displayed at the writer's funeral. But others saw in this assassination "dark hands" that plot against Turkish national interests.

Turkey's prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had this to say: "It is very meaningful that the murderers have chosen Dink as their victim this time. We find it very meaningful that this murder has been committed at a time when Armenian claims of genocide were brought to the spotlight especially in some countries." Others have gone further to make the fantastical suggestion that the criminal was ... of Armenian origin. In the mind of some Turkish officials, the victim and the perpetrator have exchanged places.

A distorting mirror

Turkey has a difficulty with its past. For the last nine decades officials in Turkey have faced questions on the fate of its former Armenian community by negating the historical facts. When confronted with the question of genocide, the official Turkish response is threefold:

  • there was no intention to destroy the entire Armenian nation, only to transfer civilians from war-zones to more "secure" regions (the Syrian desert ...)
  • the numbers of the victims are exaggerated - that it is not 1.5 million Armenians who died, but just a few hundred thousands (official Turkish sources often suggest as few as 300,000)
  • the Armenians deserved it since they collaborated with the enemies of the Ottoman empire.

As Turkey came under increasing foreign pressure and internal questioning about its past, its negation has become increasingly deformed. In the city of Van (once a thriving centre of Armenian culture, and which had a large Armenian population until the genocide), the city museum has a section on genocide. But the bones displayed there - so the official captions explain - are of Turkish victims who were slaughtered by Armenians.

Hrant Dink has worked since 1996 as a columnist and editor-in-chief of the Armenian-language weekly newspaper Agos in Istanbul. The paper aims to provide a voice for the Armenian community in Turkey and to further dialogue between Turkey and Armenia

On 19 January 2007, Hrant Dink was assassinated outside Agos's offices in Istanbul

openDemocracy published three articles by Hrant Dink:

"The water finds its crack: an Armenian in Turkey"
(13 December 2005)

"Orhan Pamuk's epic journey"
(16 October 2006)

"My life as a pigeon"
(22 January 2006)

In 1997, the Turkish government erected a huge genocide monument in the town of Igdir, on the border with Armenia, Azerbaijan and Iran, to commemorate the Turkish victims who, according to the Turkish official narration, were killed by Armenians. The monument is depicted by a sword, directed towards Armenia, under the shadow of Ararat. Again, victim and perpetrator are mistaken, and have exchanged places. After such state-sponsored distortion, how would many young men feel if they are told the truth by a dissident journalist?

A blockade of the mind

This official policy concerns more than Turkey's Armenian minority, which is estimated to number between 60,000-70,000. Turkey has equally difficult relations with its eastern neighbour, Armenia itself. For the last fourteen years, Turkey has refused to open its borders with Armenia, until a solution is found to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

It has also refused to have diplomatic exchanges with Yerevan. The result is that Armenia, a poor and landlocked country, pays a heavy price: experts gathered in Yerevan to discuss Turkish-Armenian relations have estimated this blockade to cost Armenia the equivalent of 10-15% of its GDP. Even more important for Armenians, is that this policy is a constant reminder of a threat: that the past is not over, that relations with Turkey are not normalised.

The killing of Hrant Dink will not silence the questions he posed, nor put an end to the ongoing debate within Turkish society itself. Turkish officials have themselves chosen to seek to join the European Union, and as a consequence they have to face difficult questions, asked both by outsiders and by voices from within Turkish society:

  • can freedom of speech coexist with the official negation and distortion of Turkey's past?

Hrant Dink was the bridge linking Turkey with Armenia, and the Turkish-Armenian community with Armenians and others abroad. This bridge is now broken. But the presence of Armenian dignitaries at Dink's funeral suggests that it can be rebuilt. The way forward remains clear.

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