Hrant Dink: the murder of freedom

Gunes Murat Tezcur
23 January 2007

Hrant Dink, the Armenian-Turkish intellectual and the editor of the newspaper Agos, was murdered on the afternoon of 19 January 2007 in Istanbul. His murder is a grave blow to the development of a civic and pluralistic discourse on the Armenian-Turkish relations and the minorities of the Turkish republic.

An assailant shot Dink three times in the head and neck in front of the Agos offices in the busy district of Sisli. The suspect, who was arrested a day after in the Black Sea coast city of Samsun, is a young man (born in 1990) from Trabzon province. Ogûn Samast is reported to have said that he killed Dink because he was angry about his "insults against Turkish blood".

Gunes Murat Tezcur is a native of Turkey who teaches political science at Loyola University, Chicago. He is a scholar of Turkish and Iranian politics, Islam and democracy, and Shi‘a Islam

Also by Gunes Murat Tezcur in openDemocracy:

"The Armenian shadow over Turkey's democratisation"
(13 October 2005)

Hrant Dink's murder exposes the precarious position of being a member of a minority in Turkey. In the last few years, Dink had emerged as a vocal member of the tiny Armenian-Turkish community on a number of salient issues including Turkey's democratisation, Armenian-Turkish relations, and the ethnic policies of the Turkish state. His courageous and liberal stance on these issues made him a public intellectual, respected by many in Turkey and around the world; but the costs - even before his murder - were heavy.

As an ethnic Armenian and without the support of a media corporation, Dink was particularly vulnerable to state intimidation. He was accused of insulting Turkish identity and put on trial several times. He was convicted under Article 301 of the Turkish penal code and sentenced to six months in prison in October 2005. Although the sentence was postponed, this persecution and the publicity surrounding it made Dink a target of ultra-nationalist hatred.

Dink had been receiving death threats from various sources in recent years. In what became his last article for Agos, he lamented the way that these threats had put an immense strain on him and his family. The dilemma haunting him was similar to that faced by people of conscience in non-democratic or democratising countries all around the world: to stay and risk harassment, persecution, and death; or to emigrate and leave the beloved country and the struggle for democracy from outside. Hrant Dink ultimately decided to stay in Turkey, and he paid for this choice with his life.

All prominent public personalities in Turkey condemned his murder categorically. The media response, welcome as it is, also revealed the coded assumptions of some columnists and commentators. In assuring the public of Dink's patriotism and loyalty, there was a tacit suggestion that if his convictions and ideas were less "loyal", his assassination might have been somehow less dreadful; in seeing the assassination as the latest effort to tarnish Turkey's international image and undermine its relations with the European Union, there was an implicit suggestion that foreign forces might have been involved.

The Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's language was indicative of this displacement: he reacted to the murder by saying: "Once again, dark hands have chosen our country and spilled blood in Istanbul to achieve their dark goals".

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)

Vicken Cheterian, "The pigeon sacrificed: Hrant Dink and the broken Armenian-Turkish dialogue"
(23 January 2007)

The darkness within

In fact, the history of political assassinations in modern Turkey can be traced back a century, to the last decade of the Ottoman empire. The tactic became particularly widespread in the low-level civil war between left and right in the late 1970s, a period that ended in the 1980 military intervention.

After a lull in the post-coup years of the early 1980s, assassinations again became routine during the most intense periods of the long conflict between the Turkish state and Kurdish guerillas after 1984. Thousands of people, including dozens of journalists, were assassinated (most in the Kurdish-majority provinces of southeastern Turkey) throughout the 1990s. Most of the perpetrators went undiscovered and unpunished.

It took many years for confessions from security personnel and guerrilla turncoats to confirm the fact - long suspected by Turkish dissidents, writers, and democratic activists - that extra-legal assassination was a crucial weapon in the Turkish state's armoury. The state's counterinsurgency tactics aimed to subdue Kurdish military resistance and political mobilisation alike; its agents killed with impunity and enjoyed protection from the high echelons of the state and its security apparatus.

The groups employed by the state against Kurdish activists and guerrillas also became engaged in organised crime, including drug-trafficking. The nature of the extensive relationships among state officials, politicians, and these groups were exposed to the view of the wider public in 1996 following a traffic accident near the town of Susurluk. The parliament and the prime minister formed investigatory bodies, prosecutors prepared indictments, and the press covered details of many criminal activities. However, even all this was insufficient to undermine the culture of impunity under which the criminal-political activities were taking place.

More recently, the Kurdish-majority province of Hakkari in the southeastern corner of Turkey was hit by a series of seventeen bombings during July-November 2005. On 9 November, a grenade attack against a bookshop in the town of ªemdinli resulted in the death of a civilian. On that occasion, the assailants were caught - two non-commissioned officers of the Turkish armed forces and a guerrilla-turned-agent. The trio was put on trial and sentenced to various prison terms. Their appeal to the court of cassation is still pending.

Despite public uproar and the formation of a parliamentary investigatory committee, the individuals who ordered the bomb attacks have not been revealed and remain at large. The government has been anxious to close the case lest high-ranking army officials are indicted. In May 2006, a lawyer with links to shadowy criminal organisations stormed the court of cassation building in Ankara and shot five judges.

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)

Evidence is available - even if incomplete - that vigilante ultra-nationalist groups with connections to organised crime operate in Turkey. They employ extra-legal tactics to destabilise the civilian rule and advocate aggressive stances toward the Turkey's minorities and the Kurds of Iraq. While they challenge the state authority, they also appear to have shadowy links with the state security services. It would be hardly surprising if one of these groups is behind the murder of Dink and other recent assassinations.

It may be no coincidence that the young man who murdered the Catholic priest Andrea Santoro in Trabzon on 5 February 2006 - a teenager from the Black Sea region who seems to have been recruited by ultra-nationalist hate-groups - shares these characteristics with the suspected assassin of Dink.

The "dark forces" to which Erdoğan referred will continue to threaten Turkish democracy and pluralism unless the moral and logistical support they receive from segments of the public and the state security forces ends. More than anything else, this requires the assertion of the parliamentary authority over the state bureaucracy and the security forces, and the compliance of legal system and judicial procedures to liberal and human-rights standards. In the absence of these reforms, the official investigations into Hrant Dink's murder will not satisfy the public conscience. After all, the killings of Abdi Ipekçi (1979), Cetin Emeç (1990), and Uğur Mumcu (1993) are still shrouded in secrecy.

The great loss of Hrant Dink dramatically displays the fatal limits to freedom of expression in Turkey. Those left bereaved by his tragic death must hope that his shining example and legacy will contribute to the emergence of a democratic and pluralistic atmosphere where his fellow citizens - whether or not they are in a minority - will feel safer to disagree with the authorities, the powerful, and the majority opinion.

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