Almost a week after the conclusion of a trial concerning the murder of Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink, the verdict continues to reverberate in Turkey. It is shaking the faith of minority groups that they can get a fair hearing in the country’s courts and is raising questions among rights activists about the judiciary’s independence. And some political analysts are worrying that the country’s leaders are giving in to anti-democratic tendencies.
In its January 17 ruling, the Turkish court gave a life sentence to one individual, Yasin Hayal, for the 2007 slaying -- the second such conviction in the case -- but acquitted all 19 defendants on trial on the charge of being part of a larger conspiracy in connection with the slaying. Popular shock and outrage over those acquittals was on prominent display January 19, when tens of thousands of Turks, ethnic Armenians and ethnic Kurds marched in Istanbul to commemorate the fifth anniversary of Dink’s death.
"I do not believe in justice in this country anymore,” commented Ara, an ethnic Armenian university student who took part in the march, the largest such public demonstration since Dink’s funeral.
Many cannot shake the belief that Dink’s murder was the product of a conspiracy, involving some participants who acted with the police’s knowledge, and that the court deliberately turned a blind eye to this possibility. Dink had outraged nationalists and faced state prosecution in the past for describing as genocide the mass killings of ethnic Armenians during World War I.
The perception that the Turkish government is not willing to investigate the Dink case thoroughly – a perception also echoed in a 2010 European Court of Human Rights ruling -- has enraged many of the country’s estimated 70,000 ethnic Armenians, who see the slain journalist as a symbol of the violence and discrimination that they have faced over the years. The Ministry of Education’s recent decision to block public schools’ access to the website of the Turkish-Armenian newspaper Dink founded, Agos, is cited as fresh evidence of the government aligning itself with the traditional state mentality that views ethnic Armenians as a threat. Agos is now challenging the ban in court; the ministry has not issued a public explanation.
"If this country is my country, can I say the same thing for the state? Do I want to call it my state for what it is now?" wrote ethnic Armenian columnist Karin Karakasli, who worked closely with Dink, in the daily Radikal on January 22. "For once, let the courts be the place of justice … [t]o do this is an obligation, a debt, a responsibility.”
In comments to the daily Hürriyet last week, Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Thomas Hammarberg noted that the case could be referred back to the European Court of Human Rights if the court verdict is upheld on appeal.
"The case shows the low point we are at the moment in Turkey," said Emma Sinclair Webb, the Turkey researcher at the New York City-based Human Rights Watch. Turkish and international human rights groups, as well as the international community, saw the trial “as a test of Turkey's abilities to secure justice for grave crimes, to secure accountability to protect minorities and to uphold freedom of expression,” she continued.
“The trial encapsulates many of the problems facing Turkey. But the whole trial has been a resounding failure so far of the Turkish judiciary,” Sinclair Webb said. The government on January 18 announced a package of roughly 100 changes for the judicial system, but no date has been announced for the bill’s submission to parliament. The reforms do not appear to address the issues raised in the Dink case.
The government has treaded gingerly in responding to such dissatisfaction. Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arınç acknowledged the criticism over the verdict, but stressed that the trial is not the final word on the case. "The ruling over the Hrant Dink case has not satisfied the conscience of the people. But the process is continuing; it is not over yet. There still remains the court of appeals," Arınç said in a Turkish television interview the night of the verdict.
The governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) earlier had promised that any state involvement in Dink’s death would be uncovered, and those responsible would be brought to justice. Last January, President Abdullah Gül said he might launch a presidential investigation into the killing, but since then, he appears to have quietly dropped the idea.
The prosecutor in the Dink trial claimed at one point that the slain journalist had been a victim of the so-called Ergenekon conspiracy, an alleged plot by active and retired army officers to overthrow the government. The judges, however, rejected the allegation, saying the perpetrators acted alone.
Prosecutors previously asserted that the Ergenekon conspiracy targeted those, who, like Dink, believe that Ottoman Turkey committed genocide against ethnic Armenians during World War I. Some observers reason that that argument, first advanced when the AKP was locked in a political struggle with Turkey’s state bureaucracy, now no longer serves any purpose, and, so, has been dropped.
Having pushed opponents out of the state apparatus, the AKP now sees this structure as part of its own domain, and wants to protect it, suggested political scientist Cengiz Aktar of Istanbul’s Bahçeşehir University. Among those arrested last year for supposedly being part of the Ergenekon conspiracy is journalist Nedim Sener, who was writing a book about alleged police involvement in Dink's murder.
"We've always had a difference between the government and state. The state was actually working against the AK government in the early years of its power. But now it is one and the same," said Aktar. "Now the democratic process has stalled. We are seeing the return of all the old mentalities. It has immediately resurfaced and this is what is happening today."
Dorian Jones is a freelance reporter based in Istanbul.