The Assassination That Changed Turkey's Minds Over Armenia

The murder of an Armenian newspaper editor by a 17-year-old Turkish nationalist rattled the country's public. Now, Turks of all political stripes are waiting to see what the political ramifications will be.

“We want to get rid ourselves of this shame. They tell us the Dink affair has come to an end, but the truth is that it is only the beginning,” cried Turkish-Armenian journalist Karin Karaksli with excitement as she spoke from the balcony of the headquarters of “Agos,” Istanbul’s Armenian weekly newspaper. “This is not a closed case, it is a wound,” she added, expressing the feelings of thousands of raging protesters that gathered in front of the newspaper last Thursday.

Hrant Dink was assassinated in broad daylight, on January 19, 2007, at the hands of a 17-year-old Turkish nationalist. Dink – an editor at Agos – called for reconciliation between Turks and Armenians, and criticized the government’s refusal to recognize the Armenian Massacre. As a result, he was “marked” by nationalist forces as an enemy of the Turkish people, and was to be eliminated.

Armenian genocide, Istanbul, French

Exactly five years have passed since an investigation into the killing was opened. Members of the Armenian community, as well as large parts of the Turkish public – specifically liberals who advocate for minority rights, and nationalists who see the Armenians as enemies – had been waiting for the verdict. Last Wednesday, the verdict was published, causing an uproar no less severe than the one which followed the assassination itself. The court ruled that the killer, Orgun Samast, who was 17 when he killed Dink, acted alone, and that there is no proof that he was a member of a terrorist organization.

The judge who sentenced Yasin Hayal, the man who incited Samast to kill Dink, acquitted 19 other suspects that were arrested together with Samast. This acquittal, along with the explanations given by the judge, created a storm which caused tens of thousands of Turks to protest across major cities across the countries to demand “justice.” The demonstrators and critics of the verdict refuse to believe that the murder was committed by a sole perpetrator, considering the background information that was presented to the court, according to which, photographs of police officers could be seen laughing with Samast at a police station. The police also received an early warning that told them of the intention to assassinate Dink – the police did not do a thing to prevent the murder. On top of all this were the reports that revealed information regarding the Ergenekon Affair.

The Eregenkon Affair has accompanied Turkey for over six years. Hundreds of military officials, journalists, politicians and intellectuals have been arrested for suspicion of attempting to overthrow Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party. According to the recently published findings, the suspects plotted to attack Armenian institutions and mosques, in order to prove that the government is not capable of providing public security, thus giving the military a reason to take control of the country. It is suspected that Ergenekon activists were behind Dink’s killing.

“Students, whose only “fault” was that they protested the government, are being judged and jailed due to their involvement in a terrorist organization. There are journalists and military personnel who are in similar situations. And now they are expecting us to believe that those who assassinated Hrant Dink acted on their own accord and are not part of a ‘terror group,’” wrote Semih Idiz, an important publisher, last week. “It seems that the idiom which says one cannot sue the devil while the court sits in hell, was written to describe the Turkish judicial system.”

Even President Abdullah Gül, who was asked to remark on the court’s decision, understood that the issue is a political and public bomb, which is not about to go away with the trial’s end. “This is an important trial full of great emotion, as it affects one of our non-Muslim citizens,” said Gül, who suggests waiting until the appeal submitted by Dink’s family will be heard by the Supreme Court. But such a suggestion does not satisfy the public.

Even the Vice Prime Minister Bülent Arınç declared that he stands “on the side of the people whose conscious does not rest due to court decisions.” Erdogan, who is still recovering from intestinal surgery last month, refused to discuss the issue, although in an interview with journalist Mehmet Ali Birand he said that he accepted the claim that the court’s verdict hurt the conscience of the citizens.

However, the frustrations and the disappointments on the court’s decision cannot cover up the concerns and the suspicions, that the murder caused great satisfaction among nationalists, even those who held senior positions in the ruling party. This is the way Dink’s son, Arat Dink, blamed former Justice Minister Jamil Chichak for inciting against Armenians, mentioning the nickname he gave participants of a conference on the Armenian Massacre: “backstabbers.” Before his killing, Hrant Dink said he was summoned to the Istanbul district governor’s office for a meeting where members of state intelligence were present. The agents warned him “to act cautiously in his writing…we know who you are, but society may not know (and may harm you, Z.B.).”

Turkish journalists are exercising extreme caution today when they describe the Armenian Genocide. They use phrases such as “the events of 1915,” or “The Armenian disaster.” He who wants to use the word “massacre” despite it all must quote foreign sources, as if the subject were some military secret.

But at least the protesting Turks can be comforted by one fact: the consciousness surrounding the Armenian Massacre is no longer a matter of “Westerners who are seeking to attain what they failed at during World War II, when they used the Armenians (to kill Turks, Z.B.),” as the nationalists in Turkey claim; now the Armenian issue has risen to the top of the public’s interest in Turkey.