Neighbors / Armenia's Long Shadow

Turkey is seething over a ruling that the ultranationalist murderer of a journalist acted alone.

"We want to cast off this disgrace. They tell us the Dink affair is coming to an end, but the truth is it has just begun," Turkish-Armenian journalist Karin Karakasli called out from the balcony of the building housing the Armenian newspaper Agos. "It's not a file that has been closed, it's a wound," she added, expressing the feelings of the thousands of demonstrators who gathered in front of the weekly's Istanbul offices on Thursday.

Turkey slain journalist - AFP - Jan 2012

Hrant Dink was murdered in broad daylight on January 19, 2007, by a 17-year-old Turkish ultranationalist. Dink, Agos' editor, had called for reconciliation between the Turks and the Armenians, but criticized the government's refusal to acknowledge the massacre of the Armenians in 1915. As a result, he was marked by ultranationalists as an enemy who had to be assassinated.

Exactly five years have gone by since the start of the murder investigation, which ended with a trial whose outcome was eagerly awaited by Turkey's Armenian community and other key segments of the population - liberals who favor minority rights and ultranationalists who consider the Armenians enemies.

On Wednesday a court decision caused shock waves as great as the murder itself. The court ruled that the gunman, Ogun Samast, had operated alone and there was no evidence he was a member of a terror group. The judge, Yasin Hayal, acquitted 19 suspects who had been arrested along with Samast, who is already serving a prison sentence of nearly 23 years. The acquittal and the judge's reasoning sent tens of thousands of demonstrators onto the streets in cities throughout Turkey. They said they were demanding justice.

Dubious police

Critics of last week's decision refuse to believe the assassination was the work of a lone gunman. In court it was revealed that police were seen laughing with Samast in the police station; the police received prior warning of an intention to murder Dink; and the police did nothing to prevent the murder. On top of all that was the information later revealed on the so-called Ergenekon affair.

Turkey has been embroiled in the Ergenekon affair for more than six years. It has included the arrest of hundreds of military men, journalists, politicians and intellectuals on suspicion they were involved in an attempt to bring down the government and the Justice and Development Party, headed by Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

According to findings published recently, the conspirators also planned to strike at Armenian institutions and mosques to prove that the government was incapable of protecting the people, thereby giving the army an excuse to take over. It is suspected that Ergenekon activists were behind Dink's murder as well.

"Students whose only guilt is that they demonstrate against the government are tried and imprisoned for their membership in a terror organization," wrote the columnist Semih Idiz last week. "There are journalists and military men in a similar situation. And now they expect us to believe that those who murdered Hrant Dink acted on their own and are not members of a terrorist gang. Apparently the proverb that you can't sue the devil when the court is sitting in hell was written to describe the judicial system in Turkey."

An issue that doesn't go away

President Abdullah Gul, who was asked to react to the court's decision, realized that this issue wouldn't disappear with the trial's conclusion. "This was an important trial that required great sensitivity because it affected one of our non-Muslim citizens," declared Gul, who suggests that everyone wait until the Supreme Court hears the Dink family's appeal. But this request doesn't satisfy the public.

Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc said he was "on the side of the people whose conscience finds no rest because of the court decision." Erdogan, still recovering from intestinal surgery last month, has said next to nothing on the subject. But in an interview with journalist Mehmet Ali Birand he said he accepts the argument that the court's ruling was a blow to the people's conscience.

Still, the frustration and disappointment over the decision can't quell the suspicion that the murder greatly satisfied the ultranationalists, even those who served in the ruling party. For example, Dink's son, Arat Dink, accused former Justice Minister Jamil Chichak of incitement against the Armenians and recalled his nickname for participants in the conference on the massacre of the Armenians: "those who stab the nation in the back."

Before his murder, Dink said he had been summoned to the district governor's office in Istanbul for a meeting where members of the National Intelligence Organization were present. The agents warned him "to behave carefully in your writing .... We know who you are."

Turkish journalists are now being very cautious when describing the massacre of the Armenians. They use terms like "events that took place in 1915" and "the Armenian tragedy." Anyone who still wants to use the word massacre has to cite foreign sources, as if it were a military secret.

Turks who are infuriated by the court decision can console themselves on at least one issue: Awareness of the massacre of the Armenians is no longer confined to "Western sources, who want to achieve what they were unable to do during World War II, when they used Armenians [to kill Turks]," as the ultranationalists have claimed. Now the Armenian issue has climbed to the top of the public agenda.