Family of slain Armenian journalist Hrant Dink awaits justice 13 years on

Thirteen years after Armenian Turkish journalist Hrant Dink was shot dead in broad daylight outside his office in Istanbul, the trial of 77 people accused of involvement in his murder, including police officers and intelligence agents, is still dragging on with no end in sight.

Dink had received many death threats for writing in the bilingual Armenian-Turkish newspaper, Agos, about the genocide Armenians living under the Ottoman Empire during World War One. Some 1.5 million were killed in massacres, or died from starvation and disease in forced marches into the Syrian desert.

Turkey denies a genocide took place and says many died in intercommunal fighting. On April 24 last year, the day the genocide is commemorated, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said: "The relocation of the Armenian gangs and their supporters who massacred the Muslim people, including women and children, in eastern Anatolia, was the most reasonable action that could be taken in such a period”.

Any suggestion of genocide is met with anger by many in Turkey, even more than 100 years later. Dink was prosecuted for his writing several times under Article 301 of the penal code, which makes it illegal to insult Turkey or Turkish government institutions, or to "denigrate Turkishness".

Teenage Turkish nationalist Ogün Samast shot Dink three times in the head on Jan. 19, 2007 and pictures later emerged of Samast posing next to smiling police officers. Samast was sentenced to 22 years in prison in 2011, but could be eligible for parole in 2021.

A 2017 indictment accused the officials now on trial of running a criminal network, destroying evidence, dereliction of duty and official misconduct, and other offences. Their case has been combined with the murder retrial.

A court handed prison sentences to nine suspects in relation to Dink’s murder in July last year. But out of dozens of defendants - including police, intelligence and gendarmerie officials – few remain in jail.

“The trial is continuing for 13 years and the end is nowhere in sight because there is no desire by the government to find out the truth and bring the real planners of the murder to justice, or, alternatively, there is direction by the government not to find the truth and bring the real planners of the murder to justice,” said Raffi Bedrosyan, an Armenian activist born in Istanbul and a columnist for the Armenian Weekly.

“This is why the judges and prosecutors of the case have been substituted at least 14 times so far. This is obviously a clear message to all Armenian journalists, human rights lawyers and activists to give up and not to interfere in this case,” said Bedrosyan, who has written extensively about Dink and is now based in Canada.

Agos columnist Ohannes Kılıçdağı said that he would have expected the case to have been closed long ago and the defendants allowed to walk free.

“That is what is considered normal in Turkey. If the trial process has taken so long, it is due to the courageous struggle for justice of Hrant Dink's friends, lawyers, and rights advocates,” he said.

The Dink family and their lawyers applied to the Constitutional Court in 2016 to appeal against a decision by the Istanbul Chief Public Prosecutor's Office not to prosecute more officials that the Dink family and their lawyers believe were involved in the murder. But in 2019, the court rejected the request for an additional investigation.

On the 12th anniversary of Dink’s murder last year, opposition member of parliament Garo Paylan, who is of Armenian origin, submitted a parliamentary motion that aimed to shed more light on the killing. But deputies from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and their far-right nationalist allies voted down the motion.

“This trial is related to the basic nature of the Turkish state and its values,” Kılıçdağı said. “In this trial, the state is defending its own character and identity. Not surrendering their own personnel is also part of this defence, so it took years for even the simplest legal steps to be taken.”

One of the accused, Şeref Ateş, a gendarmerie intelligence officer in Istanbul at the time of Dink’s murder, was killed in an armed attack on his vehicle in the northwestern city of Düzce on March 12. Police have detained three suspects for the killing, state-run Anadolu news agency said. Ateş was arrested as part of the Dink murder case in 2016 and spent more than a year in prison pending trial before being freed on bail.

“The recent murder of the intelligence officer is also undoubtedly dark,” Kılıçdağı said. “But if we consider the gang-like nature of the state, such an incident is not unexpected according to the logic of the state and the way it operates.”

The next hearing of the Dink murder trial is due to be held on May 12. The long, drawn-out case could work in two ways, Kılıçdağı said.

“First, undoubtedly, intimidation might discourage rights advocates from the very beginning, showing that they could be in a similar situation and case. But, on the other hand, the struggle of rights advocates in this trial demonstrates that although it is very challenging, if you persevere, you can shed light on at least part of the murder – or in President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s words right after Dink’s murder – on the dark corridors of the state,” he said.

“Thanks to this case, we have been able to see the dark, crooked relations within the state to some extent. And I think this is an achievement for rights defenders.”