The mysterious case of Hrant Dink
Nearly 11 years after the murder of Turkish Armenian journalist Hrant Dink, the trial of police officers charged with complicity in the killing drags on.
An Istanbul criminal court is to hear the testimonies of the gendarmerie commander of the eastern Black Sea city of Trabzon and intelligence officers working for the paramilitary force this week.
Dink was an advocate of reconciliation between Turks and Armenians, but refused to deny that the 1915 mass killings of Armenians in Ottoman Turkey constituted a genocide.
He was shot dead outside the Istanbul offices of the bilingual Turkish–Armenian newspaper Agos, where he was editor-in-chief, on Jan. 19, 2017.
Ogün Samast, a 16-year-old at the time and a native of Trabzon, was arrested three days later. He was tried, convicted of the murder and given a life sentence.
Turkey’s past is full of such political crimes and unending court cases. The real criminals in such cases are almost never found due to lack of comprehensive or diligent investigation and seemingly never-ending trials as evidence gets lost.
The Dink murder case is one of the most visible and important political trials to take place in Turkey recently. Like other political cases, it was assumed that this case would also drag on and all the evidence would eventually disappear.
When, after the first hearing 10 years ago, the court announced that the group that ordered the murder could not be found, it only added to the general belief that these political crimes were destined to remain unsolved. It looked as if the Dink case would become part of that long line of unresolved, endless trials. However, new evidence came to light and shed a little light, however dim, on the case.
As a result, police and gendarmes are among 85 people now charged with either foreknowledge of the crime or instigating the killing.
But despite a brief illumination of the case, the smokescreen appears to be fully intact still. After all this time, only a few steps have been taken towards resolving the murder and much of the information is lost in the justice system.
Video footage that emerged shortly after Samast’s arrest showed him holding a Turkish flag flanked by police officers, apparently fêting the killing.
But the investigation into alleged police involvement in Dink’s murder has become a political football. Prosecutors first linked the killing to a secularist-nationalist conspiracy dubbed Ergenekon.
But the case was dismissed in 2014 after the split between the government led by now-President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and followers of the Pennsylvania-based Turkish cleric Fethullah Gülen. The Ergenekon conspiracy appears to have largely been cooked up by prosecutors loyal to Gülen as a way of sidelining secular opponents in the military and civilian establishment.
Now the officers on trial for involvement in the Dink killing are accused of being followers of the Gülen movement.
Several police officers and gendarmes were suspected of being involved in the crime as far back as 2007. Even at the first trial in July, 2007, there had been talk of getting police and gendarmerie officers to testify. There were intelligence reports that said the police and gendarmerie knew Dink was going to be killed.
An informant, Erhan Tuncel, identified the leader of the group that killed Dink, Yasin Hayal, to the police while the gendarmerie were informed of the killing by Hayal’s uncle, Coşkun İğci. This information was entered into evidence from the testimony of the defendants.
Three indictments have been prepared for this murder. In addition to the shooter, Samast, and leader, Hayal, former Istanbul Police Chief Celalettin Cerrah and Trabzon Police Chief Reşat Altay were also added to the case.
Later, the Trabzon gendarmerie commander, Ali Öz, and Istanbul gendarmerie intelligence officers were also added, making a total of 85 defendants in the ongoing case.
Gülen is also considered a defendant. Prosecutor Gökalp Kökcü said the murder was the first blow in Gülen’s moves against the state.
There are several important claims against the police and gendarmerie officers from the time of the shooting. At the time of the murder, the prosecution alleges the gendarmerie in Istanbul was following Samast, the shooter.
Samast said in 2007 that he had been followed to the place of the murder.
He called Hayal from a payphone at the time, and Hayal reassured him, telling him, “They are from our side. Don’t worry”. The prosecutors had Samast review video footage from security cameras in the area during his trial.
Samast identified those following him. Yusuf Bozca, an officer from the Istanbul gendarmerie intelligence office, identified them as officers from the film footage.
The prosecution obtained cell phone records for those named and ascertained that they were in the area of the Agos newspaper building at the time of the killing.
The Dink’s family lawyers are careful to draw attention back to the murder and have worked diligently to ensure that the crime is tried in a comprehensive and systematic way to identify the killers, without it being used as a political football.