Who killed Hrant Dink?

Who killed Hrant Dink?
In-depth: Hardline nationalists threatened the Armenian-Turkish journalist, but it is supporters of Fethullah Gulen's movement now on trial, reports Mat Nashed.
6 min read
30 January, 2017
Dink wrote extensively about the Armenian genocide [File photo: Agos]

Hrant Dink, an ethnic Armenian and Turkish national, was never afraid to disclose an uncompromising truth.

As the chief editor of Agos - a bilingual weekly founded in 1996 - he wrote extensively about the Armenian genocide while championing minority rights in Turkey.

Not everyone was pleased. Dink was prosecuted for "insulting Turkishness", while hardline nationalists threatened his life. On January 19, 2007, he left his office for the last time. That afternoon, he was shot in the head three times by a 17-year-old boy named Ogun Samast. Dink was 52.

"I was working in another newsroom when I heard what happened," said Yetvart Danzikiyan, once a close friend of Dink and now chief editor of Agos. "I was shocked. I saw the news on television. I only realized Dink received death threats after he was killed."

The shooter was from Trabzon, a city known for nationalist fervour. In July 2011, he was sentenced to 23 years in prison. However, the court ruled the assassination wasn't part of a wider conspiracy - sparking outrage among Dink's family and friends.

Just two years earlier, the European Court for Human Rights concluded that Turkey had failed to protect Dink and were reluctant to conduct an effective investigation.

But the family welcomed a retrial last year, when 26 high-ranking police officers were prosecuted for plotting to kill Dink.

Several of the accused were subsequently indicted for being supporters of exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen, whose movement the government blames for orchestrating the failed military coup last July.

The trial is ongoing and Dink advocates are cautious. They fear the government is more invested in linking Gulen to the crime than uncovering the truth.

Lawyers never even thought about Gulenists [as suspects] when the case began. I mean, why would they?

Once a friend, now a foe

Bahri Belen is representing Dink's family [Mat Nashed]

Bahri Belen is an elderly man with spectacles and fair skin. He is one of the Dink family attorneys and has worked on several high-profile cases.

Subtle with his gestures and careful with his words, he said that Gulen supporters were never mentioned in any of the court hearings leading up to the convictions in 2012.

"Lawyers never even thought about Gulenists [as suspects] when the case began," said Belen. "I mean, why would they?"

The motive isn't clear. Gulen and Erdogan were close allies at the time of Dink's murder. And together, they were cracking down on another clandestine nationalist organisation known as Ergenekon.

The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) prosecuted more than 275 people - including high ranking military officials, lawyers, and journalists - for alleged ties Ergenekon, proscribed as a terrorist organisation. The AKP also failed to link Ergenekon to Dink's assassination.

Now the tables have turned. Alleged members of Gulen's movement - which Ankara has now classified as a terrorist group under the given name "FETO" [Fethullah Gulen Terror Organisation], and which has a completely different ideology to Ergenekon - are being accused of helping in the murder.

However, fax records only prove that Istanbul's police department failed to protect Dink, even though they knew his life was in danger.  

I don't think this case has anything to do with FETO... Dink was killed because he was an outspoken Armenian

"The government could be trying to make Gulen look worse by attempting to link his supporters to Dink's murder. But there is little evidence," Belen said. "The [failure of state institutions] are most responsible for his death."

Prosecuting the messenger

The tenth anniversary of Dink's death was marked
by protests [Mat Nashed]

Ercan Demir was at the police station in Trabzon when he received the tip-off.

He says he ordered his officers to contact the Istanbul headquarters to inform them that Yasin Hayal - a man later convicted of instigating the plot - was planning to kill Dink. It didn't matter that Demir got the name of the shooter wrong; officers in Istanbul never acted on his warning anyway.

Demir is now being prosecuted for his alleged role in the assassination. He pleaded not guilty at the beginning of the trial.

"I was reluctant to take the case," said Ismael Emre Telci, Demir's defence lawyer. "But a colleague I trust had insisted he was innocent. I had to take a hard look at the evidence before I was convinced too."

Telci told The New Arab that his client was at risk of not receiving a fair trial. He cited the case of Sukru Yildiz - a former government police inspector - who wrote a report that assessed the conduct of the Trabzon police department in the wake of Dink's murder.

The report concluded that there was no evidence of negligence on the part of several officers stationed in Trabzon. Many lawyers thought that the report was objective, according to Telci. But the government didn't agree.

It turns out that some of the officers Yildiz defended in his report were Gulen supporters. The government punished him for it. He now stands accused of "helping FETO achieve its aims" while assisting the conspiracy to assassinate Dink.

When Yildiz testified again, he accused everyone standing trial for Dink's murder of being members of 'FETO'. Telci said that his client wasn't spared.

"I don't think this case has anything to do with FETO. I think the people who killed Hrant Dink were extreme nationalists. Dink was killed because he was an outspoken Armenian."

[Gulen] worked through his followers to determine the outcome of high-profile cases. They also penetrated our police forces. [That's why] there could be a link

Pursuing justice

Since the attempted military coup, the government has blamed FETO for the country's past and present crises.

But that doesn't mean that suspects with known links to the movement aren't implicated in Dink's murder. Nevertheless, lawyers say that the government's "obsession" with Gulen is compromising the pursuit for justice. 

Not everyone agrees.

Cevat Ones, the deputy director of Turkey's secret intelligence (MIT) until 2005, told The New Arab that the government must investigate the alleged role of the Gulen movement in Dink's murder.

"[Gulen] worked through his followers to determine the outcome of high-profile cases," he said. "They also penetrated our police forces. [That's why] there could be a link between FETO and Dink's assassination."

Dink's family has previously accused MIT agents of being complicit in the murder. Nevertheless, Danzikyan said that the ongoing trial was an opportunity to arrive closer to the truth.

"Ten years ago, we couldn't imagine that 26 high-ranking police officers would finally be tried for their [alleged] involvement in the crime," Danzikyian noted. "We understand that some of these indictments are a result of the AKP's war against FETO. But we still see it as a huge step forward."

The government is also assessing evidence that implicates five gendarmeries in the assassination. The investigation is ongoing.

Dink's legacy lives on. His widow, Rakel, gave a speech a week ago, on the tenth anniversary of her husband's death. She told thousands of supporters that the state and its institutions were responsible for killing him. Many in the crowd held signs in Armenian and Turkish, symbolising unity and reconciliation.

These were the values Dink championed until his death.

Mat Nashed is a Lebanon-based journalist covering displacement and exile. Follow him on Twitter: @matnashed