x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Turkey 'ignored' assassination plot of Hrant Dink

European court and critics say police knew of plan to kill journalist Hrant Dink and claim an investigation is being blocked by officials.

Hrant Dink, an ethnic Armenian Turkish journalist, poses at his office in Istanbul in October 2005. He sparked fury among Turkish nationalists after writing an article calling the killing of Armenians under the Ottoman Empire genocide. He was assassinated in January 2007.
Hrant Dink, an ethnic Armenian Turkish journalist, poses at his office in Istanbul in October 2005. He sparked fury among Turkish nationalists after writing an article calling the killing of Armenians under the Ottoman Empire genocide. He was assassinated in January 2007.

ISTANBUL // Long before one of Turkey's most famous journalists was shot three times in the head by a 17-year-old Turkish nationalist, he was already in the crosshairs of the security and intelligence forces.

A top European court and critics in Turkey say members of the police force knew of the plot to kill the journalist, Hrant Dink - an ethnic Armenian who was gunned down in Istanbul on January 19, 2007 - but took no action to prevent the crime.

Turkish authorities are still blocking a thorough investigation into the involvement of state officials in the conspiracy, critics say.

Last July, Ogun Samast, a young nationalist, was convicted by a juvenile court of killing Mr Dink in downtown Istanbul, but the trial against his alleged accomplices has been dragging on amid accusations that the authorities are reluctant to shed light on the role of security forces in the plot to kill the journalist.

Istanbul's High Criminal Court is scheduled to convene today for the 24th hearing in the trial.

"It was like a chronicle of a death foretold," said Banu Guven, a Turkish journalist and a member of Friends of Hrant, a group calling for a full investigation against policemen, military officers and members of the intelligence services.

"Officers knew this group was going to kill Hrant, they even knew the type of weapon that was going to be used," Ms Guven said this week.

Turkish nationalists hated Mr Dink because he openly said the killing of hundreds of thousands of Armenians in the final years of the Ottoman Empire amounted to genocide, a term Turkey rejects.

Suspicions that there was support or at least sympathy within the security forces for the perpetrators arose after Samast's arrest on January 20, 2007, when policemen posed for souvenir pictures with Mr Dink's murderer.

In 2010, the European Court of Human Rights in France ruled Turkey was guilty of failing to protect Mr Dink's life.

Police in Istanbul and the north-east city of Trabzon, the home of the suspected killers, "had been informed of the likelihood of an assassination attempt and even of the identity of the suspected instigators", the court said.

After the crime, authorities refused to allow investigations against high-ranking officers of the security forces, the judges said.

The verdict has not changed the situation in court in Istanbul, critics said.

"The people who would conduct the investigation are the very ones who should be investigated," Ms Guven said.

Friends of Hrant, campaigning under the slogan "This trial must not end this way", has called on its supporters to gather in front of the court in Istanbul today to protest against what it sees as attempts at a cover-up.

Samast, who was 17 when he killed Mr Dink outside the offices of Mr Dink's Armenian newspaper, Agos, was sentenced to almost 23 years in prison. According to Turkish rules on prison terms, he is to be released in about 10 years.

In the separate trial against Samast's suspected accomplices before Istanbul's High Criminal Court, the prosecution has demanded life sentences for Yasin Hayal, a member of the militant nationalist scene in Trabzon, and Erhat Tuncel, a former police informer from the Black Sea city.

Summing up its case last September, the prosecution said the murder was the work of a local cell of Ergenekon, a suspected network of nationalists accused by prosecutors in another ongoing trial of plotting to overthrow the government by provoking a military coup with the help of assassinations and other terrorist acts.

But prosecutors did not go into details of the Ergenekon connection.

Critics accused the prosecution of trying to end the trial prematurely.

"We have always said that the slowness with which this trial was proceeding was unbearable, but hastily concluding the prosecution case will not help the truth to emerge," Reporters Without Borders, an international group campaigning for media freedom, said last year.

Friends of Hrant have said the state involvement in the murder was obvious.

"It is clear that the ones responsible for Hrant's death and for an organised effort to hide the truth are state officials," the group said on its website.

Ms Guven said court proceedings, which started in February 2008, showed clear signs of reluctance by the state to get to the bottom of the case.

"The trial has been dragging on for so long because there are problems with gathering evidence," she said. "Sometimes authorities do not want to supply the court with evidence."

One example, cited by Ms Guven and other critics, is that Turkey's telecommunication authorities refused for months to give the court mobile phone records from the time and place where Mr Dink was shot. The records were sent to the court last year only after several demands by the judge.

Other evidence that Mr Tuncel and Mr Hayal, the men accused of organising the murder with Samast, worked with members of the security apparatus, has also not been examined properly, critics say.

Mr Hayal's father, Bahattin Hayal, said last November that an unnamed official had congratulated him on his son after the murder and told him that Yasin worked for the state.

There have been signs that the suspects are confident of their early release.

In one court hearing, Samast said he would get even with Mr Dink's family after the trial.

"Just wait, I'll see you in five years," he told family members in the courtroom.

Ms Guven said she was concerned the trial would end without shedding light on the true dimension of the conspiracy behind Mr Dink's death.

"The people on trial now will go to prison for a few years and may even expect a hero's welcome after their release," she said.

The militant nationalist mentality that led to Mr Dink's death was still alive in Turkey five years after the murder, she added.

"As long as we do not see the whole picture and as long as that mentality is not clearly condemned, there is a danger that things like that could happen again," she said.

tseibert@thenational.ae