The Turkish judiciary must hold accountable any security forces found responsible for negligence or collusion in the murder of Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink, Human Rights Watch said today. Evidence that will be heard in the trial, which starts on July 2, may raise serious questions about possible involvement of the security forces in the killing.
"Hrant Dink's murder trial is a critical test of the Turkish judiciary's independence,” said Holly Cartner, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “We will be closely watching how the court handles any evidence that may implicate the security forces."
Dink was a courageous champion of open debate, dialogue and cooperation between all communities in Turkey, and a man committed to democratization and human rights in Turkey. He was gunned down outside his office in Istanbul on January 19. Dink’s killing was apparently politically and ethnically motivated; he was identified by his murderers as an Armenian who had been convicted in court for “insulting Turkishness.”
Eighteen defendants named in the April 20 indictment will stand trial for Dink’s killing. Two of the defendants are accused of being leaders of an armed gang that allegedly planned the murder. The gunman is a 17-year-old youth allegedly appointed by the gang to carry out the killing.
Dink had been receiving death threats for some time before his murder and had reported these threats to the local prosecutor in Istanbul. His reports apparently went unheeded. In the 18 months preceding his murder, officials in Istanbul and Trabzon also reportedly failed to act on numerous police intelligence reports revealing a plan to murder Dink.
In fact, the indictment alleges that one of the three main defendants had operated as a police informer, and the police had repeatedly been informed that another defendant was planning to kill Dink. Since the murder, several senior public officials have been removed from office, including the governor of Trabzon and the head of the city’s police, who were removed on the grounds of negligence and failures of duty. The authorities should also investigate a number of others, including members of the gendarmerie in Trabzon, although criminal investigation of public officials in Turkey remains a cumbersome process, relying on a very old law.
“The Turkish authorities failed to protect Hrant Dink, despite evidence that his life was at risk,” said Cartner. “They must now ensure that those responsible are held to account and, where appropriate, prosecuted.”
Human Rights Watch is also deeply concerned by the statements and conduct of some Turkish officials that point to possible bias and raise questions about their ability to act impartially in the Dink case. Before any investigation could be conducted, Celalettin Cerrah, the head of the Istanbul Police stated publicly that there was no political dimension to Dink’s killing, that the suspected gunman had no links to political organizations, and that the gunman was motivated only by nationalist sentiment. The Ministry of Interior inspectorate recommended that he receive an official condemnation for this statement. Lawyers for Hrant Dink’s family have appealed a decision not to pursue a criminal investigation into Cerrah’s conduct and statements.
Moreover, Turkish television broadcast footage it had obtained of several police and gendarmerie officers posing for photographs with the murder suspect directly after his apprehension in the Black Sea city of Samsun on January 21. The footage reveals the suspect holding up a Turkish flag and surrounded by officers in the Samsun Security Directorate, who apparently considered this a souvenir. Eight members of the police and gendarmerie were suspended from duty pending an investigation.
“In this climate of growing intolerance and violence against minority groups, the Turkish authorities must fully investigate Dink’s murder and bring all perpetrators to justice,” said Cartner. “Failure to ensure justice in this case would send a dangerous message. Violent attacks on minority groups or on those expressing critical and dissenting views must not be tolerated.”
Background: Prosecutions against Dink and the newpaper Agos
In the 18 months prior to his murder, Hrant Dink had been the subject of three prosecutions for speech-related offenses. For an article in which he discussed Armenian identity, Dink last July received a six-month suspended sentence under Article 301, a provision of the Turkish penal code that criminalizes “publicly insulting Turkishness.” Dink was prosecuted again in September under the same article for using the term “genocide” in a statement made to the Reuters news agency to describe the massacres of Armenians in Anatolia at the end of the Ottoman Empire.
Agos (Furrow), the bilingual Turkish and Armenian-language newspaper that Dink edited until his death, continues to be targeted on charges of speech-related offenses. Arat Dink, Hrant Dink’s son and now editor of Agos, and Serkis Saropyan, owner of the newspaper, are still on trial for “insulting Turkishness” as the publishers of Hrant Dink’s remarks and for a petition organized by Agos entitled, “A signature against Article 301.” Two Agos journalists, Aydın Engin and Karin Karakaşlı, are also on trial under the same article. In the aftermath of Hrant Dink’s murder, prosecutions under Article 301 continue.
Human Rights Watch has repeatedly called on the Turkish government to abolish Article 301 and other laws that inhibit freedom of speech. They should also drop all charges against journalists, writers and editors who face prosecution for their peaceful expression.