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The Assassination of Hrant Dink: Another Deadly Incident Destined to Remain Unsolved?

January 22, 2007

By Mehmet Kalyoncu

The assassination of Hrant Dink, one of the most prominent Turkish Armenians and the editor-in-chief of bilingual Turkish-Armenian weekly newspaper Agos outside his newspaper’s office was a deplorable act by any definition. Yet it was not an unexpected one, given the selection of the target and its expected/actual impact on Turkish society and on Turkey’s position vis-ˆšÃ‰  -vis the issue of the “Armenian genocide’ that has taken on new proportions internationally of late, with the US Congress weighing a resolution on the issue. Ankara has already warned about the implications of American genocide recognition for bilateral relations.

This is at least the thesis of a good percentage of the population in Turkey, where all too often such murky crimes are blamed ultimately on malevolent and all-powerful outside forces- with the result that it is rare that full investigations are ever executed.

The Turkish police caught Mr. Dink’s assassin in just 32 hours, something which the government took great pride in noting. Yet has the problem been solved with the simple arrest of a 17-year-old gunman? Was he the ultimate and sole perpetrator of the killing? Just as with other recent violent events in Turkey, such as with the 16-year-old who killed a Catholic priest in Trabzon last year, the murder of the Turkish-Armenian journalist has been added to the pile of unsolved or semi-solved incidents that have been planned against the peace and stability of Turkey by the so-called “dark hands.”

This expression — karanlik eller in the Turkish — is the metaphor mostly used to refer to what the public views as the sinister masterminds behind the scenes. It is used in general to refer to those who allegedly always wanted to stir things up in Turkey. Even officials have used the “dark hands” metaphor after unsolved assassinations, bombings and the like. And there have been more than a few over the past year or so.

Fortunately, it seems like the killing did not breed the expected conflict between the Turkish Armenians and the Turks, mostly due to the fact that both sides are more aware than ever of the detrimental results that possible provocations could cause. Regarding the killing of Mr. Dink, the Turkish Armenian Patriarch Mesrob II noted, “[t]his assassination is a deplorable act that targets our country’s stability and its international relations.”[1] Moreover, regardless of their ethnic background, thousands took the street and protested the Dink killing by shouting “We are all Hrant, We are all Armenian!” Further, the fact that the killer was identified and reported to the police by his very own father suffices to suggest that the Dink killing has so far failed to cause social conflict between ethnic Armenian Turks and the Turks.

Nevertheless, it is imperative for the AK Party government to not let the Dink case go unresolved, or be left semi-resolved as were three other infamous recent incidents: the bookstore bombing in the southeastern Kurdish-inhabited town of Semdinli, the aforementioned killing of the Catholic priest, and the murder of Supreme Court magistrate Mustafa Yucel Ozbilgin in May of last year.

The Semdinli Incidents

On November 9, 2005, a bookstore (Umut Kitabevi) in Semdinli, near Hakkari, the most notable town in the southeast of Turkey, was bombed, killing two and injuring fourteen. The local people nearby managed to apprehend the suspected bomber and two other men allegedly involved with the bombing. In the alleged suspects’ automobile were discovered AK-47 assault rifles, Semdinli area maps, a name list of the political opposition leaders, and a document consisting of information about certain individuals in Semdinli.

Interestingly, two of the three alleged perpetrators were identified to be gendarmerie intelligence officers (JITEM) and one, a PKK [the armed Kurdish separatist group] informant. More interestingly, one of the JITEM officers was allegedly linked to then-Commander of Land Forces General Yasar Buyukanit, who is now the Chief of General Staff and whose relationship was never officially denied.

Immediately after the bombing, despite the call for calm by Kurdish community leaders and the officials, about a thousand people took to the streets and put the police checkpoint under fire.[2] The AK Party government assured the public that those responsible would be brought to justice shortly, and immediately established an investigation committee. The committee still continues its inquiry today, and the three alleged perpetrators were sentenced. However, the public is hardly convinced that the three men sentenced were the masterminds behind the Semdinli bombing.

The Semdinli bombing took place during a period when the military-civilian relationship was being scrutinized and it was argued that the civilian administration should have higher control over the military- to keep in line with EU requirements.

The Killing of Catholic Priest Andrea Santoro

On February 5, 2006, Priest Andrea Santoro of Italian Sancta Maria Catholic Church in Trabzon, who ministered to Turkey’s small Catholic population in this northeastern Black Sea town, was murdered by a 16-year-old boy. The killer reportedly had a personal problem with the priest, rather than a religious or ideological one.[3] However, before the investigation was even completed, the European press in general and the Italian press in particular had been quick to link the killing to the Prophet Mohammed cartoon crisis in Denmark and elsewhere. The Italian press thus portrayed the incident as an indication of religious fanaticism in Turkey- whose European Union bid has always been clouded in many Europeans’ eyes by the religious make-up of the country.

Indeed, a Corriere Della Sera article reported that the killer shouted “Allahu-Akbar” before killing the priest, thereby sufficing it to seem an act motivated by religious fanaticism.[4] Similarly another Italian newpaper, La Repubblica, reported that the killer interrupted the service, approached Priest Santoro and shot him after screaming “Allah Akbar”.[5] La Republica also reported that there hade been similar attacks in Beirut as well on the same day due to the Denmark-sparked cartoon crisis.

The investigation started immediately after the killing and identified other suspects involved with the killing of the priest. The prolonged judicial process, focusing exclusively on the 16-year-old gunman, ended after the 9th court trial, with an 18-year sentence imposed.[6]

Yet was the whole case really solved? The Turkish public still hardly believes that it was. Again the familiar reference to “Dark Hands” manipulating the killing from offstage was made. Priest Santoro’s killing also took place right after Turkey started EU accession negotiations with the European Union in October 3, 2005.

The Killing of the Supreme Court Magistrate

On May 17, 2006, Mustafa Yucel Ozbilgin, a Turkish Supreme Court Magistrate, was shot dead by a young attorney Alparslan Arslan. The immediate news reports noted that the assailant screamed “We are Allah’s soldiers. Allahu Akbar” while shooting Ozbilgin, a claim which was, later on, disputed.[7] Certain ultra-secular groups allegedly related the killing with the Supreme Court’s ban on the headscarf, and sought to send a warning to the AK Party government which was seeking a formula to resolve the headscarf problem. The family members and immediate friends of the assailant denied that he was even a practicing Muslim let alone a fanatic who would perpetrate such a killing due to religious motivations.

As of today, the Alparslan Aslan court trial still continues. Will the case be solved when he is sentenced? It may seem so, but it is still hard for the Turkish public to believe that he was the mastermind of the killing.

Finally, Hrant Dink: The Latest, but Unlikely to be the Last

The assassination of Hrant Dink has come during a time when the Armenian Diaspora is preparing to wage full battle against Turkey. On February 8, 2007, a resolution that recognizes the Armenian genocide and foresees certain sanctions on Turkey will be voted on in the U.S. House of Representatives, where long-time supporter of the so-called resolution Nancy Pelosi of California is the incoming Speaker. Bolstering the correlation of the timing of the Dink killing with the upcoming voting on the resolution, Aram Hamparian, Executive Director of ANCA (Armenian National Committee of America) noted, “Hrant Dink’s murder is tragic proof that the Turkish government –through its campaign of denial, threats and intimidation against the recognition of the Armenian Genocide — continues to fuel the same hatred and intolerance that initially led to this crime against humanity more than 90 years ago.”[8]

Ironically, however, as Turkish Armenian Patriarch Mesrob II noted, Hrant Dink was known as the foremost Armenian Turkish intellectual, and one disliked by the Armenian Diaspora due to his efforts to promote dialogue between Turkey and Armenia, and settle the conflict over historical disputes through open intellectual exchanges. Nevertheless, Dink’s death presents a matchless opportunity for the Armenian Diaspora to exploit against Turkey at this crucial time. Again, another mysterious death at a politically sensitive moment for Turkey- the fourth in just 15 months.

The “Dark Hands” Syndrome

The real challenge for the AK Party government now is less finding the assailant of the Dink killing but more pursuing the very investigation, wherever it may lead, to find the mastermind(s). The Turkish authorities and population have proven indulgent in the past about blaming such attacks on abstract external powers, or the so-called “dark hands.”

From top government officials to prominent intellectuals, almost everyone refers to the so-called “dark hands” that target the peace and stability of Turkey and try to drag the country into chaos.

Given the fact that in 2007 will be held two critical elections, presidential and parliamentary, in which chaos in Turkey hampers the political process and the government’s abilities to cope with ever-more complex situation, there is no reason to not expect such random assassinations as that of Hrant Dink in the days and weeks ahead. Nevertheless, popular acceptance of the so-called “dark hands” phenomenon would be an easy way out and would hinder the AK government’s ability to investigate the assassination and bring those really responsible to justice.

Referring to the assassination as a mere provocation attempt Prime Minister Erdogan recently noted, “we know that those who shot him (Mr. Dink) have in fact shot Turkey. Our solidarity, democracy, freedom of thought, peace and stability was the target.”[9] Similarly, the intelligence officers cited, the strategists and commentators, have in the immediate aftermath so far followed the course and attributed the latest killing to the so-called “external powers.”[10] Most importantly, they have all drawed attention to the correlation between the timing of the Dink assassination and the upcoming discussion of the Armenian genocide in the U.S. House of Representatives. The argument is that certain interest groups should have wanted to bolster the Armenian Diaspora’s hand as it prepares to pass resolution in the U.S. Congress to recognize the Armenian genocide.

Former MIT (Turkish National Intelligence Service) officer Mahir Kaynak suggests, “[H]rant Dink’s killing would benefit the Armenian Diaspora in the United States. He was the right choice to start a long-term campaign against Turkey”. Similarly, former Chief of Intelligence Bulent Orakoglu stresses that the assassination of Dink is a signal for similar future killings: “such assassinations were already expected starting in early 2007. Creating chaos is the strategy of certain powers.”

Along similar lines, Retired Lt. General Edip Baser, Special Coordinator for Terrorism, views the killing as a deliberate effort to divert the AK Party government’s attention away from the situation in Northern Iraq.

Certainly the failure to bring the mastermind(s) of Hrant Dink assassination to justice will weaken the AK Party government’s public image as it nears the presidential and parliamentary election domestically and Turkey’s position vis-ˆšÃ‰  -vis the genocide allegations internationally. Perhaps it was such a motivation that led the so-called “dark hands” to kill this prominent Turkish Armenian journalist- if they actually did, of course. If history is any judge, we may never know.



[1][1] “Mutafyan: Saldiri ulkemizdeki huzur ortamini hedefleyen igrenc bir suikasttir”, Zaman 19.01.2007 at http://www.zaman.com.tr/webapp-tr/haber.do?haberno=490232

[2] “Provakatorler Semdinli’de sahnede”, Zaman 11.11.2005 at http://www.zaman.com.tr/webapp-tr/haber.do?haberno=227927

[3] “Trabzon’da Katolik Kilisesi’nin papazi olduruldu olduruldu”, Zaman 06.02.2005 at http://www.zaman.com.tr/webapp-tr/haber.do?haberno=253613&keyfield=6B61746F6C696B207261686970

[4]“Turchia: ucciso un prete cattolico italiano”, Corriere Della Sera 02.06.2006 at http://www.corriere.it/Primo_Piano/Esteri/2006/02_Febbraio/05/turchia.shtml

[5]Turchia, sacerdote italiano cattolico ucciso in chiesa mentre pregava”, La Repubblica 5 febbrario 2006 at http://www.repubblica.it/2006/b/sezioni/esteri/moriente30/preteucciso/preteucciso.html

[6] “Rahip cinayeti davasinda temyize gidildi”, Zaman 30.10.2006 at http://www.zaman.com.tr/webapp-tr/haber.do?haberno=445458&keyfield=6B61746F6C696B207261686970

[8] Press Release “Anca Condems Murder of Hrant Dink”, available at http://www.anca.org/press_releases/press_releases.php?prid=1059

[9] “Hain bir provakasyonla karsi karsiyayiz”, Zaman 01.20.2007 at http://www.zaman.com.tr/webapp-tr/haber.do?haberno=490465

[10] “Turkiye’ye yonelik bir operasyonun isaret fisegi — Signal Bullet of an Operation against Turkey“, Zaman 01.20.2007 at http://www.zaman.com.tr/webapp-tr/haber.do?haberno=490332

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