Nine years ago today, on a cold Friday morning in 2007, the Armenian journalist Hrant Dink was murdered on the streets of Istanbul. Two bullets to the head killed him, right outside the offices of Agos newspaper, an Armenian daily which he had established.
Every year, in commemoration of Hrant Dink, thousands of people gather, chanting “We are all Armenians, we are all Hrant Dink.” His death became a symbol and sparked a nationwide debate on the Armenian question, something which had previously been a taboo in Turkish society.
Despite the support Hrant Dink’s murder catalyzed, it equally enraged many ultra-nationalists, who hailed Dink’s killer, Ogün Samast as a hero. As details of the murder unravelled, it became clear that Samast had some connections with MIT, the Turkish Intelligence Service. Prosecutions were launched against certain police officers who apparently knew of the plot to kill him, but failed to act. Ercan Demir, who was the police chief in Trabzon province, where Samust reportedly hailed from, was charged with “deliberate negligence” for allegedly failing to act on intelligence that could have prevented the murder. However, the true extent of culpability between the state and Dink’s murder has never been revealed fully, a charge his family still levels against the Turkish State.
Back in 2007, the controversy of Hrant Dink stemmed from an unbending obsession with anybody who dared “insult Turkishness.” Dink was a tireless, brave journalist who spoke out not just against the rampant Turkish nationalism that criticized and threatened Armenian and other minorities in Turkey, but also against diaspora Armenians by arguing that they should rid themselves of their rage against Turks. In this, Hrant Dink was a reformer who argued for reconciliation between Armenians and Turks as well as speaking up for other minorities across Turkey.
The Loss of Tahir Elçi
Two months ago, a prominent Kurdish human rights lawyer, Tahir Elçi, was killed on the streets of Diyarbakır. Elçi had been holding a press conference with a group of lawyers condemning the damage inflicted on a historical four-legged minaret due to clashes between the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) and Turkish security forces.
The exact circumstances of his death have yet to be understood, but amongst his family and friends, the state is widely believed to have been at fault. The Progressive Lawyers Association have slammed the way the investigation into Tahir Elçi’s death has been conducted in secret, claiming that a proper investigation is not being carried out.
Tahir Elçi’s wife, Turkan, likened her husband’s murder to that of Hrant Dink’s.
“I compare Tahir’s death to that of Hrant Dink. Hrant’s words were taken out of context and he was made a target [by the media] before he was killed. The same happened to Tahir; the media began a psychological lynching campaign. When assessed in terms of the sources of the violence, both killings share similarities. In terms of the results, both killings also look to serve the same purpose. I really wonder, with so many similarities between the two incidents, maybe those who instigated the killings are the same.”
In this, it was the wrath of Turkish nationalism that killed both Dink and Elçi.
Elçi became the target of a lynching campaign after he claimed on live television that the “PKK was not a terrorist organization.” Nationalists sent him numerous death threats, while the pro-government media appeared to condone, and even encourage, such an atmosphere by exposing him as a traitor and terrorist supporter. Just as Hrant Dink faced a lynching campaign for “insulting Turkishness” prior to his death, Tahir Elçi’s similarly spent his last few weeks having to come to terms with the death threats he was receiving for his perceived affront to the same. .
Furthermore, both Dink and Elçi shared similar views. Whilst Tahir Elçi was a lawyer rather than a journalist, they both were critical of the more hard-line elements amongst Kurds and Armenians. Dink believed diaspora Armenians had to rid themselves of their anger towards Turks for reconciliation to take place, whilst Elçi was critical of the PKK for their violent tendencies. In an interview we held in the weeks preceding his death, Elçi explained to me that he believed the digging of trenches by some members of the PKK was “undoubtedly a foolish mistake given the success of HDP in June’s election.”
Unresolved Murders, Unresolved Answers
In a recent interview with Turkish media, Tahir Elçi’s daughter Nazenin Elçi, expressed doubts of whether the true circumstances surrounding her father’s death will ever be resolved; “To say ‘we’ll find the killer and he’ll see justice’ is both childishness and naïve”, she stated.
In this, Nazenin Elçi knows that her father’s death is another death in a long list of unresolved politically motivated murders in Turkey. With Elçi’s investigation being conducted in secret; the lack of transparency of the judiciary system leads to a complete lack of trust in the state’s ability to conduct a free and fair trial. Nazan Üstündağ, a sociologist at Boğaziçi university, remarked on how,
“Among the cameras and the journalists, there is not a single witness who can testify to the death of this person, who spent his entire life gathering testimonies for dozens of unresolved murders and forced disappearances that went unwitnessed themselves. It seems as though a divine hand guarded Tahir Elçi from the injurious gaze of the surveillance videos, the cameras, and the long-barrelled weapons.”
Both were targeted by Turkish nationalists prior to their death, not because of their views, but simply because of their prominence. As leading moderate figures calling for reconciliation between Turkish-Armenian and Turkish-Kurdish relations, their deaths made peace an even more distant prospect.
What links these two men so closely together is the likely collaboration between the state and their murderers. In Hrant Dink’s case, there is clear, substantial evidence behind such claims. If it had chosen to, it is clear that the state could have prevented his murder. But considering that the Turkish Republic didn’t believe in the virtues of keeping Dink alive, they allowed for a plot against him to be carried out.
In Tahir Elçi’s case, he was killed due to the state’s natural disposition against the Kurds. Selahattin Demirtaş, the co-leader of the HDP (Peoples’ Democracy Party), said at Elçi’s funeral that “What killed Tahir Elçi was not the state, but statelessness.” In this, Demirtaş is lamenting how Kurds have yet to be able to call the Turkish State their own, due to its scornful disposition towards the Kurds.
Hrant Dink, and now Tahir Elçi, join a long list of unresolved murders in Turkey. For each unresolved murder, it encourages the next one. A judiciary, and a state by extension, that fails to solve or prosecute fully a murder, encourages a repeat of a similar crime. Rampant nationalism that continues to go unchecked by the state is a threat to peace and stability in Turkey. To cite one example, Sedat Peker, a notorious mafia boss turned AKP-supporter, recently said of the Kurds, “We will spill your blood, and we will take a shower with your blood.” Will he be charged for such hate speech? With nationalist sentiment on the rise ever since Ankara resumed operations against the PKK in the south-east, such an outcome seem unlikely and we as humans will continue to suffer the loss of lasting peace and great peace-builders such as Hrant Dink and Tahir Elçi.