A Turkish court has handed down life imprisonment for Yasin Hayal, a major suspect in the killing of Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink, of instigating a murder while another suspect Erhan Tuncel was acquitted of murder charges.
The İstanbul 14th High Criminal Court issued its ruling in the 25th hearing of the case, ending a five-year trial. The two, and all other suspects, were cleared of charges of membership in a terrorist organization. Tuncel was given 10 years and six months for an unrelated McDonalds bombing in 2004.
The late editor-in-chief of the Turkish-Armenian weekly Agos, Dink was shot dead on Jan. 19, 2007 by an ultranationalist teenager outside the offices of his newspaper in İstanbul in broad daylight. Evidence discovered since then has led to claims that the murder was linked to the “deep state,” a term used in reference to a shady group of military and civilian bureaucrats believed to have links with criminal elements.
Tuncel, one of the key suspects in the murder who was previously a police informant, had his final defense statement at the hearing. Tuncel, who was accused of being an instigator of the murder, said that the murder was an action of Ergenekon, a clandestine organization whose alleged members are currently standing trial in court cases on charges of plotting against the government.
In 1999, lawyers in the trial over the murder of Dink had demanded that the court request documents seized during the Ergenekon probe relating to the organization's Cage Action Plan against minorities in Turkey.
The lawyers had stated at the time that Dink's killing, along with the 2006 killing of an Italian priest and the 2007 killing of three Christians in Malatya, was part of an operation in the works being carried out by Ergenekon. They also said that when Dink was facing charges under the Turkish Penal Code (TCK) Article 301, which then criminalized “insulting Turkishness,” some of the people who are in jail now as alleged Ergenekon members brought crowds of protestors and even attacked Dink and his supporters as they entered and left the courtroom.
In September last year, prosecutor Hikmet Usta announced his opinion as to who masterminded the assassination and as to the accusations directed at suspects during the 20th hearing of the Dink trial. The prosecutor said the murder was the work of Ergenekon's Trabzon cell and demanded life imprisonment for seven suspects, including key suspects Hayal and Tuncel, on charges of attempting to destroy the constitutional order.
Following the announcement of the court ruling, a group of people supporting Dink's family and demanding justice for Hrant Dink showed outrage with the ruling.
Dink family's lawyer, Fethiye Çetin, slammed the ruling, saying it meant that a “state tradition of political murders” was deliberately left intact because it did not deal with accusations of state involvement in the 2007 murder.
“They made fun of us throughout the five-year trial process. We did not know they saved the biggest joke to the very end,” she told reporters soon after the verdict was read out. “This ruling means a tradition was left untouched. The state tradition of political murders. The tradition of state discriminating against some of its citizens and turning them into enemies,” she said.
Çetin also vowed to pursue all available legal remedies against the ruling, asserting that the verdict marked the end of only an initial phase of the case, which consisted of the trial of hitmen in the murder. The prosecutor in the case also plans to appeal the verdict.
In Brussels, Peter Stano, spokesperson for enlargement commissioner Stefan Füle, said the EU recalled the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) judgment in 2010, which found that Turkey had failed to conduct an effective investigation into the murder of Dink, thus not guaranteeing his right to life. In 2010, the ECtHR ordered Turkish authorities to pay 100,000 euros to Dink's family in compensation, saying authorities had failed to protect Dink even though they knew ultranationalists were plotting to kill him.
He added that all involved need to be held accountable before the law and further judicial investigations into the involvement of high-ranking officials need to be conducted. Stano further stated that the EU underlines the importance for Turkey to address the systemic shortcomings in its justice system as made evident by the 2010 ECtHR judgment and urged the full execution of the European court's judgment, which he said is crucial for Turkey in order to fight impunity.
Court grants preliminary injunction against erasing of phone records
The court granted a preliminary injunction against the erasing of mobile phone records for calls made in the area of the assassination. According to the ruling, all calls made between the dates of Aug. 19, 2006 and Feb. 19, 2007 will be kept by the Telecommunications Directorate (TİB) as the prosecutor’s office may ask for these records at any time.
After the finalization of the case by the İstanbul 14th High Criminal Court, the Dink case is supposed to go to the Supreme Court of Appeals, Çetin had told Today’s Zaman, because the court demanded the prosecution examine the TİB records more thoroughly.
“If there is new evidence, the case could be reopened with an additional indictment,” Çetin said.
During the 24th hearing of the trial that took place on Jan. 9, Çetin said the TİB had provided the court with incorrect records of phone calls made on the day of the murder, Jan. 19, 2007. TİB told the court that 6,235 phone conversations took place in the vicinity at the time of the murder and that 9,300 people were carrying cell phones in the area. It also said that its records showed no link to any of the cell phones.
However, Çetin said at least five cell phone numbers belonging to people who were present at the crime scene on the day of the murder were directly connected to Mustafa Öztürk and Sahil Hacısalihoğlu, two suspects in the investigation.
She went on to claim that one of the numbers assigned to a cell phone present in the area at the time of the murder had made 19 calls to suspect Öztürk between the dates Oct. 22, 2005 -- about two years prior to the murder -- and Jan. 27, 2007.
This was not the first time the Dink family lawyers have discovered information that appears to have been secretly held from the prosecution and the court. Footage from active security cameras at shops and banks located close to the crime scene was also mysteriously lost. These recordings would have been invaluable in identifying those associated with the murderer on the day of the assassination.
The lawyers have been expressing their frustration that there may have been attempts to protect the suspects. A lengthy list of suspicious irregularities in the Dink murder investigation, including deleted records and hidden files, suggestive of a police cover-up attempt, has marred the judicial process.
Much of the evidence has indicated that the murder could have been prevented. Since the day of the murder, mounting evidence has indicated that the police were tipped off about the assassination plot some months before the actual attack. İstanbul’s police chief has also acknowledged that there was a tip-off about a possible attack on Dink, but said its priority level was too low for his department to take it seriously.
More dishearteningly, links between the police and suspects have been revealed. For example, Erhan Tuncel, a key suspect in the murder, was previously a police informant. Although Tuncel is suspected of having incited Dink’s murderer, he is also said to be the one who tipped off İstanbul police. Important evidence, including Tuncel’s police records, was hidden from the court. In fact, Tuncel’s file with the police was destroyed, since it constitutes a “state secret,” according to officials.
The investigation has yielded more evidence linking the masterminds of the murder plot to the police force in İstanbul and Trabzon, the hometown of most of the suspects and the place where the assassination was planned, and in Ankara, where the police were in possession of intelligence about the murder.
In July last year, Ogün Samast, the hitman in the murder of Dink, was sentenced to nearly 23 years in jail. Samast, tried in juvenile court because he was a minor at the time of the crime, was sentenced by the court to 21 years, six months for “premeditated murder” and one year, four months for carrying an unlicensed gun.
In his final testimony to the court, Samast called for his acquittal and blamed certain newspapers and columnists, saying what he had read in those papers had incited him to commit the crime. “How else would I have known about Hrant Dink or Agos if they had not written about them,” he told the court.
Hrant’s Friends vow to fight for justice to be served
“Hrant’s Friends,” who hold demonstrations before each trial demanding justice, met at the Beşiktaş and Dolmabahçe Squares on Tuesday before the hearing of the case started. Carrying a placard that read, “For Hrant, for Justice,” the group walked to the courthouse.
The group included Dink’s widow, Rakel Dink, main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) İstanbul Chairman Oğuz Kaan Salıcı, Voice of the People Party (HAS Party) İstanbul Chairman Mehmet Bekaroğlu, Peace and Democracy Party İstanbul deputy Sırrı Süreyya Önder and several artists. They also chanted slogans such as, “This case won’t end like that,” “Murderer state will be accountable,” “You are my brother, Hrant against fascism” and “We are all Hrant, we are all Armenians.”
Garo Paylan, who read a statement on behalf of the group said in regards to the expected ruling:
“The ruling is the state’s decision. The ones who decided to take Hrant from us five years ago -- the security forces, gendarmerie, intelligence, judiciary, media, government, opposition -- will once again make a decision in the courthouse. They will say that the murder is the job of two or three hitmen. They will try to hide in their dark world. But we know them. They don’t know a thing: This case will not end before we say that it did.”
Paylan also reminded that it will be the fifth year of the Dink’s murder on Thursday. “We will shout out the words we have been shouting at them for five years: You are murderers.”
He also reminded that Hrant’s Friends will gather in Taksim Square on Jan. 19 and walk to the spot where Dink was killed. Similar demonstrations are planned outside of Turkey as well. “We will be out on the streets until we find you one by one. For Hrant,” he added.