The shots that cut down the writer and activist Hrant Dink in Istanbul on 19 January ignited a firestorm throughout the country. A few days later, on 23 January, over 100,000 people poured into Istanbul’s streets and accompanied Dink’s funeral procession to the city’s central Taksim Square. Thousands more took part in demonstrations and processions in cities throughout Europe and wherever immigrant workers and others from Turkey are found. Senior state officials, including the Deputy Prime Minister, the Interior Minister, the governor of Istanbul and even the head of the country’s security forces attended the funeral. But many, indeed most of those in the streets believed strongly that Dink’s blood was on the hands of men like these.
Dink had lived his whole life on the outside of establishment Turkey. Born of Armenian ethnicity in the Turkish city of Malataya in 1954, he was raised in an Armenian orphanage in Istanbul, where he met his future wife Rakel while both were children. During the massive revolutionary upsurge that shook Turkey to its foundations in the 1970s, he joined the ranks of the revolutionary communists who had been inspired by the Cultural Revolution in China. The Turkish media has widely reported that he was an activist of the Communist Party of Turkey/Marxist-Leninist, the forerunner of today’s Maoist Communist Party of Turkey and North Kurdistan. It was at that time too that he adopted the firm stand against both Turkish racism and Armenian narrow nationalism that stayed with him for the rest of his life. He was one of many thousands arrested when the country’s top generals carried out a coup in 1980 and set up naked military rule.
Turkey’s rulers have never stopped dreaming of recovering the glory of the days of the Ottoman Empire, when for centuries they ran a large part of the world, from the Atlantic Coast of North Africa through most of the Middle East and part of Europe. Yet at the same time, today they have subordinated themselves to the Western powers and especially the US. Dink wrote about “the deep state – the network of military and security forces that exercises real political power in Turkey” since 1923, when a military coup led by Kemal Ataturk established modern Turkey. He never ceased speaking out about the crimes that had been committed in the name of dreams of Turkish empire, in particular the organized slaughter of up to 1.5 million Armenians in 1915. Under the notorious article 301 of the Turkish penal code, it is a crime to “insult the Turkish identity”, including by referring to this bloody episode. Every year Turkish intellectuals are prosecuted under the provisions of this law, among them last year, just before he won the Nobel Prize, the novelist Orhan Pamuk.
Declarations by various government officials that it is intolerable for people to be killed simply for what they think and calling for reconciliation between Turkish and Armenian featured prominently in the world media. But it was the Turkish state system that these men preside over that repeatedly put Dink on trial for his continuing outspokenness about the Armenian genocide. He was found guilty for this in 2005 and sentenced to six months in prison. The sentence was suspended, but Turkey’s highest court approved his conviction. It also reaffirmed article 301, leaving the state free to continue wielding this heavy club against even the most famous intellectuals. When the Armenian-Turkish bilingual newspaper that he edited, Agos, ran editorials against the conviction, he and three other journalists were given another six months suspended sentence for “trying to influence the courts” while his previous conviction was under appeal. Legally, the courts could decide to order him to serve both sentences if he “insulted Turkishness” again. In 2006, he was yet again hauled before a judge to answer charges that he had criticized the words of the Turkish national anthem, “Happy is he who is a Turk... smile upon my heroic race”. These new charges were pending when he was murdered in front of his newspaper’s offices.
Even more ominously, the publicity from the trial made Dink a prominent target of the extreme right-wing death squads that operate with impunity in the country. It is widely known that fascist assassins like the infamous “Grey Wolves” work hand in glove with the country’s secret police and go after anyone who becomes a popular figure of opposition to the regime. Last year fascist assassins who had links with the secret police were caught red-handed trying to bomb a Kurdish nationalist bookstore in Diyarbakir, and many writers and journalists have been killed over the years. The state has openly demonstrated its own bloodthirsty character on many occasions too – in the summer of 2005 the military massacred 17 leaders and members of the Maoist Communist Party whom they caught in the open countryside near Dersim, in Turkish Kurdistan.
Not long before he was killed, Dink was summoned to a meeting with the assistant governor of Istanbul. When he arrived, the assistant governor announced that two of his relatives just happened to be visiting, and that he would like them to join in the meeting with Dink. What happened next sent a chill over Dink. The assistant governor had little to say, and in fact the meeting was dominated by a thinly veiled warning from the senior “relative”: we know that you are not a bad guy, Mr Dink, but, you see, there are all these hot-heads out there who are out of control, and if you know what’s good for you, you’ll stop all this public talk about the Armenian genocide and your other statements attacking “Turkishness”.
Dink told friends that he wasn’t worried for himself personally, but he had to take the threats seriously because of the danger to his loved ones. But where to go? He’d been to Europe many times to speak, but after four days of European winter he just couldn’t stand the “lack of sunlight” – by which he meant more than just the weather. As for Armenia, he said that if he went there he would still be muzzled, only in a different way. Dink not only criticised Turkish chauvinism but also struggled with the nationalist terms in which much of mainstream Armenian criticism of Turkey have been put, which tend to frame issues in terms of “Turk” versus “Armenian”. We have all of us, Kurds, Turks, Armenians, ethnic Greeks, Jews and many others, poured our sweat and blood into this country – why should I leave, why shouldn’t I stand and fight, he argued.
And so he did. Despite repeated threats against his life, Dink carried on, and had recently attended a conference of intellectuals and other prominent figures in Turkey opposed to the Turkish government’s “military solution” to the “problem” of Kurdistan. In December 2006, he attended a symposium on “The duties of intellectuals today” organized by the Maoist-led Democratic Youth Movement in Turkey.
It was Dink’s defiance of the state’s relentless beat of Great Turkish chauvinism and the courage he displayed by standing up for the unity of all nationalities, even in the face of death, that struck such a chord with millions. Thousands carried placards at his funeral proudly proclaiming, “We are all Hrant Dink” and “We are all Armenian” – in a country where for centuries one of the most common curses has been “Armenian bastard”. The fact that leading state representatives who had done nothing but fan the flames of anti-Armenian and anti-Kurdish racism for decades were now trying feebly to present themselves as anti-racists showed just how much they had been put on the defensive by the mass outpouring of sympathy for Dink.
Even if Dink’s murder was not directly organised by state elements, as a great many people in Turkey and even some of the most mainstream media abroad believe, at a minimum the country’s military rulers incited this crime. They created the atmosphere in which it became all but inevitable, and they gave its perpetrators reason to believe that their act would be welcomed on some level. A 17-year-old unemployed youth from north-eastern Turkey has been charged with the shooting, and five other young men with conspiracy. All quickly confessed – no surprise in a country where torture is part of the legal system and judges sentence people quickly on the basis of their “confessions”. Curiously, the local authorities argued that they could not have prevented the murder because they had not been watching the alleged ringleader, Yasin Hayal. Yet Hayal was a known fascist nationalist who was convicted of blowing up a McDonald’s restaurant in 2004, and the MIT (political police) and its informers seem to be watching everyone else throughout Turkey. When brought into court, Hayal yelled, “Orhan Pamuk, be smart! Be smart” – a warning to the novelist that the death squads don’t intend to stop with Dink.
In one of his last articles, Dink wrote that, I look around and see all the pigeons living side by side with all the people in this country, and today I feel like them – “I feel as anxious as they do, but also just as free.” It is testament to the kind of forces who dominate Turkey and the world today that the only response they have to a man who lived his life with such sentiments was murder.
Demonstration in Istanbul "We are all Armenian"
Des dizaines de milliers de personnes ont parcouru les huit kilomètres séparant le lieu du crime de l'église orthodoxe arménienne avec des pancartes sur lesquelles était écrit «Nous sommes tous Hrant Dink» ou «Nous sommes tous Arméniens».
"Wir alle sind Hrant Dink": Trauer um den ermordeten türkisch-armenischen Journalist Hrant Dink
© Burak Kara/Getty Images