Armenian editor is slain in Turkey

January 20, 2007
Source: The New York Times

By Sebnem Arsu

ISTANBUL, Jan. 19 — A prominent newspaper editor, columnist and voice for Turkey’s ethnic Armenians who was prosecuted for challenging the official Turkish version of the 1915 Armenian genocide, was shot dead as he left his office on a busy street in central Istanbul on Friday. Television images showed the editor, Hrant Dink, lying on the crowded sidewalk covered with a white sheet outside the office of his bilingual Turkish-Armenian weekly, Agos. Officials said they detained three suspects. Investigators were monitoring surveillance tapes from nearby shops.

Mr. Dink, 52, a Turk of Armenian descent, often provoked widespread anger in Turkey for his comments on the genocide — which Turkey denies, saying the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Armenians resulted from hunger and other suffering in World War I. He also angered some ethnic Armenians for opposing their demand that Turkey recognize the genocide as a condition of entry to the European Union. He viewed entry into the Union as the clearest route to strengthening democracy in Turkey.

In recent articles, Mr. Dink (pronounced deenk) described increasing death threats against him. "I do not know how real these threats are," he wrote, "but what’s really unbearable is the psychological torture that I’m living in, like a pigeon, turning my head up and down, left and right, my head quickly rotating."

Reaction to the daylight shooting, both here and abroad, was swift and deep. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan condemned the shooting as a direct attack on Turkey’s peace and stability. "A bullet was fired at freedom of thought and democratic life in Turkey," he said in a nationally broadcast news conference. "Once again, dark hands have chosen our country and spilled blood in Istanbul to achieve their dark goals."

In an unusual show of anger and regret, the prime minister’s remarks were echoed by the head of the armed forces, the president and other officials. The Armenian patriarch in Istanbul, Archbishop Mesrob Mutafyan, declared 15 days of mourning for the small Armenian, Christian population of Turkey.

Several thousand people marched from Mr. Dink’s office to Taksim Square on Friday evening to protest the killing. People held pictures of Mr. Dink, decorated his office door with flowers, waved black flags and chanted, "Shoulder to shoulder against fascism," and, "We are all Hrant; we are all Armenians."

European officials and human rights groups also expressed horror and called on Turkey to do more to protect free expression.

Mr. Dink was one of a number of intellectuals convicted under Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code, which penalizes remarks against the state or the Turkish identity. It been harshly criticized by the European Union as a violation of freedom of expression, as Turkey moves toward membership.

Turkey has been changing some laws to try to meet the European Union’s membership criteria, but faced a setback last month when ministers in Brussels decided to freeze talks on 8 of 35 areas of discussion because of Turkey’s refusal to open its airports and seaports to Cyprus, a member of the Union.

Among the crowd that gathered Friday night, the common fear was that this assassination would be added to the list of unsolved murders. "This is an attack against our democracy," said Ayhan Aydin, an international financial consultant, who worked on the same street on which Mr. Dink was shot.

"We’re here to show that sensible people wish this assassination to be clarified and want the perpetrators to be brought to justice," Mr. Aydin said, standing in the crowd. "We all fear that this insane attack might be swept under the carpet once it gets too complicated to resolve, like other murders did."

Turkey’s ambition to become a European Union member requires further democratization and a better functioning legal system. The group has been particularly critical of Article 301.

Derya Sazak of the Milliyet newspaper said of the law, "This legal system brings forward the culture of hatred and lynching, in which Hrant became an open target. The murderers always go after the moderate voices, which Turkey needs the most."

Mr. Dink, a father of three, founded Agos in 1996. The bilingual community newspaper has a weekly circulation of 5,000.

Haluk Sahin, a columnist for the Radikal newspaper, a strong supporter of Mr. Dink’s legal struggles, said Turkey had been hit in the heart.

"Those who wanted to harm Turkey couldn’t have chosen a better target," Mr. Sahin said. "As opposed to other killings in the past, Turkish public reaction against this murder will show us where Turkey stands in the world."

Susanne Fowler contributed reporting from Paris.