An Istanbul court for minors yesterday passed a sentence of 22 years and 10 months in prison on Ogün Samast after convicting him of being the trigger-man in the January 2007 murder of Turkish-Armenian newspaper editor Hrant Dink. Aged 17 at the time of the shooting, Samast was also ordered to pay to a fine of 600 Turkish lira (300 euros).
“By imposing almost the maximum sentence on the leading suspect in Dink’s murder, this court clearly wanted to set an example,” Reporters Without Borders said. “But it is relatively easy to convict a ‘child driven to crime,’ as the prosecutors described the alleged shooter. The real test of the judicial system’s resolve will be its ability to identify and punish the masterminds and their accomplices.”
Dink family lawyer Fethiye Cetin said that, under Turkey’s sentencing rules, Samast, who was arrested the day after the murder, would probably spend at least another 11 years in prison. As she left the court, she said the verdict met the Dink’s family’s expectations and stressed the importance of not allowing “crimes that threaten our ability to live together” to go unpunished.
She nonetheless added: “The court’s decision concerns solely the act committed by Samast. It is too soon to say whether the issues raised by the European Court of Human Rights will receive a response.”
Last September, the European Court ruled that Turkish authorities failed in their duty to protect Dink when they had information about plots to kill him.
“Convicting the shooter is an important first step but it is not enough,” Reporters Without Borders said. “At a time when Hrant Dink’s newspaper, Agos, and other newspapers are receiving more death threats, it is vital that the judicial system should send a strong signal to the ultra-nationalists and their hidden allies within the state.”
Members of the gendarmerie in the Black Sea city of Trabzon (Samast’s home town) received sentences ranging from four to six months in prison from a local magistrate’s court on 2 June after being convicting of doing nothing to prevent Dink’s death despite being aware of a plot to murder him. The local assizes court refused to handle the case.
At the same time, an investigation into 30 senior officials, announced with much fanfare in February, seems to have been quietly shelved. “What were the concrete results?” Reporters Without Borders wonders. ”Was it launched just as an apparent concession to the European Court of Human Rights?”
The answers to some of the questions about the judicial system’s intentions should come on 29 July, when the next hearing is held in the trial of Samast’s 18 fellow defendants, from whom Samast was separated and given a separate trial on the grounds that he was a minor at the time of the murder.
But expectations are low, especially as it has been confirmed that the erased recordings of security cameras near the scene of the murder cannot be recovered and that discussion of a possible second hit-man have been nipped in the bud. Although it is clear that the security camera recordings were deliberately erased by persons working for the Istanbul police, it still has not been established exactly who was responsible.
More details may emerge from Samast’s other trial on a charge of belonging to an illegal organization, in which the next hearing is due on 23 September. The prosecutor preparing the case has asked the police for a report on possible links between the Dink trial defendants and those who are being investigated in connection with the alleged “Ergenekon” conspiracy. The Dink family has long suspected such links.
The defence has portrayed Samast as a poorly educated youth swayed by a media hate campaign against Dink. His lawyer had called for the charges to be dropped on the grounds of procedural irregularities. Under yesterday’s ruling, he was sentenced to 21 and a half years in jail on a charge of premeditated homicide (under article 82, subsections 1 and 2 of the criminal code) and 16 months for illegal possession and use of a firearm (under article 13, subsection 1 of Law No. 6136). Transferred to Kandira prison, he has seven days to file an appeal.
Although the social and political context has evolved significantly since Dink’s January 2007 murder, the threats against journalists from small ultra-nationalist groups have not ended. Senior staff members at the left-wing daily Günlük Evrensel and dozens of civil society members filed a court action on 20 July in connection with recent death threats from the Turkish Revenge Brigades, also known as TIT (from their Turkish name Türk Intikam Tugayi).
The wording of the email that the staff of Günlük Evrensel received from TIT could have been used by Dink’s murderers. It said: “We ordered you to leave the country by 15 August, you and your fellow workers. We will not give you another warning after this one (...) We will now use our legitimate right to defend our holy Turkish nation and carry out the operations we think are right. We will fight for a Turkey that is 100 per cent Turkish.”
These threats must not be taken likely. The TIT has claimed responsibility for past armed actions that have killed and maimed. They include a 1998 attack in Ankara in which the president of the Human Rights Association (IHD), Akin Birdal, was badly injured, and a 2006 bombing in the eastern city of Diyarbakir that killed three adults and seven children.
A similar email was received a month ago by several journalists and intellectuals, including Etyen Mahçupyan, a columnist of Armenian origin who writes for the conservative daily Zaman, and Baskin Oran, a journalist who works for Agos, the newspaper that Dink edited. TIT told Agos and other media “in the same camp” to cease operating at once and ordered their journalists to leave the country.
Parliamentary members of the Kurdish party BDP were also targeted. In Oran’s case, it was the fourth threat he has received but his attempts to get the police and judicial authorities to take action have been unsuccessful. “As long as the justice system continues to be ineffective, they will continue to threaten me,” he said.
Reporters Without Borders added: “Samast’s conviction will be just a small consolation if the police and judicial authorities continue to be incapable of intervening and taking threats seriously. The Dink case has lifted the veil on the extent of the ultra-nationalist networks. The justice system will no longer be able to say it did not know. Now more than ever, there must not be another Hrant Dink.”