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Courtroom hearing or courtroom drama?

16 September 2009

The 10th hearing in the murder trial of the Armenian newspaper editor Hrant Dink took place on the 6th July, in Istanbul. Dink was a popular minority rights activist in Turkey and was assassinated in January 2007.  Ogun Samast, a 17-year-old Turkish nationalist, has confessed to his murder. Nurcan Kaya, MRG’s Turkey Coordinator, was at the trial and reflects upon the theatrical display that overshadowed the trial. By Nurcan Kaya

It was as if everybody was play acting: the defendants’ lawyers were acting as if they had not been involved in the crime, the Dink family lawyers were acting as if they could do something to change the ongoing situation in the murder case, and even the judges were acting as if it was all just a simple criminal court case. The only people not acting were the Dink family members. They have been suffering for two and a half years now, and their pain has remained with them throughout the trial.

It was the first time that I’d attended the court case and was told that the defendants were behaving even worse in previous hearings. Ogün Samast grinned whilst the Dink family’s lawyers were talking and constantly turned round to talk to Yasin Hayal (who is charged with planning the murder and instructing Samast) and send signals to someone sitting in the audience.

Samast even threatened the Dink family at one point, saying, ‘wait for five years’.  The judge appeared not to have heard the threat. When lawyers insisted that they had heard him, Ogün responded that it was ‘because they are also Armenians,’ implying that anybody who is Armenian is a liar and could not be trusted. Only upon the lawyers’ insistence did the judge agree to record the threat and refer it to the public prosecutor in order to open an investigation against Ogün Samast.

Interestingly  I noted that when the Dink family’s lawyers took to the floor without the permission of the presiding judge, or when they insisted on Ogün Samast’s threat being recorded, the judge angrily  advised  them ,‘stop telling me how to do my job’. Contrarily, when the defendants took the floor without permission or threatened the Dink family, they were politely warned not to by the judge. It was impossible to find a good reason for such different treatment.

At one point a Dink family lawyer informed the judges that there were two plain clothes police officers attending the hearings and taking notes. She argued that they might be recording the statement given by Erhan Tuncel (who at the time of the murder was working as an intelligence agent for the Trabzon police and is alleged to have been involved in planning Dink’s assassination before he was fired), thereby  putting Tuncel under unnecessary pressure. Curiously, the two men left the court room at this juncture. Tuncel subsequently stated that he wanted to be released under a witness protection scheme as he was concerned about his safety.

Despite the theatrics there were some important developments in the trial. Firstly, it became evident that Ogün Samast was not acting alone.  One witness, attending the trial for the first time, stated that the murder took place in front of her eyes and that Ogün Samast was not alone at the crime scene.  She said that the second person she had seen resembled Yasin Hayal, but could not identify him for certain. Another witness statement that was read at the hearing strengthened this allegation. A few days before the murder, the witness had been in a patisserie with Hrant Dink and spotted Ogün Samast waiting outside and speaking to a second person.

Responding to the Dink family’s lawyers for the first time, Erhan Tuncel insisted that he had passed all intelligence regarding the murder plans to his superiors. When asked why he thought he had later been fired by his boss he said, ‘Maybe he did not like me… maybe he wanted to employ somebody else… or maybe he did not want to prevent the murder’.

Despite several applications lodged by lawyers representing the Dink family, and the report issued by the Prime Ministry Inspectoral Board, which highlights negligence in prevention of the murder, public officials who failed to take any steps towards preventing the murder have not been prosecuted yet. The explanation issued by AGOS (the Armenian-Turkish weekly newspaper edited by Dink) before the trial summarises the situation – protection of public officials.

The government of Turkey has a crucial role to play in this trial, which will also help improve its reputation with minority communities. Convicting the five young men arrested for the murder will achieve nothing for the rule of law in Turkey and will not satisfy the Dink family. The government of Turkey cannot tell prosecutors and judges what to decide, however it can tell public bodies to issue information required by the Dink family lawyers, which will help them to further their investigations.

The right to life is protected by law in Turkey, as well as international treaties ratified by the state. The right to life does not simply protect citizens when the state kills, it also requires states to take preventive measures when there is a serious threat against any person’s life, carry out an effective investigation in to the crime and charge the perpetrators.

Public officials in Turkey did not take any measure to prevent this murder. Dink did not need to apply to the authorities for protection. He was publicly threatened and intelligence on the murder plans were passed to the police. Eventually he was shot dead. Hrant Dink’s right to life was violated. And now, as the state fails to carry out an effective impartial investigation, his right to life is being violated for a second time. As AGOS says, ‘Our hearts do not stand for this situation anymore’.

This article reflects the sole opinion of its author and does not engage MRG’s responsibility.