Hrant Dink’s murder was the culminating point of a persecution campaign that can be traced back to February 2004, when he published claims to the effect that Sabiha Gökçen, the adopted daughter of Atatürk and the first woman war pilot of the Turkish Republic, was of Armenian descent. Dink’s claim provoked a public statement from the Chief of Staff, the highest echelon of the Turkish army. A few days later he was summoned to the Istanbul Governor’s Office and “warned” by two people who were introduced to him as “friends” of the then Deputy Governor. Three and a half years after the assassination, the Intelligence Service admitted that these two people were its operatives.
Soon after the covert threats in the Deputy Governor’s office, Dink was tried under the notorious Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code, on charges of “denigrating Turkishness”. The proceedings took place in the midst of a smear campaign led by ultranationalist media. Interestingly, the charges were pressed not for his claims regarding Sabiha Gökçen –presumably to avoid public debate on Gökçen’s ethnic origin–
but for a single sentence lifted out of a series of eleven articles entitled “On Armenian Identity”, an elaborate critique of its diasporic formulation. The court chose to interpret the single sentence in isolation from its general context, which allowed for a significant distortion of its meaning, despite expert witnesses arguing the contrary. Dink was convicted for denigrating Turkishness. When he appealed the decision, the Supreme Court upheld his conviction, revealing, at the very least, a severe reading comprehension problem starting right at the top of the judiciary.
Dink’s trials were frequented by a mob of fascists attempting to attack him and his supporters. Among the mob was Veli Küçük, retired brigadier general, a dark figure whose name has been cropping up in the media since the 1990s, in relation to a wide range of criminal deeds, including extrajudicial executions in mid-1990s of businessmen suspected of supporting Kurdish rebels. According to Hrant Dink’s biographer, in the wake of the “friendly” warning at the Governor’s office, Veli Küçük’s attendance at his trial made it clear to Dink what kind of forces were behind the prosecution, and indeed that his life was under threat. In his final article, published on the very day of his assassination, he blamed the unlikely outcome of the trial and his appeal on “deep forces”, and wrote of the difficulty of living in fear for one’s life, comparing himself to a pigeon, “equally obsessed by what goes-on on my left and right, front and back, my head just as mobile and fast.” Tragically, he concluded, “I may see myself as frightened as a pigeon but I know that in this country people do not touch pigeons”.
In Turkish popular parlance, the “deep state” refers to powers operating with impunity through and beyond the visible power structure. It is considered to be a state within the state, a network of illegitimate alliances between military staff, members of the police force, bureaucrats, politicians, intelligence agents, mafia organisations, etc. The deep state lurks menacingly behind the innumerable assassinations, disappearances, provocations, threats, disinformation campaigns, psychological operations and dirty deals of the past few decades. Though providing much fodder for what can be dismissed as conspiracy theorising, the very style and structure of deep state plots render them almost immediately recognisable to a public that has become all too familiar with them. Hrant Dink’s assassination was instantly widely recognised as one such plot.
Certain pieces of information that surfaced during the trial corroborated this view. One of the defendants testified that in his capacity as a police informant, he had repeatedly warned the security forces of the plan to assassinate Dink in the months leading to his death. Some documentary evidence supported the claim that the police was informed of the plan as early as eleven months before the assassination. Key defendants were remarkably smug during the hearings, occasionally signalling, though never disclosing their deeper connections.
Suspicions of a deep state plot were confirmed more significantly by what was not allowed to surface during the trial. First of all, there seemed to be an obstinate will to obscure evidence: key CCTV footage of the incident was seized by the Istanbul police and went missing under their watch; the gunman’s communications on his mobile and over the internet immediately before and after the assassination were never properly disclosed or investigated; certain suspect figures caught by CCTV cameras at the time of the incident were not traced. Further, investigating prosecutors identified a number of officers within the Gendarmerie and the Police Force who could be held liable for negligence, abuse of office, destroying, obscuring and tampering with evidence relating to the case, but the court refused to proceed with their prosecution. Despite express demands by lawyers intervening in the trial on behalf of Hrant Dink’s family, certain high level officials within the security and intelligence services who were implicated at least in terms of negligence, were not even summoned to court as witnesses, let alone interrogated as suspects. The court’s written requests from official bodies such as the Intelligence Service and the High Council for Telecommunications were either left unanswered, or responded to with incomplete, incorrect or absolutely irrelevant information.
This is what Fethiye Çetin, the lawyer representing the Dink family, meant when she spoke after the decision, referring to the case as a comedy: “They’ve been mocking us all along. And today, we saw that they saved the punch-line for the end.” Indeed, the court’s scandalous ruling to the effect that there is no criminal organisation behind the assassination, unless overturned in the appeals court, will prove an obstacle for the Dink family in their attempts to pursue a wider set of culpabilities. There is a veritable irony here for those who have been following Turkey’s contemporary political trials. As anyone familiar with the details of the Ergenekon or KCK trials will know, in its current mode of operation, the law of the Turkish state sees conspiracies everywhere it looks, processing a stunning range of relations and associations in terms of criminal organisation, discerning sinister plots wherever it turns. In this context its refusal to connect the obvious dots and make the evident links in the Dink trial is a denial that serves as a perverse avowal to protect its own. As Fethiye Çetin puts it bluntly, the decision made it clear that the Turkish state was hell-bent on “maintaining its well-established tradition of political assassinations”.
That something is amiss in the official workings of justice was symptomized by the court literally forgetting to deliver verdict on one of the 19 defendants in its final decision. In such a high-profile trial that has been the focus of much international and domestic attention, dragging on for years, such an omission is a significant lapsus memoriae, a slip of the memory that points to the conflicted unconscious of the court. Something is missing, indeed.