At Large

Turkish Blood

Ankara's curb on free speech stirs up jihadists and dooms intellectuals.

By 1.21.07

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In his last newspaper column, Hrant Dink wrote that he was now considered an enemy of the state and of the Turkish people. He had but recently completed a six-month suspended sentence for the charge of "insulting Turkish identity," and he now faced two additional charges. More ominously his email's inbox, he said, was crammed with death threats.

"My computer's memory is loaded with sentences full of hatred and threats," Dink noted in his last column for Agos, the Armenian language weekly of which he was editor-in-chief. "I do not know how real these threats are, but what's really unbearable is the psychological torture that I'm living in....For me, 2007 is likely to be a hard year. The trials will continue, new ones will be started. Who knows what other injustices I will be up against." Even so, the editor believed he would survive the year.

He was wrong. Last Friday at 1 p.m., as Dink was leaving his newspaper office, Ogun Samast, an unemployed 17-year-old Turk, waited outside on the busy Istanbul street. He approached Dink and fired four shots. Three of them hit the editor in the neck and head. The assassin then shouted, "I shot the non-Muslim!" and fled the scene.

Samast was a native of the Black Sea port town of Trabzon. It was there that police, acting on a tip from Samast's father, arrested the gunman as he stepped off a bus. Once in custody he proudly confessed to the murder.

Police also suspect Samast of last year's murder of an Italian Roman Catholic priest shot and killed in the courtyard of his church in Trabzon. It seems likely that Fr. Andrea Santaro, 60, was killed in connection with the uproar following publication of cartoons of the prophet Mohammed in a Danish newspaper, cartoons that many Muslims found insulting.

Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, an ardent supporter of article 301 of the Turkish criminal code that outlaws insulting Turkish institutions or Turkish national identity, is also a shrewd politician who seeks EU membership for Turkey. The prime minister thus condemned Dink's murder. "A bullet has been fired at democracy and freedom of expression," he said in a news conference. "I condemn the traitorous hands behind this disgraceful murder." This must have puzzled the dozens of Turkish writers and intellectuals charged under article 301, like publisher Abdullah Yilmaz who faces jail time for issuing a Turkish edition of Greek writer Mara Meimaridi's novel The Witches of Smyrna. The novel describes parts of the Turkish quarter of Izmir as "dirty." A cynic might say that Mr. Erdogan and his government have no business talking about freedom of expression.

DINK, AN ETHNIC ARMENIAN, was given a six-month suspended sentence in October 2005 after writing about the Armenian "genocide" of 1915. Last fall he was again charged with "insulting Turkish identity" for using the word "genocide" in an interview with Reuters. After his conviction at a trial that PEN, the international association of writers, described as featuring the controversial courtroom procedure of an "attempted lynching," Dink began to think seriously about emigrating. When he announced that, if the case against him was not dropped, he would leave Turkey, Ankara charged him with attempting to influence the judiciary, a crime punishable by 4 1/2 years in prison.

I suspect that Dink's murder will finally force Ankara to reconsider article 301. Similar charges against novelist Orhan Pamuk for remarks he made about the Armenian genocide doubtless contributed to his winning last year's Nobel Prize for Literature. Indeed, the award was seen as a slap in the face to Ankara and Turkish nationalists. (The Turkish President Ahmet Necdet Sezer refused even to congratulate Pamuk.) Similarly Ankara's demonizing of Hrant Dink no doubt stirred up the jihadist in Ogun Samast and is at least partially to blame for the editor's murder.

After Dink's 2005 conviction, Ankara said it had no intention of lifting article 301. Perhaps now Ankara, fearful of losing out completely in its EU membership bid, will think twice before it throws journalists and novelists behind bars for telling the unpleasant truth about the Armenian genocide. Perhaps then Hrant Dink's death will not have been in vain.

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About the Author
Christopher Orlet writes from St. Louis.