by Jean Rafferty It was a senseless death, senseless in the way all sudden deaths are to those left behind, but senseless beyond that for the irony, the waste, the sheer stupidity of it. On 19 th January 2007 in Istanbul, Hrant Dink, editor of Turkish-Armenian newspaper Agos, was gunned down by a young Turkish nationalist […]April 10, 2015
It was a senseless death, senseless in the way all sudden deaths are to those left behind, but senseless beyond that for the irony, the waste, the sheer stupidity of it.
On 19 th January 2007 in Istanbul, Hrant Dink, editor of Turkish-Armenian newspaper Agos, was gunned down by a young Turkish nationalist in front of the offices of the newspaper he had founded ten years previously.
It was less than a year after a group of us from Scottish PEN had met him at International PEN’s 2006 Writers in Prison conference in Istanbul – now we were all in utter shock that someone so impressive could be wiped out in a moment.
Our hosts had welcomed us with typical Turkish warmth and hospitality, shown us the inspired chaos of their beautiful city. On the last day of the conference they told us what it felt like to live under a repressive government, to be constantly looking over their shoulders for fear they’d be arrested for something they’d written. Many of them were angry, but Hrant Dink was calm. It wasn’t so much what he said that was memorable, but the grim and obdurate authority with which he said it. It was clear he was a serious man, unyielding on the principles of free speech.
The day he spoke at the conference he was wearing the classic journalist’s uniform of black suit and white shirt with a beige raincoat, but despite having his own newspaper and writing many articles and columns, he was as much an activist as a journalist. Prior to founding Agos all he had written were occasional articles and book reviews for Turkey’s two Armenian language newspapers. Afterwards he became known as a columnist and as a heavyweight critic of breaches of democracy in both Turkey and the Republic of Armenia.
Agos wasn’t what we think of as a newspaper in this country. There were no readers’ offers, ads for fancy watches, celebrity pictures. It was a sober publication with discussion of the Armenian community’s place in Turkish social, political and cultural life. It wasn’t a mass-market daily – it survived on a circulation of only 6000 – yet it made Hrant Dink a leader of the Armenian community in Turkey.
He said one of the things you’re not supposed to say there, that the massacre of a million and a half Armenians by the Ottoman Empire from 1915 onwards was genocide, the deliberate extermination of a people.
The term ‘genocide’ was coined by historian Raphael Lemkin, specifically about the Armenian experience. Ironically, he first used it in 1943, at a time when Nazi Germany was engaged in the blood-crazed bureaucracy of the Jewish Holocaust. Adolf Hitler had drawn on the Armenian genocide for inspiration. In 1939 he wrote that he had his death-head formations placed in readiness to advance into Poland – with orders to send to death ‘mercilessly and without compassion’ all men, women, and children of Polish derivation and language. We know now that he didn’t restrict his activities to one ethnic group but targeted Jews, gypsy travellers, homosexuals as well as Poles. ‘Only thus,’ he declared, ‘shall we gain the living space (Lebensraum) which we need. Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?’
In 2007, the annihilation of the Armenians was still being spoken of in Turkey and beyond. From 24 th April 1915, over a period of eight years, male Armenians were rounded up and either murdered or put into forced labour for the Ottoman army; Armenian women, children and old people were driven forward by armed soldiers on death marches into the Syrian desert. They had little food and water and were often robbed or raped on the way. Or simply murdered for the soldiers’ sport, put to the sword in terrifyingly brutal displays of bloodshed that traumatised those watching.
The killing was deliberate, organised by the authorities and inflicted on a whole ethnic group. It’s difficult to see how Turkish people could deny that these events were genocide, but even some of the people at the PEN conference, people committed to freedom of speech, considered them to be part of the comings and goings of war. In the same way as British history students were taught that our Empire’s colonisation adventures left half the world better off than we found it, the Turkish people have been told that what happened was justified and that the Armenians did just as terrible things to them. Successive Turkish governments have crushed anyone disagreeing with this version of history. To this day Turkey refuses to acknowledge or apologise for the genocide, perhaps because one of the groups which took part in the annihilation of the Armenians was the Young Turks, led by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the first leader of modern Turkey and still the object of veneration 77 years after his death..
Hrant Dink always defined the events of 1915 as genocide. His determination to speak the truth to the Turkish government, no matter what it cost him personally, led him to be tried twice under the notorious Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code. ‘I challenge the accepted version of history because I do not write about things in black and white,’ he said. ‘People here are used to black and white; that’s why they are astonished that there are other shades too.’
In his first trial, he was acquitted of ‘denigrating Turkishness’ after making critical comments about the national anthem, but at the second he was given a six month suspended sentence, which he later appealed at the European Court of Human Rights. (In 2010, three years after his death, the Court ruled in his favour.)
His death was senseless and has irony upon irony enfolded within it. Hrant Dink’s conviction was for an article in which he urged exiled Armenians to free themselves, as he had done, of hatred towards Turkey. Replace the poisoned blood associated with the Turk, with fresh blood associated with Armenia, he exhorted them – thereby ensuring the continuing hatred of the Turkish state against him. ‘The prosecutions are not a surprise for me. They want to teach me a lesson because I am Armenian. They try to keep me quiet,’ he told the Committee to Protect Journalists in 2006.
The death was senseless, such a waste. If anyone could have brought the Turkish and Armenian communities together it was Hrant Dink. He never demanded – as so many Western commentators do – that modern Turkey apologise for the actions of its predecessor, the Ottoman Empire. His core concern was reconciliation between Turkey and the Armenians and he thought it counter-productive for his people to demand admissions of guilt from the Turks. ‘Why don’t they admit it?’ he asked. ‘Because they think that genocide is a bad thing which they would never want to commit, and because they can’t believe their ancestors would do such a thing either.’
It took four years for the courts to bring anyone to justice for the murder. Although 18 men were arrested, only two so far have been convicted – Yasin Hayal, an older man who was sentenced to life imprisonment for ordering the assassination, and OgÃ¼n Samast, a fanatical 17 year old who shouted I shoot the infidel as he pumped three bullets into the back of Hrant Dink’s head at point blank range.
The sheer stupidity of it. Modern Turkey was set up as a secular state, yet Samast’s Muslim clarion call clearly found favour with some sections of the authorities – members of the police and gendarmerie (the Turkish government’s armed security and law enforcement arm) posed with him, wreathed in smiles, beside the Turkish flag. The public outcry was so great that they were sacked. In fact the public outcry at Hrant Dink’s death itself was extraordinary – over 100000 people demonstrated in the streets on the day of his funeral. Many chanted or carried placards saying We Are All Hrant Dink and We Are All Armenians.
In Scottish PEN we campaign all the time for principles, the principle of freedom of expression, freedom to say what we want. The death of Hrant Dink was a reminder that we’re campaigning for people too. The serious man in the raincoat had a wife and daughter who collapsed in shock at the news of his murder and had to be taken to hospital. Hrant Dink was a man of passion, a man who wept when he was refused the post of sergeant even though he’d scored 100 percent on his exam, a man who set up a bookshop and later a newspaper so that he could speak out about his heritage. He wasn’t just a serious man – he caused a stir at a party in Geneva once by appearing in a velvet suit. He was a human being and he didn’t deserve to die.
It’s not an accident that in PEN we campaign for writers – they’re not special, they’re just the people who have the opportunity and the skills to say what many people think but are not able to express. On 24 th April 1915, the day the Armenian genocide began, the soldiers came first for the intellectuals and community leaders, the people who speak out. The people like Hrant Dink.