ISTANBUL // A European court found Turkey guilty yesterday of failing to protect the life of a prominent journalist and then blocking an investigation into the possible role of state officials in the murder, delivering a severe blow to the country's efforts to convince critics it is doing everything possible to improve its human-rights record.
The case before the European Courts of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France, was brought by the family of Hrant Dink, a Turkish journalist of Armenian descent, who was killed by nationalists in Istanbul in January 2007. The court found Turkey guilty of several breaches of the European Convention of Human Rights and said Ankara had to pay ?133,595 (Dh 629,724) in damages and legal fees to Dink's family. As a member of the Council of Europe, Turkey is obliged to follow rulings from Strasbourg.
Coming two days after Turkey won international praise for passing sweeping democratic reforms in a referendum on Sunday, the unanimous decision by the court was seen as a stinging setback. Acutely aware of the damage done to the country's international image by repeated rights violations in the past, the government has declared an approach of "zero tolerance" in that field. But the verdict in the Dink case, one of the most notorious political murders in Turkey in decades, raised questions about the willingness of authorities to protect Dink.
"It is an embarrassment for Turkey," Cengiz Aktar, a political scientist at Istanbul's Bahcesehir University, said in an interview. Ankara has lost many cases in Strasbourg in recent decades. But few match the significance of the Dink murder. The killing caused an international outcry because it demonstrated that militant nationalists in Turkey could kill a prominent journalist in daylight even though the police had learnt of the assassination plans beforehand. The case also raised questions about the state of freedom of expression and the rule of law in this EU-candidate country.
Dink's suspected murderers said they plotted to kill the journalist because he had insulted the nation by calling on Turks to face up to the Armenian genocide in the First World War. Shortly before Dink's death, a Turkish court said the journalist had "denigrated Turkishness" with his position. Ogun Samast, the teenage gunman who shot Dink, was treated like a hero by policemen who arrested him. Two other men are on trial for their suspected involvement in the plot.
The Strasbourg court ruled Turkish authorities refused to investigate links between the hit man and his accomplices and elements of the Turkish security forces and said Turkey failed to protect Dink's right to life and his right of freedom of expression. "All this is very true, and Turkey deserves this," Aydin Engin, a journalist in Istanbul and friend of Dink, said in an interview yesterday. "But the verdict will not bring Hrant back to us."
Ankara accepted the decision. The country would do everything to make sure nothing like this would happen again, a foreign ministry statement said. Turkey would not use its right to appeal against the verdict, it added. Last month, the government was forced to admit that officials had compared Dink's position concerning the Armenian genocide to neo-Nazi rhetoric in a statement to the court in Strasbourg. After the statement became public, the government backtracked. Several cabinet ministers agreed that Turkey should acknowledge its responsibility for Dink's death. That shift in official stance was largely seen as an attempt to reach an out-of-court settlement with the Dink family, but it came too late.
"The Court took the view that the Turkish security forces could reasonably be considered to have been aware of the intense hostility towards Firat Dink in nationalist circles," the Strasbourg court said in a statement on its website, using Dink's official Turkish first name, instead of his Armenian pen name Hrant. Investigations after the attack had shown that police in Istanbul and Trabzon, the home of the suspected killers, "had been informed of the likelihood of an assassination attempt and even of the identity of the suspected instigators", the court added. "The threat of an assassination could be said to have been real and imminent." After the crime, authorities refused to allow investigations against high-ranking officers of the security forces.
Arzu Becerik, a lawyer for the Dink family, said she expected the ruling from Strasbourg to have a positive effect on the ongoing trial against the suspected killers in Istanbul. Mr Aktar, the political scientist, also said he expected the trial in Istanbul to take a new direction. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org