ISTANBUL // A Turkish court yesterday handed down a life sentence to a militant nationalist for his role in the murder five years ago of Hrant Dink, a journalist of Armenian descent - a decision critics claim is an attempt to cover up the suspected involvement of members of Turkey's security forces.
Dink, who was hated by nationalists because he publicly said the killing of hundreds of thousands of Armenians by Turks during the First World War amounted to genocide, was gunned down in Istanbul on January 19, 2007, by Ogun Samast, a nationalist from Trabzon. Samast, who was a minor at the time of the murder, was sentenced to nearly 23 years in prison by a juvenile court last year.
The trial against Samast's accomplices from Trabzon ended after four years yesterday, with Judge Rustem Eryilmaz of Istanbul's high criminal court sentencing Yasin Hayal, a right-wing extremist, to life in prison. Erhan Tuncel, a former police informer and another main suspect in the trial, was acquitted of aiding and abetting in the Dink case, but sentenced to 10 and a half years in prison for his role a bomb attack committed by Hayal in Trabzon three years before the killing of Dink. Both were cleared of charges of membership in a terrorist organisation, Turkish media reported.
After the verdict, scuffles broke out in the courtroom as supporters of Dink's family protested against the verdict, which they saw as too lenient.
The verdict came despite lawyers for Dink's family asking the court yesterday to delay its decision because the suspected involvement of officials in the crime had not been sufficiently investigated. Speaking for the team of lawyers, Ismail Cem Halavut told the court the true dimension of the plot to kill Dink was not clear. Public officials allegedly involved in the conspiracy had not been charged because numerous attempts from Dink's family to bring them to court had been rejected, he said.
Suspicions of an attempted cover-up received a boost when the European Court of Human Rights in France ruled in 2010 that Turkey was guilty of failing to protect Dink's life. Police in Istanbul and Trabzon "had been informed of the likelihood of an assassination attempt and even of the identity of the suspected instigators", the court said. After the crime, authorities refused to allow investigations against high-ranking officers of the security forces, the judges said.
In a hearing last week, Hayal, one of the main suspects, told the court that state officials had led him to play a role in the murder of Dink and that he now feared for his life. "It was the state of the Turkish Republic that dragged me into this and that made use of my youth and my enthusiasm," he said. Hayal's father told reporters last year that unnamed officials called him after Dink's death to congratulate him on his son's work.
As the final hearing of the case got under way yesterday, several hundred demonstrators, including Dink's widow, Rakel, staged a protest march near the courthouse in Istanbul's Besiktas district.
Shouting "We are all Hrants" and "We are all Armenians", the protesters demanded that high-ranking officials such as Celalettin Cerrah, Istanbul's police chief at the time of the murder, and Cemil Cicek, a former justice minister and the current speaker of parliament, be tried for their suspected involvement in the case.
Banners carried by the protesters read "We will not forget" and "We will not forgive". A group calling itself "Friends of Hrant" is to stage a larger protest tomorrow, the fifth anniversary of the murder.
Reading a statement on behalf of the group, Garo Paylan, an official at an Armenian school in Istanbul, said the judiciary wanted to limit the investigation into the crime to "two or three hit men", but Friends of Hrant would make sure that the search for the suspected backers of the killers would continue.
"We will stay on the streets until you are being dragged one by one from your hiding places," Mr Paylan said.
Fethiye Cetin, another lawyer for Dink's family, said she would try to set new legal investigations into the suspected conspiracy to kill the journalist into motion. "It is a new beginning. There are many avenues that we can take," Ms Cetin told reporters after yesterday's verdict.