Waving a yellow press card usually opens doors in Turkey. It didn’t impress the police officer guarding the entrance to Agos, the Turkish-Armenian newspaper run by Hrant Dink until a 17-year-old Turkish nationalist gunned him down in January as he stepped outside.
"Who are you working for," the officer asked suspiciously. "Who do you want to talk to?"
Like the closed-circuit camera set up last month to survey the patch of Istanbul street where Dink died, the officer’s questions underscore the heightened sense of insecurity facing dissidents in Turkey today. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. A well-known columnist who took over as editor of Agos after his friend’s death, Etyen Mahcupyan has been receiving threats for as long as he can remember.
"It’s like a side dish," he says. "You are so accustomed to it that when the threats go down, you ask what is happening. And that’s why the murder was a real shock. Because you have so many threats every day and nothing happens."
Hrant Dink’s death was a turning point for Atilla Yayla, too. An Ankara-based political scientist, his nightmare began last November when he adopted a position during a public conference that the single-party regime set up by Turkey’s founder Kemal Ataturk was "a period of regression, not progress."
Turkish media outlets branded him a traitor. His university removed him from his teaching position for four months. Last week, a prosecutor opened a case against him for "insulting the legacy of Ataturk." He faces up to three years in jail.
"For five days, I couldn’t sleep," Yayla remembers, comparing the media campaign against him to "the Moscow courts in Stalin’s time." The stress eventually overwhelmed him. "I collapsed physically," he said. It wasn’t until after Dink’s death, though, that he began to take the death threats he was receiving seriously. Now, like more than a dozen other Turkish dissidents, he shares his life with a police bodyguard. "He is so much a part of me that I’m planning to buy him and his family presents," Yayla commented wryly.
Other Turkish intellectuals find it much less easy to laugh at the new climate of fear. One of the most prominent of 50 people taken to court by ultra-nationalists last year on charges of "insulting Turkishness," best-selling novelist Elif Safak has now given up writing columns in two newspapers and keeps trips outside her house to a minimum. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Dink "was a close friend, and I haven’t got over the shock of his death," she said in a telephone conversation. She declined to talk at length.
Interviewed by daily Hurriyet in February, her husband Eyup Can said she was so upset that she was no longer able to breast-feed her six-month-old daughter.
Orhan Pamuk, meanwhile, the novelist who won last year’s Nobel Prize for literature, left Turkey under police escort in February, declaring himself "furious at everyone and everything." [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. A week before, the man police believe organized Hrant Dink’s murder had warned him to "watch your step" as he was taken into custody.
When well over 100,000 people attended Dink’s funeral procession late in January, many hoped his death might mark the end of what one columnist called "the ultra-nationalist tsunami" that has swept Turkey since its European Union bid started. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. In fact the protest, and the protestors’ choice of the slogan "we are all Armenians," stirred up nationalist ire further. A key demand made by the protesters -- that the law criminalizing insults to "Turkishness" should be repealed √ has failed to make an impact on legislators.
Despite the risks they face, many Turkish dissidents say they have no intention of giving up the struggle. "Such a thing has happened, you know, that you cannot be cautious any more," says Mahcupyan, the new Agos editor. "It’s immoral to be cautious."
Like Mahcupyan, who says you can only tell the real threats from the false ones after it’s too late, Baskin Oran knows his bodyguard will not be able to stop a professional assassination attempt. "This nice person is protecting me from amateur killers, like the one who killed Hrant," said Oran, an Ankara-based political scientist who co-authored a 2004 government report on minority rights that sparked today’s nationalist surge.
He goes on to quote the Turkish proverb that he who fears birds doesn’t plant corn. "If you are afraid, you should stop. But how can I look into the mirror in the morning if I do stop? How can I lecture my students?"
Today’s threats and restrictions on freedom of movement, he says, are part of the growing pains of Turkish democracy. "The road to paradise passes by hell, and we are walking."
Editor▓s Note: Nicolas Birch specializes in Turkey, Iran and the Middle East.