A scandal is brewing in Turkey around judicial proceedings against a group of men accused of murdering Hrant Dink, a prominent Turkish-Armenian journalist. Interior Ministry bureaucrats are being assailed for acting above the law, and the government in general is facing criticism for not doing enough to pursue allegations of official misconduct.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, speaking this January on the third anniversary of Dink’s murder on a busy Istanbul street, summarized the conundrum that officials are wrestling with: "We caught the hitmen within 32 hours, but we still haven't been able to throw light on who was behind them."
In late October, as the Istanbul court charged with trying a group of young men accused of the killing convened for its 15th hearing in nearly four years, evidence of negligence in the case mounted. Media attention of late has focused mainly on an October 25 court decision that suspected gunman Ogun Samast, who was 17 on the day he allegedly shot Dink, should be tried separately from the group of slightly older men believed to have provided him with the murder weapon.
The court justified its decision on the basis of new laws adopted this summer to stop Kurdish youngsters, some as young as nine and 10, from being tried in high security courts under terrorism laws for throwing stones at police.
Legal experts say that the continuation of the case in two separate courts is unlikely to affect the sentences given to the suspects, should they be found guilty: as a minor, Samast would always have benefited from a reduction in his sentence. Umit Kardas, a former prosecutor who has written extensively on Turkey's legal system, nonetheless describes the new situation as "primitive."
"Dividing the trial risks making the prosecution even more toothless than it has been so far," he said.
Far more scandalous has been the revelation that the Interior Ministry had repeatedly ignored orders signed by the prime minister to begin investigations into two top-ranking police officers suspected of negligence in the run up to Dink's murder.
On October 10, 2008, three inspectors commissioned by Erdogan to investigate the killing published a report describing in detail how the then-chief of police intelligence, Ramazan Akyurek, along with another senior intelligence officer, had known long before January 2007 of the seriousness of the plot against Dink and had failed to do anything about it.
The inspectors' report, signed by Erdogan in December 2008, was transferred to the Interior Ministry, which has oversight responsibilities for the police force, with the request that the two officers be freed up for prosecution. Instead of complying, however, Interior Ministry inspectors wrote a second report questioning the findings of the first. No action was taken against the police officers.
This January, inspectors attached to the Prime Minister's office dispatched a second, sharply worded report describing the actions of their Interior Ministry counterparts as "illegal" and their exculpation of the police officers as "baseless."
On September 14, they received backing from the European Court of Human Rights, which ruled that Turkey had violated Dink's "right to life" and "freedom of expression" and his family's "right to an effective remedy." In its ruling, the ECHR talked of the "clear negligence" of senior security officers.
Neither the prime ministerial inspectors nor the ECHR appear to have done enough to budge the Interior Ministry. Nine months after the second report, action has still not been taken against the police.
"Imagine the scenario," says Nedim Sener, the investigative journalist who broke the story. "The US President personally orders an investigation into top-ranking CIA officers suspected of involvement in a political murder that shook the country, and a mid-ranking bureaucrat in one of his ministries tells him to mind his own business. The mother of all scandals, no?"
Turkey's legal system has generated lots of controversy in recent years. Since 2008, a court outside Istanbul has hosted an unprecedented trial of scores of people, including once untouchable senior military officers, charged with plotting to overthrow the government. In September, the government made significant changes to the system of appointing senior judges.
With many observers describing the changes in the judiciary as part of a far wider democratization of Turkey, the Dink trial is taking on an increasingly symbolic air.
"The Hrant Dink trial hangs on the cusp of two Turkeys," says former prosecutor Umit Kardas. "A Turkey where courts protect the state, and a Turkey where justice is done."
Kardas remains optimistic that justice will be eventually done. But he is part of a dwindling minority.
"From now on, we are not planning to ask any more questions because it is patently clear that we are being made a mockery of," Umit Kivanc, spokesman of a group of activists calling for justice in the Dink case said in an October 14 news conference in which he read out the often desultory official responses to questions the group had asked various ministries under new freedom of information laws.
Investigative journalist Nedim Sener agrees that Turkey is changing. When public figures were murdered in the past, he says, the organs of the state would join ranks and flatly deny that anything was amiss. Now, as is the case with the three Prime Ministerial inspectors, there are dissenting voices.
Having written two books about the Dink murder, however, he has come to the conclusion that the investigation will never go beyond the young men currently in court. "There is simply not the will right at the top of the pile," he says.
Prime Minister Erdogan may have signed the 2008 report calling for prosecutions of police officers, he says, but his silence in the face of disobedience from bureaucrats answerable to him "implies that he is not unhappy at the obstacles they are putting up."
Sener notes also that Erdogan personally blocked a request from an Ankara prosecutor earlier this year to open judicial investigations into two members of Turkey's intelligence services who threatened Dink in 2004 after he published an article containing evidence that one of the adopted daughters of the founder of the Turkish Republic Mustafa Kemal Ataturk was an Armenian orphan.
The article triggered the three-year hate campaign against Dink, which culminated in his death in January 2007. "Dink spent his life fighting against all forms of discrimination," Sener says. "But the worst discrimination from the state came after his death."
Nicolas Birch specializes in Turkey, Iran and the Middle East.