Fight against impunity in Turkey depends on political vagaries
Justice is finally making progress in the case of Hrant Dink, a prominent Turkish-Armenian newspaper editor who was gunned down exactly 11 years ago in Istanbul, but like most investigations into violence against journalists in Turkey, progress depends on the vagaries of political developments, which often obstruct the truth.
Turkish civil society continues to bear the scars of Dink’s murder in the street outside his newspaper on 19 January 2007. He was a leading intellectual and tireless advocate of Turkish democratization and reconciliation between Turks and Armenians.
After long denying the scale of complicity in order to protect the state, the justice system finally decided in recent years to move against former top security officials. Since late 2014, those questioned and detained have included Ramazan Akyürek, a former head of intelligence at the General Directorate for Security, Celalettin Cerrah, a former Istanbul police chief, and Ali Öz, a former gendarmerie chief in the northeastern city of Trabzon.
But this dramatic change only happened after the government began purging senior officials who were members of the Gülen Movement, a former government ally and now sworn enemy.
Dink’s murder was originally described as the work of a few individual fanatics. Then it was portrayed as the work of a secret network known as “Ergenekon”, as part of a wider investigation that was used as a pretext to persecute the secularist opposition. Now the judicial authorities are treating it as a Gülenist destabilization plot, while unprecedented purges are targeting alleged Gülenists. The trial will resume on 29 January.
“The involvement of members of the security forces was clear from the start and the acceptance of this is a welcome step towards ending impunity,” said Erol Önderoğlu, who represents Reporters Without Borders (RSF) in Turkey.
“But justice will not be rendered if blame is placed solely on scapegoats who are convenient at a given moment, without considering the state’s role. Ulterior motives and the lack of judicial independence too often prevent the truth from emerging and undermine public trust. The families of dozens of murdered journalists are still waiting to be rendered justice.”
Around 40 journalists have been murdered or have disappeared in Turkey in the past 25 years. Complete impunity still prevails in about 20 murders that occurred in southeastern Anatolia from 1990 to 1996, at the height of the clashes between the Turkish army and the PKK Kurdish rebels.
But the case of Musa Anter, a well-known Kurdish intellectual and columnist for the newspaper Özgür Gündem who was gunned down in Diyarbakır in September 1992, is an exception. After 20 years of inaction, the authorities saved the case from the statute of limitations at the last moment in 2012 in a gesture to the Kurdish political movement at the start of historic peace talks with the PKK.
But the judicial process has faltered badly since the talks were cut short in 2015. One of the main suspects, former special agent Mahmut Yıldırım, cannot be found. The judges have still not managed to question another suspect, former double agent Abdülkadir Aygan, who fled to Sweden. The only suspect to have been arrested, former auxiliary Hamit Yıldırım in 2012, was released conditionally in June 2017.
The trial is due to resume in Ankara on 4 April but, although the state recognized its involvement in Anter’s murder and expressed it regret in 1998, justice is still unlikely to be rendered.
The judicial proceedings in a wave of shootings and bombings of well-known secular journalists and intellectuals such as Uğur Mumcu and Ahmet Taner Kışlalı in the 1990s no longer deserve the original label of “Umut” (Hope).
Twenty-five years later, several Jihadi militants implicated in these murders are still on the run. After many twists and turns, the retrial of five suspects who were already convicted in an initial trial resumed on 9 November in Ankara, while the families of the victims continue to condemn the judicial system’s failure to identify and prosecute those in the “deep state” who masterminded these killings.
The politicization of investigations continues to be the norm when the violence against journalists stops short of being fatal. The deliberate police violence against around 150 reporters covering the “Occupy Gezi” protest movement from May to September 2015 is still unpunished.
The interior ministry has been ordered to pay damages to only two reporters and no police officer has been punished. And no measure has been taking against the ruling party activists who beat up four journalists – Sertaç Kayar, Mahmut Bozarslan, Veysi İpek and Hatice Kamer – on 8 June 2016 when they tried to cover the aftermath of a bombing in the southeastern city of Midyat. The journalists had to be hospitalized with serious injuries.
But with good will...
A few exceptions nonetheless show that, when the justice system is not subjected to political meddling or when there is sufficient civil society pressure, it is capable of shedding a great deal of light on murders of journalists.
The leaders of a criminal gang in the northwestern city of Bandırma received long jail sentences for the murder of Cihan Hayırsevener, the publisher of the local newspaper Güney Marmara’da Yaşam, who was gunned down in December 2009. A court ruled that an influential local businessman, İhsan Kuruoğlu, had Hayırsevener killed for accusing him of corruption. Kuruoğlu was sentenced to 17 years in prison on appeal on 8 December 2017, while the gunman was given a life sentence.
The case of Metin Göktepe, a young reporter for the newspaper Evrensel, is also exceptional. In 2000, seven policemen were finally convicted of beating him to death in January 1996 in the Istanbul sports centre where he was being held along with hundreds of other people.
For a long time, the authorities insisted that he had fallen from the top of a wall, but they finally recognized the truth after a great deal of pressure from journalists’ organizations and civil society. RSF attended 28 of the 30 hearings in the case from 1996 to 2000, which were held far from Istanbul in an attempt to reduce the size of the protests. Of all the Turkish murder cases referred to the European Court of Human Rights, the Göktepe case is the only one in which the court finally ruled that the Turkish justice system had done what was necessary.
New Syrian challenge
Most of the journalists murdered in Turkey in recent years have been Syrian refugees. These cases pose additional challenges to Turkish investigators because the perpetrators may have fled to Syria and because the range of possible instigators includes the Syrian government and Islamic State.
The double murder of Syrian activist Orouba Barakat and her journalist daughter Halla Barakat in Istanbul in 21 September has reinforced the climate of fear among Syrian dissidents living in self-imposed exile. A former employee arrested nine days later said he killed them because he had not been paid, but many doubt that this was the real motive.
An alleged Islamic State member received a life sentence from a court in the southeastern city of Gaziantep on 9 June after being convicted of murdering the Syrian journalist Naji Jerf there in December 2015. But the trial was held behind closed doors and the Jerf family was not represented, so many key questions, including possible complicity, were left unanswered.
There are also many unanswered questions in the murder of Syrian journalist Mohamed Zaher al-Sherqat, a Halab Today TV presenter who was gunned down in Gaziantep in April 2016, and the murder of Ibrahim Abdelqader, a Syrian citizen-journalist who was killed together with a Syrian friend, Fares Hammadi, in nearby Urfa in October 2015.
Turkey is ranked 155th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2017 World Press Freedom Index. The already worrying media situation has become critical under the state of emergency proclaimed after a bloody coup attempt in July 2016.