On January 19, 2007, Hrant Dink, 52, managing editor of the bilingual Turkish-Armenian weekly Agos, was shot outside his newspaper’s offices in Istanbul. Dink had received numerous death threats from nationalist Turks who viewed his iconoclastic journalism, particularly on the mass killings of Armenians in the early 20th century, as an act of treachery. In a January 10 article in Agos, Dink said he had passed along a particularly threatening letter to Istanbul’s Şişli district prosecutor, but no action was taken.
Then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan condemned Dink’s murder as an attack against Turkey’s unity and promised to catch those responsible, according to international news reports. A day later, police arrested the triggerman, 17-year-old Ogün Samast, who confessed to the crime. Erhan Tuncel and Yasin Hayal, described as ultranationalist Turks opposed to Dink’s political views, were accused of conspiring with Samast to carry out the murder. In all, 19 people went on trial beginning in July.
Dink, a Turkish citizen of Armenian descent, had been prosecuted several times – for writing about the mass killings of Armenians by Turks at the beginning of the 20th century, for criticizing lines in the Turkish national anthem that he considered discriminatory, and for commenting publicly on the court cases against him. His office was also the target of protests.
In July 2006, Turkey’s High Court of Appeals upheld a six-month suspended prison sentence against Dink for violating Article 301 of the penal code in a case sparked by complaints from nationalist activists. His prosecution stemmed from a series of articles in early 2004 dealing with the collective memory of the Armenian massacres of 1915-17 under the Ottoman Empire. Armenians call the killings the first genocide of the 20th century, a term that Turkey rejects.
Ironically, the pieces for which Dink was convicted had urged diaspora Armenians to let go of their anger against the Turks. The prosecution was sharply criticized by the European Union, which Turkey has sought to join. Dink said he would take the case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France, to clear his name.
Dink edited Agos for the first 11 years of the paper’s existence. The only Armenian newspaper in Turkey, Agos had a circulation of just 6,000 at the time of Dink’s death, but its political influence was vast. Dink regularly appeared on television to express his views.
In a 2006 interview with CPJ Dink said that he hoped his critical reporting would pave the way for peace between the two peoples. "I want to write and ask how we can change this historical conflict into peace," he said.
In the interview, Dink said he did not think the tide had yet turned in favor of critical writers—"the situation in Turkey is tense—but he believed that it ultimately would. "I believe in democracy and press freedom. I am determined to pursue the struggle."
Dink’s murder trial started in July 2007 in Istanbul, reports said. Two years into the trial, the journalist’s family’s lawyers said in a statement that government forces knew that Dink’s life was under imminent threat and that intelligence officers had been informed of specific details concerning a plan to murder him, yet, “no precautions were taken. On the contrary, some public officers tried to cover up evidence and hid information about the gravity of the situation from each other.”
The European Court of Human Rights, based in Strasbourg, ruled in 2010 that Turkey failed to protect Dink’s life and freedom of expression, as CPJ reported at the time.
On July 25, 2011, Samast was sentenced to 22 years and 10 months in prison for the murder, a decision that was upheld by the Supreme Court in 2012, according to reports. The verdict was not found satisfactory by trial observers, many of whom called for allegations of official negligence or state collusion to be investigated, according to the BBC.
The Supreme Court of Appeals agreed that the Dink case should be further investigated and ordered a retrial in May 2013, which CPJ reported at the time, along with comments from Dink family lawyer Fethiye Çetin who said that the investigation should be expanded to include possible official corruption.
In a criminal conspiracy trial on July 17, 2019, which was separated from the main murder trial for statutory reasons, Samast, Hayal, and Tuncel, along with six other defendants, had additional years in prison added to their sentences, reports said. Samast had two and a half years added to his 22-year sentence, Hayal was sentenced to a total of seven and a half years, and Tuncel was sentenced to 99 years, according to those reports.
On July 30, the Dink family’s lawyers appealed the verdict on the grounds that they wanted the defendants to be charged as members of an armed terrorist organization rather than as members of a criminal organization, reports said.
Hakan Bakırcıoğlu, a lawyer for the Dink family, told the Turkish service of German broadcaster Deutsche Welle that the court still refused to question certain government personnel about their role in the murder, according to a report published on January 18, 2020. “Therefore, the trial that continues today is an incomplete one. The verdict to come out as it is would not solve the Dink murder from every aspect,” he said.
The trial ended on March 26, 2021, when the 14th Istanbul Court of Serious Crimes acquitted 37 of 77 defendants on trial for the journalist’s 2007 killing, and convicted 26, as CPJ documented. Dink’s family stated that they did not believe that the court exposed the full conspiracy behind his killing, according to news reports.
Dink family lawyers appealed the verdict to the Istanbul Regional Court on April 3, 2021, according to reports. The lawyers argued for the appeal on the basis that some of the defendants who should have been found guilty were acquitted by court or benefited from the statute of limitations; some of the defendants who were found guilty were sentenced to short prison sentences; and the trial ended before all the evidence was considered by the court, the reports said.
The Istanbul Regional Court rejected the appeals from the Dink family and others on May 5, 2022, according to news reports, but ruled that some of the defendants should be retried on lesser charges, such as falsifying documents. The court also said two of those who were convicted for “armed terrorist organization membership,” could be retried on lesser charges as well. The Dink family said they planned to appeal the verdict to the Supreme Court of Appeals, the reports said.
On June 21, 2023, the Supreme Court partially revoked the verdicts for some defendants and approved the acquittals of some of the major suspects, according to news reports. The Dink family lawyers appealed to the Constitutional Court of Turkey in July 2023 asking for another retrial.
While the Supreme Court of Appeals approved the sentencings of 12 defendants on charges of premeditated murder and two others for assisting in a murder, it also approved the acquittals of several defendants on charges including membership in an armed terrorist organization, attempting to overthrow the constitutional order, and premeditated murder due to neglect, the latter of which had been filed against the state officials who allegedly knew of plans to kill Dink but failed to intervene.
The Supreme Court also dropped charges for "neglecting duty” against two defendants and “attempting to influence a [court] expert” against one, citing the statute of limitations. The court also reversed sentencings for six defendants charged with forging official documents due to their case being heard by the wrong court and ordered a retrial for that charge.
Separately, on October 11, 2021, the Council of State approved the verdict of the 6th Administrative Court of Istanbul for Turkey’s Ministry of Interior Affairs to pay 1,066,000 liras (US$73,500) in compensation to the Dink family in a case the family had filed against the ministry for negligence of duty, according to reports. The money was paid to the family following the verdict, according to the Dink family lawyer Fethiye Çetin, who spoke with CPJ via messaging app.
Ahmet İskender, a convict at large for his role in the Dink assassination, was captured in Kyrgyzstan with false documentation on March 4, 2022, according to news reports. A Turkish court sentenced İskender to 12 years and 6 months in prison in 2012 for being one if the instigators of the murder, as CPJ documented at the time. İskender was extradited to Turkey on March 27, 2022, according to reports.
Samast, who was found guilty in 2011 of shooting Dink, was released from prison on November 15, 2023, after serving 16 years and 10 months, triggering widespread criticism in Turkey, which led to the Ministry of Justice issuing a statement saying that it had followed the law.
Days after Samast’s release, Istanbul prosecutors prepared a new indictment against him, and charged him with “committing a crime on behalf of an armed terrorist organization without being a member.”
Samast’s new case was merged with the ongoing 2023 trial in which 11 people, including Hayal and Tuncel, are being retried on charges that they were members of what the government refers to as the terrorist organization FETÖ/PDY, associated with the U.S.-based Islamic cleric Fethullah Gülen. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan blamed Turkey’s 2016 attempted military coup on Gülen, who denied involvement.