The government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan continues to shield Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MİT) from a judicial investigation that is looking into the alleged roles of elements within the country’s security establishment which helped contribute deliberately or negligently to the murder of an Armenian-Turkish journalist.
Turkish authorities have prevented any investigation into MİT agents in a case that was launched into senior officials in the police department and military for dereliction of duty in protecting Hrant Dink, a Turkish journalist of Armenian origin who was shot dead by an ultranationalist teenager in broad daylight on January 19, 2007. Erdoğan asserted that the murder was personal rather than a complex plot, effectively shutting down the investigation into the real masterminds behind the triggerman.
Moreover, despite repeated motions by lawyers for the victim’s family and defendants who were made scapegoats in the case with no evidence, the authorities also blocked any employee of the intelligence agency from testifying in court, even as a witness, to corroborate or deny accounts provided by others during the trial.
This is because the masterminds behind the murder were protected by influential figures within Turkey’s security establishment. The murder took place in a permissive environment that allowed hatred to grow against Armenians in particular and Christians in general in Turkey. In the years preceding the attack, Turkey’s National Security Council (MGK) had conducted an operation into Armenians in Turkey, starting in 2003. Relevant security institutions were instructed to do their part in the classified operation, with the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) and MİT providing the council with relevant information and documents.
However, the police, fearing that it would lead to a further lack of security by stoking national sentiments, did not fully cooperate with the MGK. Bayram Kaya, a veteran investigative journalist who wrote a book about the murder, claimed in his book that a senior military officer warned a police chief, urging the police department to focus on the so-called “missionary threat” [Christian missionaries as a national threat]. Kaya has been jailed for over three years now for blowing the whistle on the murder and exposing elements in the intelligence and military branches of government.
Among the tens of thousands of pages in the court documents are only three pages that were submitted by MİT, which stated that the agency was familiar with Dink, received an assassination tip against him in Sydney, Australia, in 2003, and that they talked to the journalist, who was with his wife Rakel at the time, about the alleged plot. The information was actually provided by the Turkish Foreign Ministry on January 17, 2003 based on a tip it received and was later shared with both the police department and MİT. The information was that Dink would face an armed attack while he was in Australia to attend a conference.
The most scandalous incident that revealed MİT’s campaign of intimidation against Dink took place on February 24, 2006 in the İstanbul Governor’s Office building following a phone call from the Office of the Chief of General Staff to MİT Undersecretary Şenkal Atasagun. The top brass, controlled by neo-nationalist generals at the time, asked MİT to give Dink a scare because of articles published in the Agos newspaper, whose editor-in-chief was Dink. The journalist published a news story about Sabiha Gökçen — the adopted daughter of the founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, and Turkey’s first female pilot — in his newspaper that suggested Gökçen could be one of the thousands of Armenians who were orphaned in 1915 when Armenians faced a forced displacement that led to many deaths.
Following instructions from the military top brass, MİT Undersecretary Atasagun tasked Hüseyin Kubilay Günay, MİT İstanbul regional director, with delivering the message to Dink. Then-Governor Muammer Güler and Günay both decided that the meeting should be held at the governor’s office building on February 24, 2004. According to the testimony of former İstanbul Deputy Governor Ergun Güngör, the journalist was threatened by two MİT officials in his office on an order from then-İstanbul Governor Güler.
The meeting was attended by Güngör, Dink and Özel Yılmaz, deputy regional director of MİT in İstanbul, who was also leading the agency’s counterterrorism department, and Handan Selçuk, another MİT agent. Dink was invited to the meeting to be warned of “possible danger if he continued to make controversial statements.” “During the meeting, we talked about the fact that [Dink’s] reports about Gökçen might create [unease] in the public,” Güngör admitted in a statement to İstanbul public prosecutor Gökalp Kürkçü. The İstanbul Police Department was not informed about the meeting.
The meeting at the governor’s office building came a week after Dink had suggested that Gökçen was in fact an Armenian orphan. During the conversation, the deputy governor and the two MİT officials threatened Dink, saying, “We know who you are, but society may not,” and “We are concerned that society might not be able to understand things like this.” Dink had later acknowledged in his weekly column that he had been threatened by what the two MİT officials called a “warning” at the office of the then-deputy governor.
It was clear that the MİT agents wanted to deliver a personal warning to Dink in line with a harsh statement issued on February 22, 2004 by the Office of Chief of General Staff over the reports on Gökçen. The message was amplified in Turkey’s nationalist media as well. For example, Hurşit Tolon, a former commander of the 1st Army Corps, categorically called it “a crime against national unity” in an interview with the Hürriyet daily, now a pro-Erdoğan mouthpiece. Tolon was convicted of membership in a shadowy neo-nationalist group nested in the state’s security apparatus but was saved from legal troubles by the intervention of President Erdoğan, just like many others who had targeted Dink in a vicious campaign.
MİT denied its agents threatened Dink and also claimed it had no other information about the journalist, which does not appear credible given the fact that Dink was a high-profile figure under constant threat by nationalist and neo-nationalist circles. Yet, no investigation was launched into MİT about the reported meeting and no agent was summoned to testify during the trial. Turkish authorities refused to prosecute Deputy Governor Güngör and MİT agent Yılmaz. The Dink family lawyers took the case to the Constitutional Court.
Dink had been the target of nationalists in Turkey and was viciously prosecuted by the judiciary, which was under the control of the neo-nationalists at the time. The witch-hunt against him was also discreetly supported by some elements in the military, police and intelligence agency MİT. The complaint that led to his prosecution was filed by a man who appeared to be an ordinary construction worker but in fact was linked to Turkish intelligence.
He was indicted on April 16, 2004 on charges of insulting the Turkish state, and the Şişli 2nd Court of First Instance convicted him on October 7, 2005 and handed down a suspended six-month sentence. The 9th Chamber of the Supreme Court of Appeals (Yargıtay) upheld the conviction on May 1, 2005, and the appeal to the chamber’s ruling was rejected by the Grand Chamber of the Supreme Court of Appeals (Yargıtay Ceza Genel Kurulu) on July 11, 2006.
A second case on similar charges was filed against Dink on July 14, 2006 over an interview with Reuters. In the meantime, a defamation campaign in the Turkish media targeting the journalist also intensified. Turkish authorities were well aware of the threats, while his lawyers filed a criminal complaint with the prosecutor’s office in Şişli over the death threats Dink had received. A police intelligence note on July 3, 2006 stated that groups aligned with the nationalist Gray Wolf group were preparing for a protest rally in front of the courthouse in Şişli on July 4, 2006. The note was shared with all security agencies including MİT. But the necessary protection was not provided to secure the journalist’s safety.
Separately, Archbishop Mesrob II Mutafyan, the top religious leader of Orthodox Christian Armenians in Turkey who passed away in March 2019, appealed to the authorities on October 11, 2006 to ensure the security of the institutions of the Armenian community. His application was referred to the İstanbul Police Department two days later. Mutafyan had earlier sought the help of authorities, on January 28, 2004, stating that an Internet site featured bomb-making materials and was targeting Armenian institutions. The İstanbul police detained a person in connection to the website who was arrested on February 8, 2004, and the site was closed down.
On October 12, 2006, the national police headquarters in Ankara also warned provincial police departments about possible provocations in Turkey amid an Armenian genocide resolution that was being debated in the French parliament. The hostile environment against Armenians in Turkey was deliberately stoked by nationalist elements, while Dink was not provided with any protection, leaving him exposed to possible attacks.
Most of the suspects in Dink’s murder are from Trabzon province, where the assassination plot was hatched. There is evidence that military intelligence units in the province were aware of the assassin’s plans to kill the journalists but covered up the reports based on an account provided by informant Coşkun İğci, who is a relative of Yasin Hayal, the man who incited the murder. Before the murder, suspects even took a trip to scout the area in İstanbul, inspected the road between Dink’s home and his office — the Agos newspaper building — and even drew sketches as to how they could go through with the assassination. The hitman, Ogün Samast, and 18 others stood trial in the aftermath of the assassination. Hayal was given life in prison for inciting Samast to murder. However, Erhan Tuncel, who worked as an informant for the Trabzon Police Department and was accused of initiating the effort to have Dink murdered, was found not guilty.
Former Trabzon Chief of Police Ramazan Akyürek testified that the İstanbul Police Department was warned about Hayal’s plans to assassinate Dink, on February 17, 2006, in an online intelligence report known as the “F4 report.” Akyürek said he sent a note warning both the National Police Department’s intelligence unit and the National Police Department that there was going to be an attempted assassination of Dink. He added that former İstanbul Police Chief Celalettin Cerrah asked him to destroy the F4 report after the murder took place in order to destroy the evidence. He also claimed that Cerrah had sought the destruction of information about Tuncel, who was accused of initiating the effort to have Dink murdered. Akyürek appears to have done everything by the book; yet, he was made the fall guy in the case.
The former head of the National Police Department’s intelligence unit, Engin Dinç, who is now the police chief in Eskisehir, is believed to be the key person implicated in the murder when he was running the Trabzon police intelligence department. For example, he was the figure who enlisted suspect Tuncel as a Trabzon Police Department informant in 2004. The two met secretly in the office of Dinç, who maintained his ties to Tuncel even after Erdoğan promoted him to lead the national police intelligence unit. The cozy relations between the two were expressed in a letter sent by Tuncel to Dinç that read, “Act like an older brother, and I will act like a younger brother in response.”
Dinç had been aware of the intelligence that Hayal was planning to assassinate Dink as of February 15, 2006, but neither sent an official written statement to the relevant government agencies to stop the murder nor conducted any operation against those who were planning the assassination to prevent the attack from taking place.
Three police officers who worked under Dinç in the intelligence unit of the Trabzon Police Department were arrested in January 2015 on charges of dereliction of duty and misconduct in the Dink murder as part of an expanded probe into the incident. The three police officers — Ercan Demir, Özkan Mumcu and Muhittin Zenit -– pointed the finger at Dinç and testified that he was the highest authority in the Trabzon-based intelligence unit. Yet Dinç was protected by the Erdoğan government.
Dinç worked at the Trabzon Police Department’s intelligence unit between August 26, 2004 and September 19, 2007, and his track record does not give much confidence about his inclination to prevent plots from materializing. Several controversial incidents took place in Trabzon province during his tenure. The attempt of a local group to assault members of the Association for Inmates’ Families’ Solidarity (TAYAD) during a demonstration held in Trabzon in 2005; a bomb attack on a McDonald’s restaurant in Trabzon in 2004; and the murder of Catholic priest Father Andrea Santoro of the Sancta Maria Catholic Church by an ultranationalist teenager in Trabzon in 2006 were among the controversial incidents that took place during Dinç’s time in the job.
Tuncel was among the perpetrators of the bomb attack on McDonald’s in 2004. However, Tuncel was allegedly kept outside the investigation conducted into the bomb attack. He was then appointed as an informant working for the Trabzon Police Department’s intelligence unit by Dinç.
High-ranking gendarmerie commanders, such as Col. Ali Öz, the Trabzon gendarmerie commander, and Metin Yıldız, were also implicated in the murder. They had known that Hayal was planning to kill Dink, and reports were filed by gendarmerie intelligence officers to that effect. Several witnesses later testified that these reports, which were archived at the gendarmerie unit, were destroyed under orders from Öz and replaced with doctored ones after the murder to bury the evidence that the gendarmerie knew about the plan.
What is more, a report prepared at 9:30 p.m. on January 20, 2007 at the Trabzon Gendarmerie Command included the exact specifications of the gun used by Samast. However, Samast was captured at 11 p.m. on January 20, 2007 at the Samsun bus station, when the murder weapon was also seized. This means that officials at the Trabzon Gendarmerie Command had known the gun specs even though the gun had not yet been seized.
Some elements in the police force were apparently involved in the conspiracy as well. For example, one photograph released to the media shortly after the murder showed Samast — the shooter — standing next to two proud-looking police officers with a Turkish flag in the background, allegedly taken at the Samsun Police Department, where he was held before he was brought to İstanbul.
Instead of going after the real culprits, the case was scapegoated on several police chiefs who had played no role in the murder. For example, former İstanbul Police Department Intelligence Bureau Chief Ali Fuat Yılmazer, who was jailed and tried for dereliction of duty in protecting Dink, was not even serving in İstanbul at the time. His arrest was nothing but an attempt by the government to divert attention from the state officials truly at fault. State inspectors’ reports earlier concluded that Yılmazer had not been involved in any misconduct regarding the incident.
MIT did not share any document or report about Dink or what it had done with respect to the Armenian minority in Turkey after the MGK decision, notr did it provide a copy of the surveillance it conducted on the Agos newspaper. Testifying to inspectors of the State Audit Institution (DDK), which had earlier investigated the murder, Afet Günes, deputy undersecretary of MİT, even denied that her agents threatened Dink and claimed the agency had no information or documents concerning the journalist. They were protected by prosecutors who did not summon any intelligence operative to testify, and the court rejected motions to force them appear during the trial.
In case file No. 2007/428, the İstanbul 14th High Criminal Court asked the İstanbul Governor’s Office in on July 5, 2007 to identify the MİT agents who threatened Dink at the 2004 meeting. But the governor’s office declined to name the agents, and the court accepted the response despite the fact that it was challenged by the lawyers for the victim’s family. The identity of the agents was finally revealed in a letter submitted to the Office of the Prime Ministry on January 12, 2011. The fact that the meeting was organized at the request of the Turkish military was revealed in a statement given by MİT agent Özel Yılmaz to the prosecutor’s office on December 22, 2014. But the prosecutor dropped the investigation into the MİT agents as well as Deputy Governor Ergun Güngör. No indictment was filed and no summons was issued for them to testify in court even as witnesses. The court rejected the motions by lawyers for the victim’s family, who asked that the MİT agents and the deputy governor be summoned.
In his statement Yılmaz said he filed a report after his meeting with Dink in 2004 and submitted it to MİT. The Dink family lawyers asked for a copy of this report and what action had been taken in a motion filed with the court, but MİT failed to respond.
In addition to the two MİT agents who had threatened Dink, another MİT agent identified as İhsan Kasap in Trabzon province was investigated in the aftermath of the murder. But the trail went cold, and no information was provided by authorities about him despite questions from Chief of Police Yılmazer and Dink family lawyer Hakan Bakırcıoğlu. Yılmazer said the MİT agent’s phone had been wiretapped for three months and that he was questioned during the preliminary investigation after the murder. He asked the court to locate him and have him testify in court as well to reveal the full scope of the plot.
Furthermore, Ercan Gün, a veteran journalist who was working for Fox TV’s Turkish channel before he was jailed on fabricated charges, testified in court that a gendarmerie officer named Veysal Şahin admitted to him while he was working on a story about the murder of Dink that Hayal was given an assignment by MİT. The gendarmerie officer said Hayal did not disclose the subject of the assignment but confided to him that he frequently went to the MİT office in Trabzon in the two weeks preceding the murder. Hayal bragged about how he was given a special assignment by the agency. It was also confirmed in Samast’s statement that Şahin knew Hayal and was meeting with him from time to time.
When Gün recounted his recollection of this explosive conversation with Şahin, presiding judge Arif Atanian got angry and tried to suppress his testimony. The court transcript shows the judge grilled the journalist for revealing the information and that Şahin refuted the claims.
The current trial of officials for dereliction of duty in the murder of journalist Dink appears to be nothing but a an attempt at a whitewash to clear Erdoğan’s allies in the intelligence agency, police and military. The real culprits are still out there, roaming freely in Turkey, while the fall guys who had no role in the case were made scapegoats by the regime.