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How unsolved murders serve power struggles in Turkey

High-profile trials and political murders have become tools in Turkey's power struggles, doubling also as a means to intimidate dissidents.
People gather on the spot, where Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink was killed, during a commemoration to mark the 10th anniversary of his death, in Istanbul, Turkey, January 19, 2017. REUTERS/Osman Orsal - RTSW8WH

Illegal groups within the state, extrajudicial killings and political murders have been major topics on Turkey’s agenda during the past 15 years.

The issues date to the 1990s, when, at the height of the Kurdish conflict, rogue groups of soldiers, public servants and “confessors” — former Kurdish militants who became collaborators — embarked on a spree of summary executions of Kurdish civilians, including politicians and businessmen, in the name of “fighting terrorism.” The aim was to control Kurdish cities through bloodshed, coercion and intimidation. Occasionally, some of the perpetrators were caught red-handed and charged, while a few scapegoats were also convicted, with their atrocities played down as isolated incidents.

After its victories in the 2007 legislative elections, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) moved to reopen the files, as it began to confront the military and the established order. The JITEM cases — as they are widely known, using the acronym of the notorious Gendarmerie Intelligence and Anti-Terror unit — kicked off with big political pledges, raising hope that Turkey would face up to the dark episodes of its past and strengthen its democracy.

In time, however, the process slackened with the changing political climate. In the past couple of years, a series of high-profile cases were either closed or resulted in acquittals, as the AKP’s relations with the military leadership warmed. In short, Turkey was neither able to face up to the state’s brutal policies in the past nor hold the wrongdoers to account.

In the meantime, political murders continued, though with different actors and targets. The backdrop this time was not the Kurdish conflict, but Turkey’s bid to join the European Union.

In the early 2000s, the AKP government launched far-reaching reforms to align with EU norms, shaking the Kemalist establishment. Hushed-up issues such as the Armenian genocide came to the fore, and fresh debates on identity and history challenged established narratives. The changing climate polarized Turkey, as many grew anxious over the country’s unity and regime. The military was particularly stirred. Angry generals fumed at the AKP and its policies, issued memorandums and sought ground for tougher interventions in politics.

It was in this atmosphere that the political murders began anew. The targets this time were “the others within,” i.e., the non-Muslim minorities. The gangs were more complex and better organized than their predecessors were in the 1990s, and the policies enabling them were better concealed.

In February 2006, Catholic priest Andrea Santoro was shot dead in the northern city of Trabzon. The gunman was a teenager who said he was furious over the priest’s missionary work.

In January 2007, journalist Hrant Dink, the leading voice of Turkey’s Armenian minority, was gunned down in broad daylight in Istanbul. The young killer and his accomplices emerged as a bunch of do-nothings, supposedly incensed over Dink’s writings.

Three months later, a group of young men slit the throats of three Protestants in a Christian publishing house in the eastern city of Malatya. The assailants’ story was familiar — they had acted out of personal anger over the victims’ proselytizing activities.

The circumstances surrounding Dink’s murder, however, debunked the narrative of “rage murders” from the very first day, pointing to a new wave of systematic killings. Shortly before the murder, the National Intelligence Organization (MIT), acting at the General Staff’s behest, had cautioned Dink to soften his writings, warning he might enrage hotheads and put himself in harm's way. The security forces, it emerged, had long been aware of a plot to kill Dink, but, curiously, all those responsible for stopping it had somehow neglected their duties. In short, Dink’s murder unfolded just as in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “Chronicle of a Death Foretold.”

A decade later, the details of Dink's assassination are far from being fully brought to light. Only the hit man and his cohorts have been convicted, while probes and trials over the deliberate negligence of the security forces and other public servants drag on amid new findings and allegations. Yet the probes have not even come close to the military or MIT. Meanwhile, some of those responsible for the failure to protect Dink have been promoted to head key offices, including the police intelligence department and even the Interior Ministry, which speaks volumes of how the AKP government approaches the issue.

Things are no different when it comes to the other murders. The “kid” who killed Father Santoro completed his jail time last year, still insisting he acted alone. The five perpetrators of the Malatya massacre got life sentences in September 2016, while their suspected instigators vanished into thin air.

While many aspects of the murders have been swept under the rug, the cases have served a common function as tools and weapons in political power struggles.

Dink’s murder, for instance, was initially perceived as the work of neonationalist groups. The main shapers of this perception were the Gulenists who, at the time, dominated the police and the judiciary. Today, things have turned upside down, and the Gulenists are accused of having orchestrated the murder. Similarly, neonationalist military figures who were arrested for pulling the strings in the Malatya massacre are now said to be the victims of a Gulenist setup.

In fact, only the political equations and the axes of conflict have changed. The AKP-Gulenist alliance that targeted the neonationalists yesterday has been replaced by an AKP-neonationalist alliance that targets the Gulenists today. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan also changed his mind on Dink’s murder after his fallout with Gulen. “The recent developments in the Dink case are quite intriguing. The actors [behind the scene] are coming to light,” he said in February 2015, alluding to the Gulenists.

In December the same year, Gulenist policemen were for the first time charged over the murder. The suspects, the prosecutor argued, were fully aware of the murder plan and let it proceed.

The high-profile probes into alleged coup preparations, Ergenekon and Sledgehammer, have been similarly upended. The “military espionage” probes, which also targeted the army, turned out to rest on trumped-up evidence, designed to purge unwanted officers and replace them with Gulenists. In Ergenekon and Sledgehammer, however, some potentially credible aspects were diluted with the addition of fabrications, as a result of which innocent officers were arrested and expelled from the army. After the AKP-Gulen fallout, higher courts aborted all those cases, quashing hundreds of convictions. Still, the trials seriously scarred the military, eroded the judiciary’s credibility and led to major rights violations.

On the flip side of the coin, however, some suspects, for whom serious evidence existed for coup plotting or setting up criminal networks, were cleared along with the innocent.

Retired Brig. Gen. Veli Kucuk and nationalist lawyer Kemal Kerincsiz, for instance, were involved in serious incitement ahead of Dink’s murder, but they, too, were cleared in the Ergenekon case. With the collapse of the case, any suspects who might have played a role in the assassination got away.

Since the failed coup attempt in 2016, a dangerous trend has emerged, threatening to further undermine the quests for justice. In the words of Erdal Kuzu, an attorney in a JITEM case of over 22 summary executions, “The JITEM cases are being watered down by being linked to Gulenists.”

Pro-government papers this month launched an attempt to portray Armenian intellectual Etyen Mahcupyan, a close friend of Dink’s, as a Gulenist and link him to the murder after he vocally criticized Erdogan and his push for an executive presidency.

Criminalizing dissenting voices is seemingly becoming the new normal in Turkey, as the judiciary is being used as an instrument in power struggles, crippling democracy by the day. The dirty relationship between power and judiciary, arbitrariness, self-censorship and fear are becoming commonplace. Is this an omen of what lies in store in the new governance system the AKP is proposing? It is hard to say, but this is certainly what comes to mind.

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