Turkey Pulse

Are elderly Armenian women victims of hate crimes?

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Article Summary
The trial of a man arrested after a string of attacks against elderly Armenian women in Istanbul is rekindling fears that a racist gang may be at large in the city.

A string of attacks against elderly Armenian women occurred in Istanbul in late 2012 and early 2013. The victims were all lone octogenarians. Two of them were badly battered and lost their sight, while a third was stabbed to death after a brutal beating.

The first victim, Turfanda Asik, 87, lost an eye as a result of a severe beating at the hands of an assailant who broke into her home. The assailant — or perhaps the assailants — took nothing from the apartment.

Shortly after, Maritsa Kucuk, 84, was found dead in her home, stabbed seven times and badly beaten. Only the earrings and other jewelry she usually wore were missing, while money was left untouched.

The third victim, Sultan Aykar, 83, was knocked down by an assailant approaching from behind while she unlocked the door to her home. Thanks to neighbors who heard the noise and rushed to help, she survived the attack but also lost an eye.

All three incidents happened in Istanbul’s Samatya neighborhood, home to 8,000-10,000 members of Istanbul’s 60,000-strong Armenian minority. As expected, the attacks had a terrorizing effect on Armenians, sending shock waves across the entire community.

It was obvious that the string of violence was directed exclusively at elderly Armenian women and was not robbery-motivated. Yet, in their initial statements the police insisted that the assailants were robbery-motivated and did not act in an organized way.

Such statements only fueled the anxiety of the Armenian community, spreading fears that the police’s careless attitude would further embolden the perpetrators. Human rights groups and activists against hate crimes raised concern that the state was yet again displaying a knee-jerk impulse to look the other way when violence targeted Turkey’s Armenians. But just as the controversy had begun to grow, the police came up with a surprise, announcing on March 4, the arrest of the 38-year-old alleged assailant. The suspect’s blood sample matched the one found in Kucuk’s home. He had a criminal record for theft as well as another characteristic that debunked those who saw the attacks as hate crimes against Armenians: Murat Nazaryan was himself of Armenian origin.

The controversy waned after the suspect’s profile emerged and the attacks came to be seen as incidents of ordinary crime.

The doubts, however, were soon rekindled when the judicial process kicked off. The court handled Nazaryan’s case in a bizarre fashion, following procedures typical for cases of terrorism and organized crime. The prosecution imposed a blackout on the investigation, which meant that the victims’ relatives and lawyers had no access to the case file until the trial opened.

To see the other bizarre details in Nazaryan’s case, let’s take a look at the press statement that the victims’ attorney, Eren Keskin, and the Human Rights Association’s Istanbul branch released jointly on Nov. 19 under the headline “Was Maritsa Kucuk killed in a hate crime? Shed light on the truth!”

Here are the highlights of the statement: “Maritsa Kucuk, 87, was battered and stabbed to death on Dec. 28, 2012. Had murder been the only motive, an abrupt blow or a firearm shot would have sufficed to kill a woman at that age. Yet, she was brutally battered for hours and repeatedly stabbed.

“From Nov. 28, 2012 to Jan. 26, 2013, a period that spans Maritsa Kucuk’s murder, other elderly Armenian women were targeted in Samatya in similar attacks involving brutal violence. Following Murat Nazaryan’s arrest, all news reports, which were obviously funneled to the media from a single source, highlighted Nazaryan’s Armenian ethnicity, branded him the “Samatya assailant,” creating the impression he was responsible for all attacks, and asserted that the attacks were robbery-motivated. Murat Nazaryan, however, is currently on trial only for Maritsa Kucuk’s murder.

“The meetings we had with the victims’ families led to one conclusion: The attacks were not robbery-motivated. Asik was battered for hours but not even a single drawer was opened in her home. Kucuk’s home was found all tidy, they didn’t look for anything there. Several bank notes on the table were untouched.

“Maritsa Kucuk’s family and their attorney Eren Keskin were barred access to the crime-scene report and photos and other related police documents for no less than six months before the trial kicked off because the prosecution had imposed a secrecy decision on the probe. The practice of secrecy is used mostly in cases of organized crimes or in cases related to state security. Why did it become necessary, if this is an ordinary murder file?

“Murat Nazaryan remained silent in the first two hearings. The only thing he said was, 'I didn’t kill anyone.' At the hearing on Nov. 4, 2013, the truth began to slowly emerge. Maritsa Kucuk was killed by three people, who had taken Nazaryan along by force. They had guns. … [Nazaryan] mentioned gangs. He said he had kept silent because he was bullied and frightened.”

Nazaryan’s new testimony has led human rights groups and the victims’ families to believe that a larger campaign of organized attacks could have been underway than originally was thought. They are urging the authorities to expand the investigation.

Nazaryan’s testimony has yet to lead to other arrests, but hate crime is back under consideration as the motive. If his account is not a fabrication, Nazaryan seems to be a mere pawn, with the real perpetrators at large.

The theory of an organized racist group is being strengthened by the fact that another Armenian woman was attacked in Istanbul on Aug. 17, months after Nazaryan’s arrest. Like the other women, Markirit Camkosoglu, 80, suffered serious physical violence but was lucky enough to escape without major injury.

It would be premature to conclude at present whether Nazaryan is a deranged ordinary criminal or a pawn manipulated by a racist gang. In any case, Kucuk’s murder and the other attacks deserve to be followed very closely, keeping in mind the possibility of an organized hate campaign. Could it be that some gangs in Turkey are trying to give a message in the run-up to the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide? Is it the resurgence of anti-Armenian attacks, unseen since the 2007 assassination of ethnic Armenian journalist Hrant Dink? If Nazaryan was not really alone, many fresh questions will continue to pop up.

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Found in: security, racism, judiciary activism, crime, armenians, armenian diaspora

Orhan Kemal Cengiz is a human rights lawyer, columnist and former president of the Human Rights Agenda Association, a Turkish NGO that works on human rights issues ranging from the prevention of torture to the rights of the mentally disabled.

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