Letter from Istanbul: Turkish Republic of Impunity

Artwork by Memed Erdener, “Cinayet Dekorasyonun Bir Parçasıdır” (Murder is Part of the Decoration) 2017, acrylic on canvas / 110x160cm

Last month, just days after Hrant Dink’s murderer was released, leaving a significant wound in the public’s collective consciousness just sixteen years after the murder, a news story was published in the international press. According to the report, Russian President Vladimir Putin had pardoned Sergei Khadzhikurbanov, found guilty in the 2006 murder of Novaya Gazeta journalist Anna Politkovskaya, due to his involvement in fighting in Ukraine. Khadzhikurbanov, sentenced to 20 years in prison in 2014 for his role in organizing the murder of Politkovskaya, who was shot dead in the elevator of her Moscow apartment in 2006, was one of five people imprisoned for the killing of Politkovskaya, who extensively covered Russia’s war in Chechnya and was a fierce critic of the Kremlin.

Police officer Sergei Khadzhikurbanov jailed over murder of journalist Anna Politkovskaya freed to fight in Ukraine. (Photo credit: Reuters)

At the moment I write these lines, when I clicked on a news link that appeared on my phone, I learned that the case regarding the massacre of the Öğüt family, a family of nine, with seven children, burned to death in the village of Vartinis in Mush in 1993, was dropped due to statute of limitations, and no one was punished for this massacre. It’s a heartbreaking piece of news, not surprising to those who know Turkey, which is increasingly turning into a country of impunity, yet it stings nonetheless. It’s an unpleasant coincidence showing how similar countries displaying totalitarian tendencies are, seemingly copying each other. Another painful piece of information is that Vardenis was an Armenian village before the genocide. What we encounter here is not a coincidence but the ethnic cleansing inflicted upon the peoples living in Anatolia, transformed into a geography of violence by dominant nationalist policies.

On October 2, 1993, in the village of Vartinis of Mush, Mehmet Nasir Öğüt, Eşref Oran, Sevda Öğüt, Sevim Öğüt, Mehmet Şakir Öğüt, Mehmet Şirin Öğüt, Aycan Öğüt, Cihan Öğüt, and Cinal Öğüt were killed by soldiers. (Photo credit: Reuters)

Yet, in the early 2000s, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan came to power with a promise of significant democratization, stating, “Even a lamb devoured by the wolf at the edge of the Tigris river [meaning Kurdish regions -RK] is under my responsibility,” pledging to end the former regime’s anti-Kurdish practices. The same Erdoğan, after Hrant Dink’s murder, pledged, “The Dink murder will not get lost in the dark recesses of Ankara!” promising to trace the culprits behind the murder. However, today, this state homicide, where every branch of the security services was involved in the planning, execution, and subsequent cover-up, has been transformed into an ordinary crime committed by a group of young people from the town of Pelitli in Trabzon. Just some bad boys doing bad things. Not enough. It’s also been instrumentalized to blame the officials of the weaker political factions, the other guys, in internal state reckonings. However, the true state structure behind the murder was never revealed.

Hrant Dink was working towards Turkey confronting its past and Turkish-Armenian reconciliation through his writings and public speeches. (Photo by Hrant Dink Foundation)

Costa Gavras’s 1969 film “Z” reflects events following the murder of left-wing MP Gregoris Lambrakis in Greece in 1963. The film criticizes the military junta in the country and starts with the words: “The similarities with real events and real persons, dead or alive, are not coincidental. Everything is INTENTIONAL.” In Gabriel García Márquez’s famous novel “Chronicle of a Death Foretold,” a murder in a peaceful Colombian town is recounted. The first sentence of the novel reveals who will be killed and when. Not only the reader but the entire town’s population knows in advance who will be killed. In the 20th century, art played a significant role in unravelling organized crimes, states turning into actual criminal entities, and the known but unprevented or unpunished crimes of society. The dark side of the bipolar world, of the dirty organizations of the Soviet Secret Service or NATO, brought hundreds of thousands to the streets to fight against them and to confront their organized crimes.

After assassinating Hrant Dink, Ogün Samast, accompanied by police and gendarmerie officers, holding a Turkish flag, appears triumphant and smiling.

In various parts of the world, truth commissions, court decisions, steps taken to apologize for past crimes, the humanitarian legal framework created by the European Court of Human Rights in Europe, became gains of turbulent times and cornerstones of humanity’s pursuit of justice. However, Gavras’s statement “Everything is intentional” sadly finds its reverse confirmation today. It’s not the similarities with real persons in the artwork created to draw attention to organized crime that are intentional, but it is the deliberate and free actions of those committing these crimes right in front of our eyes. Murders that everyone knows will happen are committed, and they remain unpunished, covered up in ways that again, everyone knows.

In Turkey, the civil society organization Hafıza Merkezi (Memory Center) attempts to produce information to confront grave human rights violations – past and ongoing. It struggles for the acknowledgment of truths about these violations, supports the access of those affected by these violations to justice, and conducts efforts to strengthen societal memory on these matters. Just as the organization launched a campaign to call for “No Statute of Limitation” for confronting the past, aiming to evaluate the abuse of the statute of limitations in trials related to severe human rights violations in Turkey, the decision about the Vartinis case became a bitter example of unpunished past crimes. Hafıza Merkezi represents a resilient opposition against the state’s consistent stance, yet unfortunately struggles to make its voice heard due to a media run by the government. Moreover, the shrinking democratic space is causing Hafıza Merkezi to live under the threat of being shut down, just like the Hrant Dink Award-winning Memorial organization in Russia, which operated in a similar field. Civic space in Turkey lives with the sword of Damocles over its head.

What makes all of this possible are the global crises of our time. In Turkey’s past, especially in the bloody period of the 1990s, the pressure from the West, especially from the European Union, focusing on democratization and human rights, provided an important breathing space for the civil sectors struggling within the country. However, today, shallow political policies in the West, anti-immigrant sentiments, rising fascist movements and the erosion of democratic values are weakening the struggle of those in different parts of the world who need democracy as much as bread and water. Erdoğan, Putin, Trump, Netanyahu, Aliyev and others take advantage of this crisis in the West to impose upon us their dystopian universes, insisting that these should be our realities. Despite seeming to be divided around concepts like East and West, there isn’t much difference among us when it comes to our fundamental human rights. When one place experiences a loss, it invariably hurts someone among us somewhere else.

When Medgar Evers was killed, he was thirty-eight, and James Baldwin, who witnessed the assassination of his close friend, was thirty-nine. (Photo by Steve Schapiro)

In “I Am Not Your Negro,” James Baldwin tells the story of three close friends —Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., and Medgar Evers— killed before they reached the age of forty. These three symbolic figures of the African American struggle were victims of turbulent times, and Baldwin, with his magnificent pen and creativity, shows how the American Dream flirted with nightmares. In today’s Turkey, Russia, Israel, Azerbaijan, and every place where the footsteps of fascism are heard, just like Baldwin, our friends are being killed, thrown into prison, and while we strive to tear through the dark curtains closing around us, we live in fear. We saw with our own eyes that criminal actions were met with impunity. We know that what we experience today might be experienced by our brothers and sisters living in Western countries seemingly more comfortable than us. Again with impunity. The time to fight together to change this course has not only arrived but is slipping away.

Rober Koptaş is a writer and publisher, lives in Istanbul. He served as the editor-in-chief of Agos newspaper from 2010 to 2015 and the general director of Aras Publishing from 2015 to 2023.

Also read: Letter from Istanbul: The Irony of the Armenian Photographer

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