Hrant Dink

Armenian champion in Turkey

Hrant Dink, journalist: born Malatya, Turkey 15 September 1954; Editor, Agos 1996-2007; married 1972 Rakel Yagbasan (two sons, one daughter), died Istanbul 19 January 2007.

'For me, 2007 is likely to be a hard year," the Turkish Armenian journalist Hrant Dink wrote earlier this month. "The trials will continue, new ones will be started. Who knows what other injustices I will be up against?" But with his computer filling up with e-mailed death threats he knew it was only a matter of time, even if he thought he would survive the year. He likened himself to a pigeon, constantly looking around for signs of danger.

Dink was gunned down on Friday outside the offices of Agos ("Ploughed Furrow"), the weekly Turkish Armenian paper he edited in central Istanbul. "I have killed the infidel," his murderer was heard to shout.

Hrant Dink was the most prominent and controversial ethnic Armenian figure in Turkey. With some 60,000 people, the Armenians are the largest surviving Christian minority in the country, despite a systematic and brutal attempt to exterminate or expel the entire population in the dying days of the Ottoman Empire in what Dink and all other Armenians rightly insist was genocide.

That successive Turkish governments have devoted massive resources to denying the genocide has poisoned relations between Turks and Armenians to this day. Yet Dink sought to overcome this legacy, arguing that the Turks of today are different from their Ottoman ancestors who conducted the killings. He also argued that Armenians around the world should no longer see relations with the Turks through the prism of the genocide. "Turkish-Armenian relations should be taken out of a 1915-metres-deep well," he argued.

But the Turkish authorities repeatedly tried to intimidate Dink into silence, closing the paper in 2001 and prosecuting him, but he was acquitted. Over the years he faced repeated trials, often under the notorious Article 301 of the Criminal Code which punishes "insulting Turkishness", on one occasion using deliberately twisted evidence.

Dink had a troubled childhood. One of a small number of surviving Armenian families in south-east Turkey in what had before the genocide been the heartland of Turkish Armenia, the Dink family disintegrated soon after Hrant's birth through his father's gambling. The young Dink was then cared for by his grandfather, the inspiration throughout his life. Even in primary school the boy objected to the mandatory daily recitation of the patriotic verse "I am a Turk, I am honest, I am hardworking", insisting that he was a Turkish citizen of Armenian origin.

When only seven, Dink and his brothers were sent to an Armenian orphanage in Istanbul, where he would meet his future wife. In his final year at an Armenian secondary school in the city he was expelled for his left-wing sympathies and finished his schooling at a Turkish school. In 1972 he legally changed his first name to Firak, which did not give away his ethnic Armenian origin in a highly nationalist country that refuses to embrace its many minorities.

Dink took a degree in zoology at Istanbul University, but failed to complete further studies in philosophy. He was occasionally jailed for his leftist activities. He and his wife then ran an Armenian youth camp, but after this he was subjugated to Education Ministry control he moved into journalism. For a decade he ran a bookshop with his brothers, steering clear of political activity.

In 1996 he founded Agos, which was published in Turkish and Armenian and came to have an influence beyond its circulation of 6,000. Run collegially, it had its offices in a converted flat that were always crowded and humming with debate. Dink paid particular attention to training young ethnic Armenian journalists, many of whom joined the mainstream Turkish media.

Not all in the Armenian community admired Dink's role as its unelected spokesperson. He was not devout and the Armenian patriarch often disagreed with his approach, preferring a quieter line.

But Dink was above all a figure in Turkish society as a whole, speaking up for democracy, human rights, free speech and the rights of oppressed groups, including women, Kurds and other ethnic minorities. A fluent Turkish-speaker (some say he was more eloquent in Turkish than Armenian), Dink was a popular interviewee, able to present difficult views directly and imaginatively without alienating his audience.

This made his conviction in October 2005 of "insulting Turkishness" and suspended six-month sentence particularly hard to bear. "When I first heard the verdict I found myself under the bitter pressure of my hope that I kept during all the months of the trial. I was stupefied," Dink recalled. "In my view, to humiliate people we live together with on the basis of ethnic or religious difference is called racism and this is something unforgivable."

Branding the verdict "a bad joke", he vowed to fight to clear his name. He cried as he spoke of it. "My only weapon is my sincerity."

Felix Corley

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