On this day, what would have been his 60th birthday, CEN recounts the life and work of a man who stood as one of the leading figures in the fight for Turkish-Armenian reconciliation.
Journalist, campaigner and human rights activist Hrant Dink was one of the most important Turkish/Armenian individuals to have lived in recent years. His life was dedicated to fostering cooperation between the two cultures that he stood on the edge of and in some way uniting two heavily divided groups of people.
Born in Malatya, Turkey to an Armenian family Dink faced many hardships in his early life. The eldest of three brothers, his parents separated at the age of seven leading to his enrollment in the Gedikpaşa Armenian Orphanage. Growing up without a father Dink drew great inspiration from his grandfather, who inspired Dink’s love of books and knowledge.
Dink remained in the orphanage until the age of 17, during which time he spent many summers at the Tuzla Armenian Children’s Camp, which played a huge role shaping Dink as a young man. Dink grew to learn much about his Armenian heritage through the education he received and the community of Armenians that he lived in. For all of his early life Dink lived in the minority of Turkish Armenians that came to the country following the 1915 genocide. Dink attended an Armenian school, he was a member of an Armenian church and he lived among many Armenians. The close ties to his cultural heritage helped position him as a future figurehead of Turkish-Armenians and helped create a strong foundation for much of his life’s work.
After university and his military service Dink moved to Istanbul where he established the ‘Beyaz Adam’ (first man) bookstore, which became hugely popular with students and young people because of their laidback approach ot book lending. The first store later spawned multiple locations and helped position Dink as a popular figure among many students. During this same time Dink also took over management of the Tuzla Armenian Children’s Camp, which he had once attended as a child.
His first run in with the authorities came around this time in 1980 when he was brought into custody following his brother’s arrest for use of falsified travel documents. Dink was accused of being an associate of his brother, who had faked the papers in order to travel, following restrictions placed on Turkish citizens after the 1980 coup d’etat.
Dink was taken into custody again in the eighties after being falsely connected with the anti-Turkish ASALA guerilla organisation when a former resident of the Tuzla Camp was arrested for his involvement. Dink however never associated with the group, whose militant approach to Armenian nationalism had them labelled a terrorist group by many international groups.
Despite his lack of ties to the group Dink was arrested a second time and charged with anti-Turkish propaganda. This move angered members of ASALA, who occupied the Turkish Consulate General in Paris, taking hostages and bringing the case of Hrant Dink and many other Turkish-Armenians to international attention.
Some time later in 1984 it was ruled by local courts that the land belonging to the Tuzla Camp should be returned to the previous owners and the camp was forced to close after 22 years of operation. The closure of the camp was seen by Dink as a huge blow to the Armenian minority at the time and became a large inspiration for much of his work.
Dink continued to work with several organisations to campaign for the rights of Turkish-Armenians and to promote dialogue between the two cultures. However, Dink’s most notable work came after he became editor of the bilingual weekly newspaper Agos, which was published in Armenian and Turkish.
Agos was founded in 1996 in response to the growing anti-Armenian sentiment seen in Turkey following the mainstream presses’ association of Turkish-Armenians with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party. Agos aimed to communicate with Turkey’s mainstream society and to put the minority voice of Turkish-Armenians into the public sphere.
Dink’s role as editor was his first venture into the world of journalism, but one that grew to be a successful career that he followed until the end of his life. Dink soon became known as a representative of the Armenian community and his voice as a journalist grew louder. In a short time the inexperienced Dink soon ran regular editorial pieces in Agos and became a regular columnist in the national dailies BirGun and Zaman.
Agos’s editorial policy became unique to all publications in Turkey and Armenia because of its balanced and moderate view on Turkish-Armenian relations. Agos simultaneously deplored the actions of the Turkish government towards Armenians without straying into the nationalist anti-Turkish sentiment that many of their precursors had been guilty of. Agos also took a liberal view towards the role of the Armenian diaspora’s involvement in Armenian political issues, which it often saw as meddling and naïve. One particular issue that became a point of contention was their view towards the diaspora’s efforts to force Turkey into recognising the Armenian genocide, something which was seen by Dink as ultimately destructive towards the Turkish-Armenian community.
As Dink’s position in society grew his voice in several issues became more and more important. Dink worked to promote the relations of Turkish and Armenian communities and spoke openly on many issues. He spoke against the Turkish establishment’s denial of the 1915 genocide but always managed to avoid the common rhetoric that was employed by Armenian nationalists and anti-Turkish groups. Throughout his life Dink always stood for an equal, understanding and balanced relationship between Turkey and Armenia.
With the growing attention that Dink drew also came many negative opinions of his work. As editor of Agos he began to receive threats of death and violence from several groups, which continued for the remainder of his life. Ultra-nationalist and anti-Armenian groups began to see Dink’s stance as anti-patriotic and ultimately damaging to Turkish society. This was a view that was in some part also shared by the Turkish authorities.
In 2002 Dink was arrested under Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code – known better as the denigrating Turkishness law. It was claimed that during a panel he spoke on he shared anti-Turkish views which were threatened to undermine the Turkish establishment. Dink was not prosecuted for the first case, but was some years later charged for similar actions under the same laws and sentenced to 6-months in Prison.
The case caused an international outcry and many human right advocacy groups stood in support of the imprisoned Dink, including Reporters Without Borders – for whom Dink gave an interview to in which he stated:
“The prosecutions are not a surprise for me. They want to teach me a lesson because I am Armenian. They try to keep me quiet.”
At the time of his arrest Dink divided many people. He was seen as a friend by both Armenians and Turks, as well an enemy by many others. His work brought together Turks and Armenians but also divided the opinions of many groups.
On January 19th, 2007 Dink’s work came to its ultimate end when he was assassinated outside the offices of Agos by a young Turkish nationalist later identified as Ogün Samast. Samast, who was only 17 at the time, was later revealed to have had a close relationship with members of the Turkish police and Army, who were believed by some to have shared his nationalist views. The closeness of Turkish authorities and Turkish nationalists later became a point of protest among many Turkish citizens.
Samast’s actions sent shockwaves throughout Armenia and Turkey. The death of Dink was seen as a blow to Turkish-Armenian relations and a huge step back in the positive progress that had been made in his lifetime. The assassination of Hrant Dink sadly led to a further divides between many Turks and Armenians and ultimately led to many opinions that Dink himself would have stood against.
His funeral became his final act of uniting Turks and Armenians. In a special service held 4 days after his assassination thousands of Turkish citizens of both Armenian and Turkish descent marched in protest of the killing, and the racist form of nationalism that led to his death.
Today the work of Hrant Dink is continued through the Hrant Dink foundation, who work to promote the cross-cultural relations of Armenia and Turkey and stand for reconciliation and open dialogue. Dink’s untimely death was a tragic loss to the people the Caucasus but one that will stand for many years as a symbol of the struggle that must be made to bring the people of these two cultures closer together.
To support the Hrant Dink foundation and learn more about the good work they do please visit their website.
Tom Ana is a British-born activist, blogger and NGO worker currently living in Yerevan, Armenia. He is the editor-in-chief of Caucasus Equality News. You can follow him on Twitter here.