A Voice in the Wilderness: The Last Interview with Hrant Dink

In the Public View section of AGBU News magazine (published 12/21/2006) by Hrag Vartanian

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Hrant Dink, the photo was provided by Hrant Dink for the article

For the last few years, Turkey’s courting dance with the European Union has had some missteps and at the center of the latest wave of controversy is the humble Istanbul-based Armenian newspaper editor, Hrant Dink, who is drawing the ire of Turkish and Armenian nationalists alike.

Born in Malatya, Turkey, Dink moved to Istanbul with his family at a young age. After college he opened up a bookstore with his wife and, during this period, was briefly imprisoned because of his leftist political activism.

In 1994, he started working for the city’s Marmara Armenian newspaper and wrote articles under the pen name, Chootag (violin). He explains that it was a tumultuous time for Armenians in Turkey, “Life for minorities, particularly Armenians, was very difficult, because the Kurdish question was at its most intense during this period and the Armenian question was always included in those discussions. Every day there were slurs against Armenians in the media. Before that there was the ASALA (Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia) issue which created animosity [between Armenians and Turks]. Those were difficult days for Armenians.”

Interested in improving the climate for Armenians and contributing to Turkey’s democratization, in 1996 Dink and some friends decided to publish a Turkish-language newspaper to “defend our rights against the slander and to let the Turkish public know the truth,” he says. It was a strategic decision that faced the reality that an increasing number of Turkish Armenians speak Turkish as a first language.

Soon the bilingual Agos newspaper began publication in Armenian and Turkish (and more recently in English), and propelled Hrant Dink into the spotlight as the political paper’s public face.

With a clear mission to contribute to the open debate, Agos grapples with issues relevant not only to Armenians but Turks as well. Currently Agos has 6,000 subscribers worldwide: 3,000 in the local Armenian community, 2,000 from abroad (predominantly expat Istanbul Armenians), and remarkably 1,000 from local government officials, Turkish intellectuals and “secret Armenians” who have become islamicized but retain a private interest in all things Armenian.

Agos has clearly been successful. According to Dink, “Now, Turks realize that there are Armenians in their midst and who they are.” Yet, Dink knows success comes with a price.

Three years ago, at a conference in the Turkish city of Urfa, Dink responded to a question by remarking, “I am not a Turk, I am an Armenian citizen of Turkey.” That seemingly innocuous quote irked local Turkish nationalists who hauled Dink into court for denigrating the Turkish character. The trial took three years but Dink was eventually vindicated.

Then, last year, he wrote an article that included the words “Turkish blood is tainted.” The words, taken out of context, were the basis of a second court case.

“They misunderstood,” he says. “What I was trying to say was that it was wrong to have animosity with Turks because they have a big role in our history and that is unsettling for us. The historical question and the anger against Turks will harm our identity and us. So the role that Turks and the Armenian question play in our identity should be replaced and filled by Armenia, Armenian people and their future.”

This time Dink was found guilty with a six-month suspended prison sentence and the stipulation that if he violated his probation, time would be added to his original punishment. He says he’ll take the case to the European courts and argue that the law violates the principles of international human rights. In a country eager to join the EU and sensitive about its perception in Western eyes, Dink’s day in the sun may cause more uneasiness in the country.

The Turkish nationalist lawyer Kemal Kerincsiz filed a court case charging him under the controversial Article 301 of Turkey’s new penal code that took effect June 1, 2005. Since it was passed, Article 301 has been used to initiate over 60 charges against journalists and writers, including Turkey’s most renowned novelists, Orhan Pamuk and Elif Shafak, and American academic, Noam Chomsky.

Now another headache for the tireless editor has surfaced because of a Reuters news agency article that appeared this past summer and quoted him as using the word “Genocide” to describe the events of 1915. Another court case has begun and Dink is simply waiting for his day in court.

“Since 2004, cases have increased partly because the Armenian question is being debated but the Turkish government’s reaction has also increased,” Dink says. “I think that in the not-too-distant future these court cases will come to an end because they have generated interest among the public within Turkey and many believe the law must change and decriminalize these actions,” he says.

Agos has become a lightning rod for other controversies as well; last year it reported that new evidence has surfaced to prove that Sabiha Gökçen, the adopted daughter of Ataturk, was Armenian. The backlash by Turkish nationalists was intense. “Some even publicly said that anyone who would say such lies would also plant a bomb,” Dink remembers about those that wouldn’t even look at the evidence. Gökçen is a national figure who is celebrated as the first female Turkish fighter pilot and a symbol of the emancipation of women in Turkish society. The possibility that she is Armenian would undermine Turkish nationalists’ warped belief in Turkic racial supremacy.

While Dink has no qualms about challenging the Turkish establishment, he is equally unapologetic about scrutinizing the Armenian community. He has been a vocal opponent of France’s law that criminalizes Armenian Genocide denial and has proposed to travel to that country and violate the law to prove his point. Dink is quoted in the Turkish daily Hürriyet, saying, “I have been tried in Turkey for saying the Armenian genocide exists, and I have talked about how wrong this is. But at the same time, I cannot accept that in France you could possibly now be tried for denying the Armenian genocide. If this bill becomes law, I will be among the first to head for France and break the law. Then we can watch both the Turkish Republic and the French government race against each other to condemn me.”

Closer to home, over the last decade, the ranks of Armenians in Istanbul have ballooned because of new arrivals from Armenia. Some say as many as 40,000 Armenians, working illegally as servants and laborers, have relocated to Turkey’s largest city and regularly send money home to help their families in Armenia. Dink laments the fact that Istanbul’s established Armenians do practically nothing to help their compatriots, partly, he says, because the local community isn’t as prosperous as it once was.

“Two days ago a law was brought forth in the government to help get the children of these new arrivals into Armenian schools [in Turkey] but the Turkish leftists were against it,” Dink says about the proposed law’s defeat. “It was because of their historical fear that, if they grant one set of rights, then they will give away the whole country,” he explains.

According to Dink, Istanbul’s Armenian schools can accommodate up to 7,000 students but they are less than half full and the children of Armenian migrants are forbidden to attend any school, Armenian or otherwise, until laws change. The rule has broken up families and most Armenians are forced to leave their children in Armenia.

Is there a future for Armenians in Turkey? “If the country becomes more democratic, our future is much better, because we border Armenia and we can have good relations. If Turkey chooses a darker path, then I don’t even want to think about the future,” Dink says. “But one thing I know is that things will change, for better or worse. How do I know? I don’t see the change, I’m living the change.”

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