Eighteen suspects went on trial in Istanbul Monday for the January murder of ethnic Armenian journalist Hrant Dink, which sparked fears of rising nationalist and anti-minority violence in Turkey.
The trial behind closed doors began as Dink's family said the procedure was flawed because it excludes security officials who knew as early as 2006 of plans to kill Dink, but failed to act.
Police in Istanbul and the northern city of Trabzon, home to most of the suspects, are responsible for "extremely grave mistakes and almost intentional negligence," family lawyer Ergin Cinmen said outside the courthouse. The defendants "are just the tip of the iceberg," he said. "If public servants are not put on trial, the ruling will never satisfy justice and public conscience."
In an emotional written statements, Dink's widow Rakel and his brother Hosrof appealed to the court to shed light on the involvement of officials. "Have the courage to challenge them... Let the justice of God work through you so that the trial may become a point of enlightenment for Turkey," Rakel said.
"This trial is between those who defend the legal system and those who claim they are the law and the state," Hosrof said. "It will be a turning point for Turkey if the trial sheds light on the truth."
As police sealed off the street leading to the courthouse, about 2,500 demonstrators, most of them dressed in black, gathered at a nearby square and unfurled a large banner that read: "We are all witnesses. We want justice." "We are all Hrant Dink. We are all Armenians," they chanted.
Dink, 52, a prominent member of Turkey's tiny Armenian minority, was gunned down on January 19 outside the offices of his bilingual Turkish Armenian weekly Agos, in central Istanbul. Although he campaigned for reconciliation, nationalists hated Dink for calling the killing hundreds of thousands of Armenians under Ottoman rule during World War I genocide, a label most Turks despise and Ankara officially rejects.
The suspected gunman, 17-year-old Ogun Samast, has admitted to shooting Dink because he was an "enemy of the Turks," the indictment says. Samast faces 18 to 24 years for the murder and a further eight-and-a-half to 18 for belonging to a terrorist organisation. The prosecution did not seek a life sentence because he is a minor, which is also why the trial is closed to the public.
Samast refused to speak at Monday's hearing, Dink family lawyer Fethiye Cetin told reporters.
Two other key figures -- Yasin Hayal and Erhan Tuncel, both 26 -- are accused of leading the ultra-nationalist group Samast belonged to and masterminding the murder. They could be jailed for life without the possibility of parole if found guilty.
The indictment says Tuncel was a police informer who twice told officials in 2006 that Hayal was plotting to kill Dink, but deliberately concealed the fact that someone else would pull the trigger because Tuncel himself was part of the plot.
Hayal had earlier served 11 months for the 2004 bombing in Trabzon of a McDonalds restaurant, in which six people were injured, to protest against the US-led invasion of Iraq. He is also accused of threatening Turkey's 2006 Nobel Literature laureate Orhan Pamuk, who has also contested the official line on
the Armenian killings.
Hayal and Tuncel traded accusations before the judge, lawyer Oguz Ugur Olca said. Tuncel rejected any involvement in the murder, saying he was a simple informer who did his "duty" by tipping off the police about the plot.
Meanwhile, several Turkish newspapers on Monday quoted Hayal as saying he and his comrades murdered Dink on the orders of police officers. "I do not know what this 'deep state' means. I don't know whether it's legal or illegal, but one thing is sure – there was a group controlling us in the police," the Radikal daily quoted Hayal as saying in a letter to prosecutors.
"Although you saw this, you have not protected our rights. Now I ask you, if we were used in the service of the state, is it not the state's duty to protect our rights?"
Police have not publicly commented on the accusations.
The European Union and human rights groups have shown a strong interest in the Dink case, saying it is a crucial test for a justice system often criticised for political bias.
"We will be closely watching how the court handles any evidence that may implicate the security forces," said Holly Cartner, Europe and Central Asia director at the New York-based Human Rights Watch, in a weekend statement.
Several officials, including the head of police intelligence in Istanbul, have been sacked over their handling of the case. Shortly after Dink's murder, video footage came to light showing Samast, his suspected killer, striking a heroic pose alongside security force members apparently commending him for his act.