A court ruling yesterday sentenced a man convicted of involvement in the murder of Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink to life in prison. Media-rights groups and other observers, however, strongly denounced the subsequent acquittal of the man, Yasin Hayal, and several co-defendants on charges they acted on orders from a terrorist organisation.

According to Turkish media, the lawyer representing the family of Hrant Dink, Fethiye Çetin, issued a blistering condemnation of the verdict, telling reporters that the court had “saved the biggest joke for the very end.” The ruling, she said, “means a tradition was left untouched: the state tradition of political murders.” Critics accused the court of failing to investigate alleged links to organised crime and state officials.

Allegations of official involvement in Dink’s murder have remained constant since the former editor-in-chief of the Turkish-Armenian weekly paper Agos was gunned down in January 2007. Dink had been a well-known advocate for improving Turkish-Armenian relations and had drawn the wrath of Turkish nationalists. The suspected shooter, a teenage ultranationalist named Ogün Samast, was sentenced in July to 23 years in prison, but Dink’s allies have long suspected a wider conspiracy.

In an apparent acknowledgement of the outcry over the verdicts, Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç said during a television appearance that he was “on the side of people whose conscience remained restless and unsatisfied,” Turkish media reported. Arınç has voiced support for press freedom in the past, questioning pre-trial detentions of journalists and criticising the use of anti-terror laws to suppress the media. The country’s justice minister declined to comment on the verdict, but signalled that the case was ‘not complete,’ a nod to the appeals process, according to the same media.

Ferai Tinç, a member of the International Press Institute (IPI)’s Executive Board and the chair of IPI’s Turkey National Committee, criticised the verdicts.

“When nearly 100 journalists are being held because of allegations that they belong to terrorist organizations, we are very surprised that the court in this case found no relationship between any organization and the murder of Hrant Dink,” she said. “This is a negative delusion and this outcome is very disillusioning to journalists and those who support freedom of the press.”

IPI Executive Director Alison Bethel-McKenzie yesterday echoed Tinç’s statements. “The investigation into the murder of Hrant Dink has, disappointingly, reached only the tip of the iceberg,” she said. “If the Turkish government is truly committed to securing justice in this case, then it must comprehensively investigate accusations that members of organised crime, possibly in connection with state officials, were behind this terrible act.”

Turkey has one of the world’s worst records on press freedom, with nearly 100 journalists currently behind bars. Among that number is journalist and author Nedim Şener, who was named an IPI World Press Freedom Hero for his work, which included his book investigating the government’s handling of Dink’s murder.

** PLEASE NOTE: In a statement dated 18 Jan. 2012, “Critics Question Verdict in Hrant Dink Case”, the International Press Institute (IPI) incorrectly stated that Turkish-Armenian journalist and IPI World Press Freedom Hero Hrant Dink used the term “genocide” to describe the massacre of ethnic Armenians at the beginning of the 20th century. Dink reportedly did not use that term and IPI regrets this error.