Thursday, January 21, 2010

An Unsettling Blast From the Past

I have a story up on the Eurasianet website about the release from prison of Mehmet Ali Agca, Pope John Paul II's failed assassin, and the dark memories his release is stirring up in Turkey. From my article:
When he shot Pope John Paul II in 1981 in St. Peter’s Square, would-be assassin Mehmet Ali Agca was, for most of the world, a mysterious and enigmatic figure, one who seemed to come out of nowhere.

In Turkey, though, Agca was already a known commodity, arrested in 1979 for the murder of Abdi Ipekci, a prominent left-leaning journalist, only to escape from jail while on trial and then resurface on that fateful day in Rome.

Ipekci’s killing took place during a time of extreme political turbulence in Turkey, marked by daily, violent clashes between leftist and rightist groups. The disorder ultimately led to a military coup in 1980.

Agca emerged a free man on January 18, after serving 19 years in an Italian jail for shooting the pope and then another 10 years in a Turkish prison for Ipekci’s murder. In Turkey, Agca’s release has been met with a certain sense of trepidation -- his reappearance a reminder of both the violent period he first emerged in, and of how much the shadow of that period still hangs over the country. "His release is a reminder of a dark time, one of the darkest of our history. It’s something that we dread," said Mehmet Ali Birand, a veteran Turkish journalist who interviewed Agca while he was in prison in Italy.

As he exited prison, the 52-year-old Agca was met by a small group of relatives and well-wishers who greeted him with drums and pipes, a traditional way to celebrate a prisoner’s release in Turkey. The media was less welcoming, though. "Abdi Ipekci Murdered Again," was the headline on the front page of Milliyet, the newspaper that the slain journalist was the editor of at the time of his killing. "That Murderer Is Among Us Now," was the headline of Sabah, another daily.

Many commentators pointed out that Agca’s release came only a day before the third anniversary of the murder of Hrant Dink, an outspoken Armenian journalist shot in front of his Istanbul office by a young man who, like Agca, was linked to ultranationalist forces. Like Agca’s release, Dink’s murder also stoked memories of the turbulent 70’s and 80’s, when journalists and intellectuals were frequently the victims of ideologically inspired violence.

The Dink murder trial has been going on for three years, but - as with Ipekci’s killing - many circumstances surrounding the case, particularly its links to the "Deep State," a phrase used to describe a shadowy zone where state interests intersect with lawless and corrupt elements of the bureaucracy, military and the security establishment, remain untouched. "No distance has been covered regarding these murders. The tip of the iceberg has been broken, that is it. This is the dark face of Turkey," columnist Ali Bayramoglu wrote in the Turkish daily Yeni Safak following Agca’s release.
You can read the full piece here.

The fact that Ipekci's murderer was released the day before the anniversary of Dink's killing does seem like a very cruel twist of fate, considering that, though 30 years apart, there are so many disturbing parallels between the two murders.

I didn't get a chance to write about the Dink case, but a line from a column by Soli Ozel in the Haber Turk newspaper caught my attention and seems to sum up the case's significance. "This case is a test of what kind of society we are and what kind of society we would like to be," Ozel wrote. "Every day that passes without a resolution in the Dink case should embarrass the state and the government."

(photo -- Mehmet Ali Agca on the day of his release, in Ankara)

1 comment:

Cem said...

Thanks for the article, Yigal. This is the kind of subject (Mumcu, Ipekci, Dink and more) that makes me abandon all hope for Turkey. Call me a realist, pessimist, or pretentious Turk comfortably mouthing off from his armchair abroad (sounds about right), I just don't see things improving anytime soon, or in the foreseeable future for that matter. Might sound bleak or even superficial, and I wish this wasn't the case ; but I am trying to think of Turkey more and more as a place to see friends and family, have good food, and leave. Still, I can't help but wonder, what if we had a tv show as critical and exposing as The Wire, and how long would it take the creator to get shot?

Note to self: don't drink and post blog comments. As I'm sure you know by now, Turkey is traditionally saved during late dinners around raki, not abandoned. What have I turned into? I should go sleep.