- Some of the defendants were earlier convicted of conspiracy and murder
- A judge cleared them all Tuesday of being members of a terrorist group
- Hrant Dink was the editor of an Armenian-language newspaper
Nearly five years to the day after a Turkish-Armenian newspaper editor was gunned down in broad daylight, a judge acquitted all 19 defendants in his trial of charges that they were members of an "armed terrorist organization."
One defendant, Yasin Hayal, received a life sentence for conspiring in the planned killing of Hrant Dink, editor-in-chief of the Armenian-language newspaper "Agos." Prosecutors accused Hayal of purchasing the murder weapon, a 7.65 millimeter Turkish-produced handgun. Hayal was also accused of recruiting a 17-year old soccer player named Ogun Samast to use the gun to kill Dink.
Another defendant, Erhan Tuncel, was cleared of charges in connection to the murder. Instead, he was sentenced to more than 10 years in prison for the 2004 bombing of a McDonald's restaurant in the Black Sea city of Trabzon.
Attorneys for the Dink family denounced the sentences, arguing it downgraded a politically motivated assassination to the level of a common criminal murder.
"This decision was unexpected," lawyer Fethiye Cetin told journalists outside the courthouse. Standing next to Dink's widow, Rakel, Cetin called the trial a "comedy."
"The tradition of the state of political murders and the tradition of the state to make enemies of some of its citizens by classifying them as 'others,' this tradition continues," Cetin continued. "This was was an opportunity for democratization in Turkey, but they did not seize that opportunity."
Dink was gunned down on the sidewalk outside the Istanbul office of the Agos newspaper in 2007.
Surveillance cameras caught the convicted murderer, Samast, fleeing the scene wearing a white hat. The confessed killer was later sentenced to more than 22 years in prison. He received a lighter sentence because he was a minor.
At the time of the murder, Dink was defending himself in court against a number of cases accusing him of "insulting Turkish identity," for comments made about the massacre of hundreds of thousands of ethnic Armenians in the final days of the Ottoman Empire. Dink argued the killings amounted to genocide, a term the Turkish state continues to vehemently deny.
In 2010, the European Court of Human rights fined Turkey more than $100,000 for failing to "protect the life and freedom of expression" of Dink.
In interviews before his murder, Dink said he had received death threats for his outspoken opinions. Investigative journalist Nedim Sener later wrote in a book that Istanbul police were aware of threats to Dink's life.
Sener is currently in prison, facing charges of plotting to overthrow the Turkish government.
"The Turkish authorities have failed to address state officials' alleged involvement in the killing of journalist and human rights activist Hrant Dink," Amnesty International wrote this week. "The security services knew of the murder plot and were in communication with those accused of the murder yet nothing was done to stop it taking place... Nothing short of a full investigation into the actions of all the state institutions and officials implicated in the murder will represent justice."
After Tuesday's court ruling, Dink's family and attorneys, along with several hundred supporters, marched in protest through the streets of Istanbul in sub-zero temperatures carrying signs saying "We are all Armenian."