A Turkish court has sentenced Kıvanç Ağaoğlu to 16 years and 8 months in prison for killing Sevag Şahin Balıkçı. Ağaoğlu was found guilty of ‘voluntary manslaughter with eventual intent’.
Balıkçı, 25, a Turkish-Armenian citizen, was shot dead by Ağaoğlu on April 24, 2011 when they were both doing their compulsory military service in Batman Province, Turkey’s Armenian bi-weekly Agos newspaper reported on Jan. 13.
A military court initially sentenced the defendant Ağaoğlu to 4 years and 5 months in prison in 2013, but following a retrial in a civilian criminal court, which concluded earlier this month, Ağaoğlu’s sentence was significantly increased.
The 2013 trial had taken the view the killing of Balıkçı was an accident and Ağaoğlu was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter. Some members of his unit who witnessed the shooting said it was ‘accidental’.
However, his family challenged this, pointing to evidence that indicated the killing was racially motivated, and that witnesses had been pressured to give false testimony to support Ağaoğlu’s claim Balıkçı’s death was unintentional.
The family claim the date of Balıkçı’s death is significant, and research by the Balıkçı family’s lawyer into Ağaoğlu’s background revealed that the defendant was an ultra-nationalist.
April 24 is the day Armenians worldwide commemorate the disaster that befell Anatolian Armenians in 1915. At the time, the Ottomans were fighting multiple forces trying to carve up the rump of the Empire during the First World War. Rebel Ottoman Armenians had sided with the invading forces, generating a furious response from the Turks.
Hundreds of thousands of Armenians were killed or ethnically cleansed from their ancestral homelands, prompting many to describe these events as a “genocide’.
In her evidence, Balıkçı’s fiancé said he had told her he was being subjected to psychological pressure at the military compound and that he feared for his life. She told the court that in telephone conversations her fiancé explained he had been threatened by a soldier, who had said to him “If war were to happen with Armenia, you would be the first person I would kill.”
One of the eye-witnesses to the shooting, Halil Ekşi, initially said in his testimony that Ağaoğlu had deliberately killed Balıkçı, pointing his weapon at the victim just before pulling the trigger. He later altered his statement saying it was an accident.
In the retrial, the Balıkçı family pressed for Ekşi to return to the witness box to be challenged on why he changed his initial statement. Ekşi said he had been “under pressure” to lie from Ağaoğlu’s family and confirmed that his original testimony, that Kıvanç Ağaoğlu had intended to kill Sevag Şahin Balıkçı, was the truth.
Ekşi has since been found guilty of perjury and sentenced to 2 years and 1 month in jail, while the defendant Ağaoğlu’s uncle Bület Kaya was found guilty of “instigating someone into committing perjury” and jailed for 2 years and 13 months.
Contemporary anti-Armenian sentiment in Turkey
Armenians are a recognised minority in Turkey, where the law outlaws racial discrimination, racism and other hate crimes. However, racial slurs against Armenians are common.
In a television interview on NTV in August 2014, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said, “You wouldn’t believe the things they have said about me. They have said I am Georgian…they have said even uglier things – they have called me Armenian, but I am Turkish.”
The following year, the Mayor of Ankara, Melih Gökçek, file a defamation charge against journalist Hayko Bağdat because he called him an Armenian. The complainant’s petition to the court stated: “The statements [by Bağdat] are false and include insult and libel,” with Gökçek claiming that the term “Armenian” equated to “disgust”.
When Armenian footballer Aras Özbiliz transferred to Beşiktaş J.K. – one of Turkey’s biggest clubs – in January 2016, he was subjected to a race hate campaign. He left the club three years later after making just six appearances for the club.