Looking into the eyes of an assassin
Exactly a year ago on Dec. 19, 2016, Andrey Karlov, Russia’s ambassador to Ankara, arrived at a photo exhibition aiming to bring Turkish and Russian cultures closer together. The exhibition was taking place at the cultural center of Ankara’s Çankaya District Municipality, close to the U.S. Embassy. While Karlov was delivering a speech at the opening, a man in a dark suit standing behind him - who everyone else in the exhibition hall assumed to be a bodyguard - shot him dead on the spot, shouting slogans in Arabic.
The police special forces immediately sealed the building, as the assassin refused to surrender. A policeman then shot the assassin dead, prompting speculation about why it had not been possible to capture him alive, to question him and to try to learn exactly what was behind the assassination.
The murder took place shortly after Turkey and Russia had started a tentative rapprochement. They were scheduled to meet the next day in Moscow to start a working group with Iran in Astana the following month for a ceasefire process in Syria. The rapprochement process came after a major crisis in relations that erupted after Turkish war planes shot down a Russian jet in November 2015. The crisis started to be settled in June 2016 (with the facilitation of Kazakhstan), just a month before Turkey’s military coup attempt on July 15, 2016.
After the killing of Karlov, the first statement from Moscow vowed that the Syria process with Turkey would continue, thus averting another diplomatic crisis. The focus then turned to the assassin, who turned out to be Mevlüt Mert Altıntaş, an off-duty member of the Turkish police force.
Turkish and Russian police officers formed a joint group to work on the murder case together but could not yield any satisfying results. Another police officer, Ramazan Yücel, was recently arrested due to his links to the killer Altıntaş. Yücel had previously been expelled from the police over alleged links to the illegal network of Fethullah Gülen, the U.S.-resident Islamist preacher believed to have masterminded the July 2016 coup attempt.
The police also recently found out that Altıntaş’s e-mail and social media accounts were deleted shortly after the murder through a “virtual computer account,” likely created just for this purpose.
With so many questions still lingering, we are left with little more substantial than the hateful look on the face of the assassin, captured right after he shot Karlov. It was captured thanks to the courageous reflexes of one photographer: Burhan Özbilici, a veteran photo reporter working for the Associated Press in Turkey.
Rather than trying to protect himself, Burhan’s first instinct was to think of his responsibility to show the world the naked truth. He pressed the shutter looking into the eyes of the assassin, who was shouting slogans while still carrying the smoking gun in his hand.
Burhan is an old friend of mine going back years. Speaking one year on about the moment of truth – right at the same spot as where the assassination happened - before giving an interview to Le Monde, he told me he was “just trying to do his job.”
“I was aware of the danger but I stood still, doing my job. A bit of courage is needed for independent journalism; I take as examples Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and the heroes of the War of Independence, including my own father,” he said.
Özbilici swept many international awards in 2017 for those courageous shots he took in the white hot heat of the assassination. He was awarded prizes by World Press Photo 2017, Photo of The Year International, the Deadline Club and the Photojournalism Seminar. His iconic photo hit the headlines of many newspapers across the world the next day and was downloaded more than 18 million times on Facebook, while his photos have become the subject of exhibitions, university classes, seminars and various interviews in newspapers, TV stations, and radio shows overseas. He has also been invited for special programs from Canada to Italy, hosted by figures like the prime ministers of the Netherlands and Austria.
But in his native Turkey, Özbilici has only received the Photo of the Year award from the Contemporary Journalists Association and was invited to speak to students at Ankara’s Gazi University only once. He has been lauded by no big political names, been the subject of no university classes, and given no TV interviews.
There is little need to say anything else. The assassination of Karlov is sad enough anyway.