Ahmet and Mehmet Altan
Ahmet Altan is a prominent novelist, journalist, and was the editor-in-chief of Taraf, a liberal daily newspaper, from 2007 -2012. His brother Mehmet has been a Professor of Economics at Istanbul University since 1986 alongside his work as a journalist and a human rights defender. Altan and Mehmet Altan were arrested on September 10, 2016 in a dawn raid for allegedly giving subliminal messages the night before the failed coup on July 15, 2016. They were charged with attempting to overthrow the “constitutional order,” “interfering with the work of the national assembly,” and “interfering with the work of the government” through violence or force.
On April 17, 2017, the prosecution officially indicted the Altan brothers, as well as fellow journalist Nazlı Ilıcak. On February 16, 2018, the 26th High Criminal Court in Istanbul convicted Ahmet and Mehmet Altan and Nazlı Ilıcak of attempting to overthrow the constitutional order through the use of force and violence. Ahmet, Mehmet, and Nazli—along with three other journalists—were sentenced to life in prison. On October 2, 2018 the conviction was upheld by the 2nd Penal Chamber of Istanbul Regional Court of Justice. On April 17, 2017, the prosecution officially indicted the Altan brothers, as well as fellow journalist Nazlı Ilıcak. On February 16, 2018, the 26th High Criminal Court in Istanbul convicted Ahmet and Mehmet Altan and Nazlı Ilıcak of attempting to overthrow the constitutional order through the use of force and violence. Ahmet, Mehmet, and Nazli—along with three other journalists—were sentenced to life in prison.
On October 2, 2018, the conviction was upheld by the 2nd Penal Chamber of Istanbul Regional Court of Justice. On July 5, 2019, the Supreme Court of Appeals 16th Penal Chamber cleared the Altan brothers of charges related to violating the constitution, overturning the life sentences for them. The court decided to acquit Mehmet Altan due to the lack of sufficient and credible evidence. However, the court rejected Ahmet Altan’s request for release as other charges against him remain, with the court ruling that he was aware of the coup’s planning and had supported the Gulenist movement. On November 4, 2019, a Turkish court sentenced Ahmet Altan to 10.5 years in prison, and also ordered his provisional release for having served more than three years in prison. However, the prosecutor immediately appealed the decision, and Ahmet Altan was re-arrested a week later.
On May 24, 2020, Ahmet Altan penned an op-ed in the Washington Post about facing the coronavirus pandemic from inside of a Turkish prison, predicting the pandemic will mean the end of the world order as it exists and encouraging optimism in the face of disaster. However, in the fifth hearing against Altan over an article he penned for Taraf in 2010, which opened in Istanbul on June 26, 2020, the court ruled for a stay of proceedings due to the fact that the verdict against Altan in another trial has not been finalized. He remains behind bars.
Ahmet Altan has served as the founding former editor-in-chief of Taraf, a liberal daily newspaper, from 2007 -2012. His brother Mehmet has been a Professor of Economics at Istanbul University since 1986. He is also a journalist, a prolific author, and a human rights defender. The brothers were arrested in a dawn raid, as part of a wave of arrests of thinkers and writers following the failed coup of July 15, 2016. Along with fellow journalist Nazli Ilıcak, their trial began on June 19, 2017. Their alleged crime consists of giving subliminal messages to rally coup supporters on a television panel show broadcast the night before the coup attempt. The current charges against the brothers stem from a television panel appearance discussing the long history of military involvement in Turkish politics. The Turkish government claims the comments made during the broadcasting were “subliminal messages suggestive of a coup attempt” and a signal to plotters to take action.
This is not the first time Ahmet Altan has been put on trial for his work. In July 2013, Ahmet Altan was found guilty of defamation in connection with a January 19, 2012 editorial piece he published in Taraf: “Morality and Enabling the State.” He was initially sentenced to 11 months in prison, but the sentence was commuted to a 2,800 Euro fine. He has faced various other defamation charges in connection with his work, both his provocative journalism and sensual novels. As of September 2016, Ahmet Altan was still on trial in a separate case which began in March 2015, related to his previous work as editor-in-chief of Taraf. Along with two other editors and two journalists he is accused of acquiring, destroying, and divulging documents concerning the security of the state and its political interests.
April 14, 2020: Shortly after the Turkish Minister of Justice announced that 17 prisoners and 79 personnel at Silivri Prison had been diagnosed with Covid-19, Ahmet Altan’s attorney Figen Çalıkuşu requests that the highly at-risk 70-year-old be released.
December 20, 2019: A PEN International report on Turkey reports that the judicial control measures placed on Mehmet Altan have been lifted.
November 13, 2019: Ahmet Altan is re-jailed after the prosecutor appeals against his release on November 6th. He is currently imprisoned at Silivri Prison in Istanbul.
November 4, 2019: A Turkish court sentences Ahmet Altan to 10.5 years in prison, but ordered his provisional release for having served more than three years in prison. Altan is currently put under judicial control, a condition that forces him to regularly report to a local police station.
July 5, 2019: The Supreme Court of Appeals 16th penal chamber overturns the life sentences for the Altan brothers. However, charges against Ahmet Altan are not dropped—with the court ruling that he was aware of the coup’s planning and had supported the Gulenist movement—and the court rejects his request for release. The court decides to acquit Mehmet Altan, who was provisionally released a year ago, due to no sufficient and credible evidence.
May 3, 2019: On World Press Freedom Day, Ahmet Altan makes a personal appeal to the Supreme Court stating an abuse of rights, but the judge rejects his appeal. He releases a press statement urging people to always be looking for new words, especially in circumstances in which our speech is restricted.
March 19, 2019: Imprisoned Ahmet Altan is convicted for insulting the president in an article named Yeni Ergenekon published by P24 in 2016 and is given an administrative fine of TL 7000. Altan’s lawyers say there will be an appeal process.
March 13, 2019: Simon Callow publishes a review of Ahmet Altan’s latest book I Will Never See the World Again, celebrating his determination to create work about his arrest and captivity, and calls for an end to his unjust conviction. The novel, which presents not only his time in prison but also the concept of freedom more generally, is written in Turkish but only published in German and English translations, as his publisher stated that he did not want his book to be published in Turkey.
January 14, 2019: The State of Emergency Commission rejects the application of Mehmet Altan for his return to his position at Istanbul University. The reasons for rejection are indicated as “Altan’s ongoing trial” and “the administrative report regarding Altan.” According to Mehmet Altan and his lawyer, the commission thereby unlawfully disregarded the decision of the Constitutional Court, which ruled that the arrest of Altan and the evidence regarding him were against freedoms of press and expression, and a violation of his rights. Altan’s lawyer files a criminal complaint against the members of the Commission for failing to comply with the constitution as members of an administrative institution.
January 8, 2019: The Office of the General Prosecutor of the Supreme Court of Appeal submits its opinion to the relevant chamber of the Supreme Court of Appeal, demanding that the lower court’s decision upholding life sentences for Nazlı Ilıcak, Ahmet Altan, and Mehmet Altan be remanded. The Office finds the charge for conviction inapplicable, and asks for a re-trial for the charge of “aiding a terrorist organization without being its member.” The latter charge is punishable by one to three years in prison, unlike the former conviction of life sentence. The opinion of the general prosecutor is not binding. The 16th Criminal Chamber of the Supreme Court of Appeal will decide on the appeal. Even if the chamber rejects the application of the defendants, the Office of the General Prosecutor can still object to the decision.
January 4, 2019: Ahmet Altan’s lawyer launches a campaign to file a petition before the Constitutional Court until the Court decides on the journalist’s individual application, pending before the court since November 8, 2016, even though it was given priority status. Usually, the Court decides on individual applications within 6 months but in Altan’s case, the court has not delivered its decision in 22 months.
June 27, 2018: An appeals court in Istanbul orders Mehmet Altan’s immediate release.
February 16, 2018: the 26th High Criminal Court in Istanbul convicts Ahmet and Mehmet Altan and Nazli Ilicak of attempting to overthrow the constitutional order through the use of force and violence. Ahmet and Mehmet Altan, along with Nazli Ilicak, are sentenced to life in prison.
November 2017: Altan Brother’s lawyers are ousted from the court by presiding judge. As a result of the dismissal of their counsel, the brothers are forced to defend themselves via a video link from Silivri prison. There request to be released from detention was denied. Court schedules a fourth hearing for the 11th of December. As the Turkish government prolongs the detention of journalists, The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) sets a deadline for the government to provide a defense for the detention. In the brief filed on behalf of the journalists, they state their detention is “politically motivated judicial harassment” which “breaches their freedom of expression.” The Turkish government is required to submit all materials for the defense by the 5th of December.
October 2017: The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has given priority status to third-party interventions made on behalf of detained journalists in Turkey. The briefs encourage the Court to view the detention of the journalists as “deliberate and arbitrary use of criminal law to target journalists and other media for the exercise of freedom of expression” as they serve as an “ulterior purpose of punishing and preventing dissemination of critical opinions.”
June 23, 2017: In the fifth hearing, the 26th penal Turkish Court rejected a demand to release the brothers on the basis of a “strong crime suspicion,” the “possibility of lacking judicial control,” and “suspicion that the suspects may flee.” The brothers face three aggravated life sentences if found guilty.
June 19, 2017: The trial of the Altan brothers begins. 17 defendants have been grouped together in this trial, 11 of whom have fled the country. The other six, including the Altans and Ilicak, remain in detention while the trial is ongoing.
April 17, 2017: Ahmet and Mehmet are both indicted, along with fellow journalist Nazli Ilicak.
September 21, 2016: the court releases Ahmet Altan on probation. He is re-arrested on September 23. Both brothers have since remained in detention.
September 10, 2016: Ahmet and Mehmet Altan are arrested in a dawn raid as part of a wave of arrests of thinkers and writers following the failed coup of July 15, 2016. They are suspected by the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of providing “subliminal messages suggesting a military coup.” The brothers remain in pretrial detention.
March 2015: Ahmet Altan and four other journalists and editors stand accused of acquiring, destroying, and divulging documents concerning the security of the state and its political interests.
July 18, 2013: Ahmet Altan was found guilty of defamation for a January 19, 2012 editorial piece he published in Taraf, titled “Morality and Enabling the State.” He was initially sentenced to 11 months in prison, but the sentence was commuted to a €2,800 fine. He has faced various other defamation charges in connection with his journalism and fiction writing.
In Their Words
“You can imprison me but you cannot keep me here. Because like all writers, I have magic.” –Ahmet Altan, in his most recent book I Will Never See the World Again.
“It is true that the charges against us are ludicrous. They make no sense but the problem is today that this nonsense has become the lifestyle in Turkey. It is as if I live on a desert island. I feel like Robinson Crusoe but I don’t know if my ship will ever arrive” – Ahmet Altan, in The Guardian
FREE EXPRESSION IN TURKEY
Following the coup attempt on July 15, 2016, freedom of expression has rapidly deteriorated in Turkey. Over 180 news outlets have been shut down under laws passed by presidential decree following the imposition of a state of emergency. There are now at least 148 writers, journalists, and media workers in prison, making Turkey the biggest jailer of journalists in the world, surpassing China and Eritrea combined. Over 165 media outlets and publishing houses have been closed down since July 2016. Over 165 journalists and media workers have been jailed pending trial. Never in the near- 100 year history of PEN have we recorded so many writers in prison in one country at one time. Over 145,000 civil servants have been summarily dismissed and more than 47,000 people have been jailed pending trial. Turkey’s Kurdish population has been disproportionately affected, with arrests of Kurdish journalists and MPs, closures of pro-Kurdish media outlets, and the forced replacement of elected local officials.