“I am writing this in a prison cell. But I am not in prison.
I am a writer. I am neither where I am nor where I am not.
You can imprison me but you cannot keep me in prison.
Because, like all writers, I have magic. I can pass through walls with ease.”
Ahmet Altan, 71, is a Turkish novelist and journalist. He has written a number of novels and essays, winning several national literature prizes, as well as working as the Editor of Taraf newspaper between 2007-2012. He lives in Istanbul, Turkey, and has two children, and a brother, Mehmet, who was arrested alongside him in September 2016. During his detention, Ahmet continued to write, and his memoir “I will never see the world again” was published in 2019. In it he describes his feeling after being sentenced to life imprisonment: “Never again would I be able to kiss the woman I love, embrace my kids, meet with my friends, walk the streets … I would not be able to eat eggs with sausage or drink a glass of wine or go to a restaurant and order fish. I would not be able to watch the sunrise.”
He was unjustly imprisoned for over four years until his release in 2021.
- Awaiting retrial. Released from detention on 14 April 2021 after spending 4 years and 7 months behind bars.
The case of Ahmet Altan
On 10 September 2016, Ahmet Altan, and his brother, Mehmet Altan, a Professor of Economics, were arrested on accusations of spreading “subliminal messages” on television in support of the July 2016 coup attempt. When the indictment was eventually issued eight months later, they discovered they were charged with “attempting to overthrow the government through violence and force”: the most serious charges available under Turkish law and the same charge issued to military officers who bombed the parliament during the coup attempt. In addition to the Altan brothers, the initial indictment included a total of 15 defendants. However the case was divided at the first hearing with the defendants who had left the country excluded from the case file.
The seven defendants included in the case at the trial were:
- Ahmet Altan: novelist and journalist;
- Mehmet Altan: academic and columnist;
- Ayşe Nazlı Ilıcak: public commentator and columnist;
- Şükrü Tuğrul Özşengül: police academic;
- Yakup Şimşek: Marketing Director for Zaman Newspaper;
- Fevzi Yazıcı: graphic designer for Zaman newspaper; and
- Tibet Şanlıman: advertising producer.
Six of the defendants were arrested and held in pre-trial detention, while Tibet Şanlıman was the only defendant not detained. Due to the complexity of the indictment, with different charges and evidence against the seven defendants, this case profile focuses on the case against Ahmet Altan.
Altan’s case is a classic example of judicial harassment at the hands of Turkish authorities. His status as a previous supporter of the ruling party, turned outspoken critic; the severity of the charges; the paucity of the evidence and the fair trial violations all clearly pointed to a politically-motivated prosecution. Altan’s long detention, along with a pattern of arrest, release and re-arrest point to the use of the judicial system to harass political opponents.
Altan was also prosecuted and sentenced to imprisonment for “spreading propaganda for a terrorist organisation” and “insulting the president” in separate cases. This profile focuses on his most serious case, relating to the July 2016 coup attempt.
In its expert opinion to this ‘coup’ case, ARTICLE 19 analysed the indictment and found the charges and evidence to be completely illogical: he was accused of using “violence and force” to overthrow the government, but the only evidence was his writing and some flimsy circumstantial evidence about who he knew. There was no argument made in the indictment or during trial as to how writing can constitute violence or force.
ARTICLE 19 attended all hearings in the trial, which spanned over several months from June 2017 until February 2018 and the retrial, which took place in October, November 2019. The trial was manifestly unfair. With multiple fair trial rights violated, including no examination of the little evidence presented in the indictment. No witnesses appeared in court. After the opening hearing, trial monitors from the Bar Human Rights Committee of England and Wales said the trial had the “appearance of a show trial”.
At the end of the trial, Altan was sentenced to aggravated life imprisonment – he is the first writer in Turkey to receive this sentence, which is the most severe sentence available under Turkish law, since the removal of the death penalty. Similar to many outspoken political commentators, Altan is a controversial figure in Turkey, even among the opposition – yet his receipt of a life sentence shocked civil society, both his fans and critics alike, and there was widespread agreement that there was no justification for his imprisonment.
While Ahmet and his brother Mehmet were arrested on the same day, received the same charges, shared defence lawyers and submitted applications to the Constitutional Court and the European Court of Human Rights at the same time, there were very different outcomes for the two brothers. After many months with the Constitutional Court not ruling on any cases in the post-coup attempt environment, it selected Mehmet Altan’s case to rule on, finding his right to free expression had been violated. The European Court of Human Rights then quickly ruled in line with the Constitutional Court ruling on Mehmet Altan’s case. When the Court of Cassation examined the appeal, they recommended Mehmet to be acquitted and Ahmet to be charged with ‘aiding a terrorist organisation without being a member’. There was no clear legal basis for the difference in the treatment of the two brothers, with an extreme paucity of evidence in both cases.
The first instance court then convicted Ahmet Altan of “aiding a terrorist organisation without being its member” and sentenced him to 10 years and 6 months imprisonment on 4 November 2019. Taking into consideration the time he spent in pre-trial detention, Ahmet Altan was released on the same day, just to be re-arrested only one week after.
On 13 April 2021, the European Court of Human Rights issued its judgment saying that Ahmet Altan’s detention was violation of his right to liberty and security, the right to a fair trial and freedom of expression. A day after the ECtHR’s ruling, the Court of Cassation overturned his conviction on the charge of ‘aiding a terrorist organisation without being its member’ on the basis of the first instance court’s failure to apply the reductions on the prison sentence as foreseen by law and ruled for his release considering the time he spent behind bars.
He was released on 14 April 2021 after spending more than four years in prison.
At 1st trial
- Article 309 (1) of the Turkish Penal Code “attempting to destroy the constitutional order”
- Article 311 (1) of the Turkish Penal Code “attempting to destroy the Turkish Grand National Assembly or preventing it from carrying out its duties”
- Article 312 (1) of the Turkish Penal Code “attempting to destroy the government or attempting to prevent it from carrying out its duties”
- Article 220 (6) of the Turkish Penal Code “committing a crime on behalf of an organisation although he is not a member of that organisation”
- Reference is also made in the indictment to Article 314 (2) of the Penal Code, which provides that any person who becomes a member of an armed organisation may be sentenced to imprisonment between 5 to 10 years.
- Articles 3 & 5 of Law 3713 on Counterterrorism: Provide that the above offenses are terrorist offenses, and the sentence may therefore be increased by one half.
Charges at retrial
- Article 220 (6) of the Turkish Penal Code “Aiding a terrorist organisation, without being its member”
Timeline of the trial, appeal and retrial
Altan was arrested at his home in a dawn raid. He was held in a police cell for 11 days and refused access to his lawyer for 5 days under State of Emergency provisions.
No charges were formally issued and he was released under judicial control measures and a travel ban.
Altan was rearrested following an objection from the prosecutor and was transferred to pretrial detention in Silivri Prison.
Altan’s lawyers file an individual application with the Constitutional Court challenging his detention.
Altan’s lawyers make an application to the European Court of Human Rights claiming that the pre-trial detention violates Altan’s rights.
Indictment is issued Altan is charged with “attempting to overthrow the government, parliament and the national order through violence and force”.
The opening hearing in the trial lasts for 5 days. The court rules for the continuation of the detention of all six jailed defendants. BHRC trial monitors said the hearing had the “appearance of a show trial.”
The prosecutor requests aggravated life sentences for all six detained defendants in the 4th hearing.
Final hearing in the trial, in part held at the courthouse in Silivri prison, hours outside Istanbul.
Without examination of evidence, cross examination of witnesses or defendants, six defendants, including Ahmet Altan, were convicted of ‘attempting to overthrow the constitutional order through violence and force’, and sentenced to life in prison.
Appeal process and Constitutional Court’s ruling
Secret witness “Sogut” testifies prior to the first hearing, in the absence of defence lawyers, leaving no possibility for cross-examination.
1st hearing in appeal trial at the 2nd Criminal Chamber of Istanbul Regional Court of Justice.
Altan makes his last defence statement in the second hearing of the appeal trial and the Court upholds the 26th High Criminal Court’s aggravated lifetime imprisonment decision.
The judgment is taken to the Court of Cassation.
The Prosecutor of the Court of Cassation issues an opinion stating the Ahmet Altan, Mehmet Altan and Nazlı Ilıcak should have been charged with ‘aiding a terrorist organisation’ rather than ‘attempting to overthrow the constitutional order’.
The Constitutional Court renders its judgment on the 8 November 2016 individual application, finding no violation of his rights and ruling that his arrest could not be deemed as ‘arbitrary and baseless’.
Five judges dissent, including the head judge, who argues in his dissenting opinion that Ahmet Altan’s right to freedom of expression had been violated.The Constitutional Court renders its judgment on the 8 November 2016 individual application, finding no violation of his rights and ruling that his arrest could not be deemed as ‘arbitrary and baseless’. Five judges dissent, including the head judge, who argues in his dissenting opinion that Ahmet Altan’s right to freedom of expression had been violated.
The Court of Cassation overturns the convictions for “attempting to overthrow the constitutional order”.
They recommend acquittal of Mehmet Altan, and that Ahmet Altan receives the charge of ‘aiding a terrorist organisation without being its member’. The case is sent back to the trial court, for a retrial.
Retrial on new charges and appeal process
The first instance court, abiding by the Court of Cassation’s ruling opens a retrial.
Ahmet Altan is not released on bail, despite the reduced charges and amount of time already served as part of this case.
The court convicts Ahmet Altan of “aiding a terrorist organisation without being its member” and sentences him to 10 years and 6 months imprisonment.
Altan’s lawyers immediately lodge an appeal against the conviction. Taking into consideration the more than three years he spent in pre-trial detention, the court released him on bail pending appeal
Istanbul Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office objects to Altan’s bail release, on the grounds that there is a flight risk.
The Istanbul 26th High Criminal Court rejects the objection
It confirms its previous decision to release Ahmet Altan on bail. The case file is then referred to the 27th High Criminal Court for review.
The Istanbul 27th High Criminal Court accepts the prosecutor’s objection
It rules for Altan’s re-arrest and return to detention. The ruling is not provided to the defence lawyers but is leaked to the pro-government press. Ahmet Altan is re-arrested that night.
After spending the night at the police department, Ahmet Altan appears before the 27th High Criminal Court, which rules for his transfer back to the Silivri Prison.
The decision regarding the re-arrest is taken to the 2nd Criminal Chamber of the Istanbul Regional Court of Justice, acting as an appellate court.
The Regional Court sends the files directly to the Court of Cassation as all appeals regarding the Court of Cassation’s decision to overrule must be examined by the Court of Cassation.
The Prosecutor of the Court of Cassation issues an opinion and demands Altan’s requests for release be rejected, confirming his continued detention during the appeal of his conviction.
The Constitutional Court rules for the second time that Ahmet Altan’s rights were not violated by his detention.
ARTICLE 19 calls for the acquittal of Ahmet Altan in accordance with the European Court of Human Rights judgment. We call on the Turkish authorities to free the many other writers, journalists, human rights defenders and opposition politicians jailed for exercising their right to freedom of expression
The content of this case file was prepared in partnership with P24 https://www.expressioninterrupted.com/ahmet-altan/
Relevant reports / articles
Turkey: ARTICLE 19 welcomes the release of novelist Ahmet Altan
Turkey: Re-arrest of novelist Ahmet Altan is arbitrary and cruel
Breaking: Turkish novelist Ahmet Altan re-arrested after one week of freedom
Turkey: Ahmet Altan and Nazlı Ilıcak released but judicial harassment continues
Turkey: Free speech and human rights organisations call for novelist Ahmet Altan, Nazlı Ilıcak and other journalists to be released
Turkey: Altans & others still in jail as retrial commences on new bogus terrorism charges
Turkey: Ahmet Altan and other defendants must be acquitted and released immediately
Turkey: Kafkaesque Taraf trial confirms extent of Turkey’s lack of rule of law
Turkey: Aggravated life sentences in Altans trial confirm absence of rule of law
Turkey: Journalists’ sentences mean an end to the rule of law
Turkey: Court rejects release of writer Ahmet Altan and journalist Nazli Ilıcak
Turkey: Unjust verdicts in trial of Zaman Journalists
Turkey: Life sentences in the landmark case on journalists at the heart of the Constitutional Crisis
Turkey: Diplomats must monitor final hearing of journalists, Ahmet Altan, Mehmet Altan and Nazli Ilicak
Turkey: Blatant disregard for fair trial rights as Altans’ entire defence team expelled in free expression case
Turkey: Show trials of journalists are a travesty of justice
Turkey: ARTICLE 19 submits expert opinion in the case of brothers, Ahmet and Mehmet Altan
Turkey: UN HRC must address freedom of expression crisis
Turkey: Rights Groups to monitor criminal trial against journalists accused of participating in coup
Turkey: Drop charges against the Altan brothers for expressing dissenting views
The content of this case file is based on an unofficial translation of the materials from Turkish. We take no responsibility for errors in the analysis above from any inaccuracies or errors in the translation.