Ahmet Altan

Ahmet Altan sitting in court

“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

Profile

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.

Status

  • 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.

Charges

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 

Recommendations

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 

Acknowledgements

The content of this case file was prepared in partnership with P24 https://www.expressioninterrupted.com/ahmet-altan/

Key Documents

Relevant reports / articles

Turkey: ARTICLE 19 welcomes the release of novelist Ahmet Altan
08.05.2021 21 min read

Turkey: ARTICLE 19 welcomes the release of novelist Ahmet Altan

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08.05.2021 21 min read

Turkey: Re-arrest of novelist Ahmet Altan is arbitrary and cruel

Click here to go to article
Breaking: Turkish novelist Ahmet Altan re-arrested after one week of freedom
08.05.2021 21 min read

Breaking: Turkish novelist Ahmet Altan re-arrested after one week of freedom

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Turkey: Ahmet Altan and Nazlı Ilıcak released but judicial harassment continues
08.05.2021 21 min read

Turkey: Ahmet Altan and Nazlı Ilıcak released but judicial harassment continues

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08.05.2021 21 min read

Turkey: Free speech and human rights organisations call for novelist Ahmet Altan, Nazlı Ilıcak and other journalists to be released

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08.05.2021 21 min read

Turkey: Altans & others still in jail as retrial commences on new bogus terrorism charges

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08.05.2021 21 min read

Turkey: Ahmet Altan and other defendants must be acquitted and released immediately

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08.05.2021 21 min read

Turkey: Kafkaesque Taraf trial confirms extent of Turkey’s lack of rule of law

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08.05.2021 21 min read

Turkey: Aggravated life sentences in Altans trial confirm absence of rule of law

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08.05.2021 21 min read

Turkey: Journalists’ sentences mean an end to the rule of law

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Turkey: Court rejects release of writer Ahmet Altan and journalist Nazli Ilıcak
08.05.2021 21 min read

Turkey: Court rejects release of writer Ahmet Altan and journalist Nazli Ilıcak

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08.05.2021 21 min read

Turkey: Unjust verdicts in trial of Zaman Journalists

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Turkey: Life sentences in the landmark case on journalists at the heart of the Constitutional Crisis
08.05.2021 21 min read

Turkey: Life sentences in the landmark case on journalists at the heart of the Constitutional Crisis

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Turkey: Diplomats must monitor final hearing of journalists, Ahmet Altan, Mehmet Altan and Nazli Ilicak
08.05.2021 21 min read

Turkey: Diplomats must monitor final hearing of journalists, Ahmet Altan, Mehmet Altan and Nazli Ilicak

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Turkey: Blatant disregard for fair trial rights as Altans’ entire defence team expelled in free expression case
08.05.2021 21 min read

Turkey: Blatant disregard for fair trial rights as Altans’ entire defence team expelled in free expression case

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08.05.2021 21 min read

Turkey: Show trials of journalists are a travesty of justice

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Turkey: ARTICLE 19 submits expert opinion in the case of brothers, Ahmet and Mehmet Altan
08.05.2021 21 min read

Turkey: ARTICLE 19 submits expert opinion in the case of brothers, Ahmet and Mehmet Altan

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Turkey: UN HRC must address freedom of expression crisis
08.05.2021 21 min read

Turkey: UN HRC must address freedom of expression crisis

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Turkey: Rights Groups to monitor criminal trial against journalists accused of participating in coup
08.05.2021 21 min read

Turkey: Rights Groups to monitor criminal trial against journalists accused of participating in coup

Click here to go to article
08.05.2021 21 min read

Turkey: Drop charges against the Altan brothers for expressing dissenting views

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Disclaimer

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.

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