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

An appellate court in Istanbul yesterday confirmed the conviction on charges of “attempting to overthrow the constitutional order” and imposed an aggravated life sentence for journalists Ahmet Altan, Mehmet Altan and Nazli Ilıcak. The verdict confirms the stark lack of the rule of law and casts doubts over the independence and impartiality of the judiciary in Turkey, and the ineffectiveness of domestic legal remedies.

ARTICLE 19 calls for the immediate and unconditional release of all six defendants.

The defendants in the Altans’ case have been sentenced to aggravated life imprisonment without parole. Aggravated life imprisonment is the most severe sentence under Turkish law, replacing the death penalty following its abolition in 2004. An “aggravated” life sentence means no prospect of early release, which the European Court of Human Rights found to be in violation of the absolute prohibition of torture (Article 3 ECHR). In addition, aggravated life sentence may involve severe restrictions of movement in prison, or prolonged solitary confinement, which may amount to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, as recognised by the UN Human Rights Committee in its General Comment No. 20.

ARTICLE 19 has been monitoring the Altans’ trial since the start of the proceedings and observed grave violations of the right to a fair trial and in particular of the right to be tried by an independent, impartial and competent tribunal and the right to adequate time and facilities to prepare a defence among others. In 2017, ARTICLE 19 submitted an expert opinion on the Altans’ case, highlighting that the charges violate Turkey’s human rights obligations. Furthermore, the conviction of the six defendants in the case was found to be groundless, carrying insufficient evidence. Evidence used against the defendants included their appearance on a TV show the day before the attempted coup, where they were accused of sending “subliminal” messages to the Erdoğan regime’s political opponents. Defendants were found to be associated with the Gülen movement because of data found on their phones or on the basis of the bank where they opened an account.

The defendants were initially detained in 2016 for their alleged involvement in the attempted coup of July 2016. Their trial started in June 2017, with a verdict pronounced by the High Criminal Court in February 2018. The defendants were convicted of attempting to overthrow the constitutional order, on the basis of Article 309/1 of the Turkish Criminal Code.

The six defendants were held in pre-trial detention for 17 months before their sentencing in February 2018. With the exception of Mehmet Altan, who was released while the appeal was pending in June 2018, all defendants remain in prison. In March 2018, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Mehmet Altan’s pre-trial detention violated his rights to liberty, security and freedom of expression. ARTICLE 19 and other organisations submitted a third party intervention in the case, calling for Mehmet Altan to be urgently released.

ARTICLE 19 continues to be extremely alarmed about the crackdown against journalists and free expression in Turkey, including their judicial persecution. We urge Turkey to respect its obligations under international human rights law and to respect the principle of due process of law. We also call upon the EU to play an active role in contrasting the Turkish Government’s assault on journalists, lawyers, judges and political opponents.