Turkey: Prominent intellectuals Ahmet and Mehmet Altan imprisoned

Prominent novelist Ahmet Altan, and his brother, Mehmet Altan, a writer and distinguished professor of economics, were arrested on the morning of 10 September. ARTICLE 19 calls for their immediate release.

According to their lawyer, the prosecutor has accused the brothers of putting out subliminal messages supporting the coup during a television interview in which they criticised President Erdogan. The television programme was aired on 14 July, the day before the failed coup took place. Formal charges are yet to be issued and since their detention, they have not had access to their lawyer. 

“The accusations against Ahmet and Mehmet Altan are both absurd and groundless,” said Katie Morris, Head of Europe and Central Asia Programme at ARTICLE 19. “We call upon the Turkish authorities to immediately release the brothers and to cease the persecution of writers, journalists and intellectuals in Turkey,” she added.

After the coup attempt Turkey issued state of emergency decree laws, under which individuals can be detained without charge for up to 30 days, and are only able to see their lawyer after 5 days. 

“We are concerned that the government is abusing the state of emergency to silence all critical voices within the country. While the Turkish authorities must bring those responsible for the failed coup to account, the investigation must not be used as a pre-text to stifle freedom of expression,” said Morris. 

Ahmet Altan is also currently on trial in a separate case related to his previous work as an editor of the daily newspaper, Taraf. ARTICLE 19 attended the first hearing of that trial and called for the charges to be dropped

ARTICLE 19 calls upon Turkey to immediately and unconditionally release Ahmet and Mehmet Altan, and all writers and journalists detained without evidence.

Scholars and authors signed a joint letter on 11 September calling for their release, the contents of which ARTICLE 19 fully endorses.

The full text of the letter is shared below:

We the undersigned call upon democrats throughout the world as well as those who care about the future of Turkey and the region in which it exerts a leading role, to protest the vendetta, which the government is waging against its brightest thinkers and writers who may not share their point of view.

The background to this letter is the coup attempt on July 15, 2016, which mercifully failed and was quickly subdued. Had the Turkish people themselves not resisted this assault on their institutions, the result would have been years of misery. 

In the aftermath of that coup, it is understandable that the government would have imposed a temporary state of emergency.  However, the failed coup should not be a pretext for a McCarthy style witch hunt nor should that state of emergency be conducted with scant regard for basic rights, rules of evidence or even common sense.

We as writers, academics and defenders of freedom of expression are particularly disturbed to see colleagues we know and respect to being imprisoned under emergency regulations. Journalists like Şahin Alpay, Nazlı Ilıcak or the novelist Aslı Erdoğan have been outspoken defenders of democracy and opponents of militarism or tyranny of any sort. 

We are particularly disturbed to see the prominent novelist Ahmet Altan, and his brother, Mehmet Altan, a writer and distinguished professor of economics, being detained in a dawn raid on September 10, 2016.  The pair stands accused of somehow giving subliminal messages to rally coup supporters on a television panel show broadcast July 14th, the night before the coup-attempt.

Ahmet Altan is one of Turkey’s most important writers whose novels appear in translation and sell in the millions. He was also editor in chief for five years of the liberal daily newspaper Taraf. The paper championed the public’s right to know. He has been prosecuted many times over his career –in the 1990s for trying to get a Turkish readership to empathize with the country’s Kurds or more recently for trying to force an apology from the prime minister for the 2011 Roboski massacre in which 34 villagers were bombed. He appeared in court as recently as September 2, charged with handling state secrets based on an indictment that was in large part copy pasted from two entirely different cases. 

Mehmet Altan is a professor at Istanbul University, a columnist whose numerous books campaigned to rebuild Turkey’s identity not on race or religion but respect for human rights. Like his brother and others now in jail his crime is not for supporting a coup but for the effectiveness of his criticism of the current government whose initial progress in broadening democracy is now jammed in reverse gear.

We therefore call upon the Turkish government to cease its persecution of prominent writers and to speed the release of Ahmet and Mehmet Altan as well as so many of their colleagues wrongly accused.

172 Signatories

Dogan Akhanli, Writer, PEN Germany.

Monica Ali, Writer.  

Gillian Anderson, Film, television, theatre actress.  

Ingeborg Arlt, Writer, PEN Germany.             

Michael Augustin, Poet, translator, Germany.             

Thomas Bachmann, Author.               

Çiğdem Balım, Senior lecturer, Indiana University.            

Etienne Balibar, Philosopher ; Professor Emeritus, University of Paris-Ouest ; Anniversary Chair in Modern European Philosophy, Kingston University, London.

Julian Barnes, Writer.               

Robert Barnett, Senior Research Fellow and Director, Modern Tibetan Studies, Columbia University.      

Jürgen Baurmann, Professor Emeritus, University of Wuppertal, Germany.          

Sara Bershtel, Publisher, Metropolitan Books / Henry Holt.          

Clifford Bob, Raymond J. Kelley Endowed Chair in International Relations, Duquesne University.      

Mirko Bonné, Writer.               

Vera Botterbusch, Filmmaker, photographer, writer.             

Patrick Boucheron, Professor, History, Collège de France.           

Olivier Bouquet, Professor, History, University of Paris VII.          

Lisette Buchholz, Publisher, persona verlag.             

Simon Callow, Actor, musician, writer and theatre director.          

Nick Cave, Musician, author, screenwriter.             

Baltasar Cevc, Lawyer, Erlangen, Germany.             

Roger Chartier, Professor, History, Collège de France.           

Noam Chomsky, Linguist ; Institute Professor of Emeritus, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.      

Claus Clausen, Publisher, Tiderne Skifter, Denmark.            

Jonathan Coe, Novelist.               

Costas Douzinas, Professor of Law, University of London.          

Horst Eckert, Writer.   

Jean Louis Fabiani, Professor, Humanities, EHESS.            

Sascha Feuchert, Vice-President and Writers-in-Prison-Commissioner of PEN Germany ; Professor of Literature, University of Giessen.   

Stephen Frears, Film director.              

Uwe Friesel, Writer and translator ; Member of International PEN / First President of the German Union VS.

Neil Gaiman, Writer.               

Rebeca García Nieto, Writer, Spain.             

Mario Giordano, Writer.               

Maurice Godelier, Professor of Anthropology, EHESS, Paris.           

Jordan Goodman, Honorary Research Fellow in the Wellcome Trust Centre for the History of Medicine at College, London


Roland Greene, Mark Pigott KBE Professor in the School of Humanties and Sciences, Professor of English and Comparative Literature, Stanford University.

Ulla Hahn, Writer.               

Matt Haig, Novelist and journalist.             

Anton Harber, Caxton Professor of Journalism at University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg and chair of the Freedom of Expression Institute

David Hare, Playwright.               

Josef Haslinger, President, PEN-Centers, Germany.             

Wolfgang Hermann, Author, Austria.              

Uwe-Karsten Heye, Writer.               

Kathy High, Interdisciplinary artist, curator, scholar.            

James Hollings, Senior Lecturer in Journalism, Massey University Wellington, New Zealand.        

Nick Hornby, Writer.               

Gabriela Jaskulla, Writer and journalist.             

Joachim Kalka, Writer and translator.             

Tanja Kinkel, Writer.               

Hubert Klöpfer, Publisher and member of PEN Germany.          

Barbara Krohn, Writer.               

Hari Kunzru, Novelist and journalist.             

Hanif Kureishi, Writer.               

Olivia Laing, Writer and critic.             

Jean-Manuel Larralde, Professor of Public Law, University of Caen, Normandy.        

Camille Laurens, Writer.               

Marie Lecomte-Tilouine, Director of research at CNRS, France.          

Jo Lendle, Publisher, Carl Hanser Verlage.            

Antoine Lilti, Professor, History, EHESS.             

Gert Loschütz, Writer.               

Gila Lustiger, Writer, Germany / France.            

Lindsay Mackie, Board member of English PEN and chair of its Readers and Writers Programme.   

Anthony Marx, President and CEO of The New York Public Library ; former president of Amherst College. 

Frédérique Longuet Marx, Maître de conférences en sociologie à l’Université de Caen.      

Ian McEwan, Novelist and screenwriter.     &nb