Altan brothers’ spirit can’t be imprisoned, says int’l law expert

Famous Turkish novelist and journalist Ahmet Altan (left) and his academic/journalist brother Mehmet Altan have been in pre-trial detention on coup charges since September 2016.

International law expert Philippe Sands has penned an article for the Financial Times detailing his prison visit to the Altan brothers, two high-profile Turkish writers who were sentenced to life in prison in a trial that was condemned by international bodies including the European Union.

“It is quite something to spend a little time with a writer who has been sentenced to spend the rest of his life in prison, on trumped up charges, and who can laugh about it. And something else to leave that prison cell with an unexpected feeling of elation, motivated by the sheer, towering greatness of the human spirit,” wrote Sands of his encounter with the Altans, who he represents at the European Court of Human Rights.

Ahmet Altan, a journalist and novelist, and his brother Mehmet Altan, an academic, were accused of being the media wing of a religious group blamed for planning the July 2016 coup attempt. The Altan brothers were sentenced along with four others last February.

Sands, a long-term friend of Ahmet Altan’s, was visiting Istanbul to deliver the Mehmet Ali Birand Lecture on press freedom at the Swedish Consulate General.

The lawyer visited Silivri Prison, where the brothers are being held, with Yasemin Çongar, a writer who runs the press-freedom group P24.

“Yasemin hasn’t been allowed to visit Ahmet — she gets 10 minutes on the phone, every fortnight — and nor has any foreigner. I am the first allowed in, because I represent the brothers at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg,” wrote Sands.

Despite their isolation, Sands’ account has the brothers on good form, with Mehmet “thrilled” to speak French and brimming with academic ideas, and Ahmet looking fit thanks to ample time in the weights room.

“‘No,’ he says, Turkey has not hit rock bottom yet. ‘We are a nation of bungee-jumpers, and just before we hit the ground we somehow manage to bounce up again’.”

The brothers and Sands spent the majority of the half-hour visit “roaring with laughter” and discussed a wide range of subjects, including a subject that “fascinated” Ahmet Altan, the independent judge who signed the arrest warrant for Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet.

Ahmet Altan discussed the judge who sentenced him when asked what message he would like to deliver to Financial Times readers.

“I am the powerful one now,” Ahmet Altan read in the judge’s eyes, according to Sands, “and the power I can exercise will crush you.”

Turkey is ranked 157th among 180 countries in the 2018 World Press Freedom Index released by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) on Wednesday. If Turkey falls two more places, it will make it to the list of countries on the blacklist, which have the poorest record in press freedom.

Turkey is the biggest jailer of journalists in the world. The most recent figures documented by SCF show that 253 journalists and media workers were in jail as of May 11, 2018, most in pretrial detention. Of those in prison 192 were under arrest pending trial while only 61 journalists have been convicted and are serving their time. Detention warrants are outstanding for 142 journalists who are living in exile or remain at large in Turkey.

Detaining tens of thousands of people over alleged links to the Gülen movement, the government also closed down some 200 media outlets, including Kurdish news agencies and newspapers, after the coup attempt in Turkey on July 15, 2016. (SCF with Ahval)

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