Altan’s magic is stronger than Turkish prison walls: Italian journalist Saviano

Ahmet Altan

In an open letter published by Corriere della Sera, Italian journalist and writer Roberto Saviano said Turkish authorities’ refusal to release Ahmet Altan, a prominent novelist, journalist and founder of the now-closed Taraf daily, should concern everybody, noting that Altan’s magic is stronger than Turkish prison walls.

“To freeze your words, they locked you up in a cell. They can’t even begin to imagine that a cell can at best imprison bodies, but has no power over words,” Saviano told his friend, Altan.

Altan was first arrested after a July 2016 coup attempt. Despite his imprisonment, he continues to speak his mind. “You can imprison me but you cannot keep me here. Because, like all writers, I have magic, I can pass through your walls with ease,” Altan wrote in “I Will Never See the World Again,” the 2018 book he authored in his cell in the maximum security Silivri Prison and for which he was awarded the prestigious Geschwister-Scholl literary prize.

Saviano criticized the fabricated charges against Altan, saying, “[b]ut truth be told, there are no credible charges against you to explain the harsh treatment you’ve been meted, there is no real reason for you to be remanded into custody …”

Altan topped the December ranking of the One Free Press Coalition’s “10 Most Urgent” list of press freedom cases, the organization announced in a press release. The monthly list, which is issued by a group of preeminent editors and publishers, highlights journalists whose press freedoms are being suppressed or “whose cases are seeking justice.”

Altan was arrested with his brother Mehmet Altan and fellow journalist Nazlı Ilıcak on allegations of spreading “subliminal messages announcing a military coup” on television. They were charged with attempting to overthrow the constitutional order and interfering with the work of the legislature and the government.

The three journalists received life sentences in 2018, though Mehmet Altan was released after four months pending appeal.

Turkey’s Supreme Court of Appeals overturned Ahmet Altan and Ilıcak’s life sentences in July 2019. The court acquitted Mehmet Altan due to a lack of evidence and ordered that Ahmet Altan and Ilıcak be retried on the lesser charges of aiding the Gülen movement, which is considered a terrorist organization by the Turkish government.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been targeting followers of the Gülen movement, a faith-based group inspired by Turkish cleric Fethullah Gülen, since the corruption investigations of December 17-25, 2013, which implicated then-Prime Minister Erdoğan, his family members and his inner circle.

Dismissing the investigations as a Gülenist coup and conspiracy against his government, Erdoğan designated the movement as a terrorist organization and began to target its members. He intensified the crackdown on the movement following a coup attempt on July 15, 2016 that he accused Gülen of masterminding. The crackdown also targeted political opponents of the government, Kurdish activists and human rights defenders, among others. Gülen and the movement strongly deny involvement in the abortive putsch or any terrorist activity.

Altan was found guilty on November 4, 2019 and sentenced to 10 years, six months in prison. He was released pending appeal and was subjected to a travel ban.

Two days later the prosecutor appealed the court decision, claiming that Altan posed a flight risk. The İstanbul court granted the prosecutor’s request on November 12, and Altan was re-arrested at his home that evening and sent back to Silivri Prison.

The re-arrest of Altan caused an international outcry. Amnesty International’s Europe director, Marie Struthers, said it was “scandalous,” adding, “It is impossible to see this decision as anything other than further punishment for his determination not to be silenced and it compounds an already shocking catalogue of injustice he has been subjected to.”

Karin Karlekar, PEN America’s director of Free Expression at Risk Programs, said the re-arrest was a “disgrace and horror” and called for Altan’s immediate release.

According to the Stockholm Center for Freedom’s “Jailed and Wanted Journalists in Turkey” database, 175 journalists are currently behind bars in Turkey, while 167 are wanted and are either in exile or remain at large.

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) described Turkey as “the world’s biggest jailer of professional journalists” in its 2020 World Press Freedom Index, in which Turkey was ranked 154th among 180 countries in terms of press freedom.


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