In a statement issued following the release of author and journalist Ahmet Altan, the Washington-based Freedom House called on Turkish courts to similarly rectify other cases of wrongful detention.
A Turkish court on Wednesday released Altan, 71, after more than four years in prison on charges of involvement in a failed 2016 coup attempt that he had always denied.
“We welcome the decision of Turkey’s Court of Cassation to order Ahmet Altan’s release in line with a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights [ECtHR],” said Marc Behrendt, director for Europe and Eurasia programs at Freedom House.
“Altan, like so many other writers, scholars, activists, and journalists in Turkey, was detained simply for exercising his fundamental right to free expression. He should never have been arrested in the first place,” Behrendt said, adding that Altan’s release will “mark a turning point for the Turkish judiciary in following the rulings of the ECtHR, as Turkey has obligated itself to do.”
Behrendt called on Turkish courts to release other prominent political prisoners, including Osman Kavala and Selahattin Demirtaş.
“Ahmet Altan should never have been arrested & should have been released years ago. Better late than never but let’s not shrug off how we got here – don’t reward hostage-taking,” tweeted Nate Schenkkan, director for research strategy at Freedom House.
Ahmet Altan should never have been arrested, & should have been released years ago. Better late than never but let's not shrug off how we got here – don't reward hostage-taking.
— Nate Schenkkan (@nateschenkkan) April 14, 2021
The Turkish Supreme Court of Appeals decision came a day after the ECtHR ruled that Turkey had violated Altan’s rights. The appeals court overturned his conviction in the 2019 case related to charges of “assisting a terrorist organization.”
“I don’t know how I got out. I was sitting [in prison] and all of a sudden I was told this evening that I would be released,” Altan told AFP in front of his home in İstanbul.
Altan was arrested shortly after a coup attempt in July 2016 as part of a purge of media organizations and was accused of supporting the attempt by spreading “subliminal messages announcing a military coup” on television.
He was subsequently sentenced to life imprisonment for trying to overthrow the government — a ruling later quashed by Turkey’s top court. Altan was briefly freed and cleared of all charges before being almost immediately rearrested in 2019.
The case was re-examined, and he was sentenced to 10 years, six months for “knowingly supporting a terrorist organization” that was involved in the coup bid.
He had turned to the ECtHR for help in 2017 after calling the charges against him “grotesque.”
In its verdict the ECtHR found that “there was no evidence that the actions of the applicant had been part of a plan to overthrow the government.”
The rights court ordered Turkey to pay 16,000 euros in compensation to Altan.
“Deprivation of liberty, in particular continued detention, must be based on reasonable suspicion,” the ECtHR ruling said.
In a statement Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) also welcomed the release of Altan.
“While Ahmet Altan should not have spent even one day behind bars, we welcome the news that he is finally free,” said Gulnoza Said, CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia program coordinator. “Turkish authorities should not repeat the mistake of rearresting Altan as they did in 2019, and should allow him to live and work freely. All journalists imprisoned for their work in Turkey should be immediately freed.”
Philippe Sands, president of English PEN, celebrated the news of Altan’s release, saying: “He is one of the most remarkable and inspiring human beings I have ever known. After four years of wrongful, illegal imprisonment – ‘like living without clocks, in endless time’, he told me when I visited him in the Silivri maximum security prison – he is home. I celebrate him and his freedom, and all those who made this happen.”