Don’t give up your values out of fear of prison, journalist Altan says

Journalist and novelist Ahmet Altan, who was released from prison in April after more than four years behind bars on charges of involvement in a 2016 coup attempt, has said prison isn’t so scary a place as to make one give up one’s values and dignity, Turkish Minute reported on Thursday.

Altan spoke about his years in prison and the books he had written over the four years during an interview with his close friend and journalist Yasemin Çongar, which was posted on YouTube late on Wednesday.

“The [Silivri] prison isn’t that scary. … The heaters work well, the food isn’t all that bad. If you walk in the yard and exercise, it’s not a place to be feared, not a threat that would make you live your life in fear, that would make you give up your values and dignity,” Altan said in the first interview since his release on April 14.

The award-winning novelist and newspaper editor was jailed after writing politically sensitive pieces critical of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and in support of Kurdish rights. The 71-year-old was arrested shortly after the putsch attempt in 2016 as part of a purge of media organizations and was accused of supporting the uprising by “disseminating subliminal messages to the public.”

“Whenever I speak on TV, they put me in jail. I’ll take my chances [today] once again. I won’t be disseminating subliminal messages; I’ll express my messages directly. I don’t think being afraid is something that we can accept so easily. … I was in prison, then I got out. I’d do it again,” Altan said, referring to one of the accusations against him.

He was sentenced to life imprisonment for trying to overthrow the government, a ruling that was later quashed by Turkey’s top court. After the case was re-examined, he was sentenced to 10 years, six months in prison for “knowingly supporting a terrorist organization,” a reference to a movement Erdoğan alleges was behind the coup.

Altan was briefly released in November 2019 for time served, but then was almost immediately rearrested and convicted on new terrorism charges. The Supreme Court of Appeals ruling overturned his conviction in the 2019 case on April 14, 2021, a day after the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) recommended the release of the journalist.

“No matter where in the world you are, if a writer is sentenced to three life sentences — which means dying in those four walls — they look at that person. I was sentenced to be killed in a concrete pile. The world turned and looked at me, thinking ‘What could a writer have done for this?’” Altan stated.

Regarding his writing in prison, Altan said that people he shared a cell with helped him by going to bed early so as not to disturb him when he was writing, allowing him to smoke although they didn’t and bringing him coffee.

When asked why didn’t he have his books published in Turkish, Altan replied he wasn’t so arrogant as not to publish his books in his own country but that not a single publishing house in Turkey asked him for it.

Among the books Altan wrote behind bars are “I Will Never See the World Again” and “Lady Life.” While “I Will Never See the World Again,” which has been translated into many languages and published in nearly 30 countries, was named one of the 20 best books of 2019 by Amazon in the US, “Lady Life” was named Best European novel by French magazine Transfuge.

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