Prominent Turkish novelist and newspaper editor Ahmet Altan, who was sentenced by a Turkish court to life in prison without the possibility of parole on February 16, 2018, has stated that “I am living what I wrote in a novel. Years ago as I was wandering in that unmarked, enigmatic and hazy territory where literature touches life, I had met my own destiny and failed to recognize it. I am now under arrest like my protagonist. I am waiting for the decision that will determine my future as he had. My life imitates my novel.”
The Turkish government has charged him with alleged involvement in a 2016 coup attempt against autocratic Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government. The İstanbul 26th High Criminal Court, conducting trials in the Silivri Prison Complex, on February 16 handed down aggravated life sentences to prominent journalist Ahmet Altan; his brother Mehmet Altan, an economics professor and columnist; well-known writer and journalist Nazlı Ilıcak; two former employees of the now-closed Zaman newspaper, brand marketing manager Yakup Şimşek and art director Fevzi Yazıcı; and former Police Academy lecturer Şükrü Tuğrul Özşengül.
Turkey is the biggest jailer of journalists in the world. The most recent figures documented by SCF show that 240 journalists and media workers were in jail as of February 22, 2018, most in pretrial detention. Of those in prison, 205 were under arrest pending trial, while only 35 journalists have been convicted and are serving their time. Detention warrants are outstanding for 140 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 more than 180 media outlets after the controversial coup attempt.
The Altans appeared on a television programme on July 14, 2016, the day before the failed coup. Prosecutors say they gave “subliminal messages” announcing the event. The journalists were also found guilty of alleged links to the Gülen movement.
Ahmet Altan wrote an essay for The New York Times about his court appearance and his imprisonment in notorious Silivri Prison on the outskirts of İstanbul.
The full text of the article is as follows:
They sit on a bench that is two metres high. They wear black robes with red collars. In a few hours they will decide my destiny. I look at them. They have loosened their ties out of boredom.
The chief judge, sitting in the middle, splays his right arm across the bench like a piece of wet laundry and fiddles with his fingers. He has a long, narrow face. His eyes are hidden under swollen half-closed eyelids. Every now and then he looks at his cellphone to read his messages.
When one of my co-defendants says he is about to undergo heart bypass surgery, the chief judge pulls the microphone toward him and speaks in a mechanical voice. “The hospital told us there were no circumstances preventing your stay in prison,” he says.
As defence lawyers talk about the most crucial matters, his mechanical voice orders: “You have two minutes. Wrap it up.” I remember what Elias Canetti said about such people: “Being safe, at peace and in splendour, and then to hear a person’s pleas while determined to turn a deaf ear … could anything be more vile than that?”
While the defendants and their lawyers speak, the chubby, skew-eyed judge to the chief’s right leans back in his chair and looks up at the ceiling. The lines of pleasure moving across his face suggest he is daydreaming. When he doesn’t seem to be daydreaming he leans his head on his hand and sleeps. The judge on the left busies himself with the computer in front of him, continuously reading something.
Around noon they tell us they will withdraw for deliberations. We are surrounded by gendarmes. They are wearing RoboCop gear with black plastrons and kneepads. A gendarme takes each of us by the arm and walks us between two rows of guards and down narrow stairs.
They put us in a tiled holding cell with iron bars. We are five men. The sixth defendant, a woman, is taken elsewhere because of her gender.
The Supreme Court had examined the evidence against us and ruled that “no one could be arrested based on such evidence.” This has made the journalists on trial with us optimistic. I am not.
We pace the holding cell nervously from one end to the other. The minutes go by, now faster, now slower, depending on the tempo of our conversations. When the minutes slow down, we feel wounds opening inside us. We hide this from one another. The minutes passed in a holding cell as you wait to hear whether you will be sentenced to life in prison are torture.
I encounter with some embarrassment flickers of hope and dreams beneath my pessimism. A man freezing inside cannot abandon hope and its warm glow. I daydream in the cell: I leave the prison, a deep breath, the first embrace, words of joy, the smell of happiness and a wide sky above.
As I dream, three men with ties loosened out of boredom deliberate my destiny. Perhaps they have already made their decision. I suddenly remember a passage from my novel “Like a Sword Wound,” which is set in the last days of the Ottoman Empire. One of my characters is arrested and he is in a room waiting for the verdict.
I wrote of him: “The gap between the moment that a person’s destiny changed and the moment the person realized this seemed to him to be the most tragic and frightening aspect of life. The future became clear, but the person continued to wait for another future with other expectations and dreams without realizing that the future had already been determined. The ignorance during that wait was horrible and to him was humanity’s greatest weakness.”
I remember those sentences and shiver. I am living what I wrote in a novel. Years ago as I was wandering in that unmarked, enigmatic and hazy territory where literature touches life, I had met my own destiny and failed to recognize it. I am now under arrest like my protagonist. I am waiting for the decision that will determine my future as he had. My life imitates my novel.
What else that I wrote will come true? I feel I am being dragged into a vortex where my fiction and my life are entangled, where what is real and what is written imitate each other. What kind of destiny had I chosen for my protagonist? What was his fate?
Suddenly, I hear gendarmes’ boots. “Come on,” says a voice, “the decision has been made.” At once, I remember: My protagonist was convicted — that was the destiny I chose for him.
I know I, too, will be convicted. Because that is what I wrote. The gendarmes take us upstairs. We enter the courtroom and sit down. The judges come in and don the black robes they had left on their chairs.
The chief judge, the one with eyes hidden beneath swollen eyelids, reads the decision: “Life without parole.”
We will spend the rest of our lives alone in a cell that is three meters long and three meters wide. We will be taken out to see the sunlight for one hour a day. We will never be pardoned and we will die in a prison cell.
That is the decision. I hold out my hands. They handcuff me. I will never see the world again. I will never see a sky unframed by the walls of a courtyard.
I am going to Hades. I walk into the darkness like a god who wrote his own destiny. My protagonist and I disappear into the darkness together.