Turkish author and journalist Ahmet Altan spends his 71st birthday in prison

Ahmet Altan

One of Turkey’s most famous novelists and journalists, Ahmet Altan has spent his 71st birthday in İstanbul’s notorious Silivri Prison, where most political prisoners are held, without a shred of credible evidence that he has committed any crime other than to express critical opinions.

Altan, born on March 2, 1950, was arrested in 2016 with his brother, economist and journalist 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.

An advocate for his country’s minorities and a strong voice of dissent in Turkey, Ahmet Altan’s arrest and conviction received widespread international criticism from Nobel laureates, human right organizations, authors and journalists around the world.

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,” Ahmet Altan wrote in “I Will Never See the World Again,” the 2018 book he authored in his cell and for which he was awarded the prestigious Geschwister-Scholl literary prize.

Ahmet Altan with his daughter during a prison visit.

The book, a collection of essays, has been translated into many languages and was named one of 2019’s 20 best books in the US by Amazon. In his book, Ahmet Altan writes about his personal experience in pre-trial detention, his encounters with police officers, prosecutors and judges, and his fellow inmates in the overcrowded cells in the prison.

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.

Ahmet 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 Ahmet 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.

Last week 16 journalists in Sweden including the heads of prominent journalism organizations called on President Erdoğan to take action for the release of Ahmet Altan.

He 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.”

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