Turkish court orders release of jailed journalist Mehmet Altan

An İstanbul Regional Court of Justice ruled on Wednesday for the release pending appeal of jailed journalist and prominent Turkish academic Mehmet Altan, who has been held in Silivri Prison in İstanbul for more than 22 months over his well-known liberal views and criticism of the government.

It was reported that Altan’s release is conditional on his not leaving the country and checking in with police once a week.

“It was an absurd situation and totally unlawful for him not to be released after the Constitutional Court decision,” a lawyer for Altan who declined to be named told Reuters.

“Another court, the appeals court, did the right thing and released him now. That’s what should have happened in the first place,” the lawyer said, adding that Altan was expected to be released from prison later on Wednesday.

Altan, along with fellow journalist Şahin Alpay, had twice won rulings by the Constitutional Court in favour of their release, and twice these rulings were overturned by a lower court in violation of the usual judicial hierarchy.

Mehmet Altan, who stands accused of links to a controversial coup attempt in Turkey on July 15, 2016 and alleged links to the Gülen movement, was sentenced to life in prison in February on charges of foreknowledge of the coup and the intention to act as part of its media arm, but the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) ruled on March 20 that he should be released.

The ECtHR ruled that the right to liberty and the right to freedom of expression of journalists Alpay and Altan had been violated. The decision stated that “the investigating authorities had been unable to demonstrate any factual basis” which indicated that both journalists had committed the offenses with which they were charged.

It also said both journalists’ freedom of expression rights, protected under Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), were grossly violated and that arresting individuals for expressing their opinion is a “severe measure.” The court also held that Turkey was to pay both Alpay and Altan 21,500 euros each in non-pecuniary damages.

The Turkish Constitutional Court on Jan. 11 had also ruled that Altan and Alpay must be released from jail. Although the Constitutional Court’s decisions are legally binding for lower courts, the İstanbul 26th High Criminal Court and the İstanbul 27th High Criminal Court had refused to release Altan earlier this year.

Alpay was released on March 17 following a second ruling by Turkey’s top court, while Altan was handed a life sentence on Feb. 16 on charges of alleged links to the Gülen movement together with his brother Ahmet Altan and veteran journalist Nazlı Ilıcak. They were given life sentences for “having links to terrorist groups” and “attempting to overthrow the government,” charges they have denied. The decision was widely criticised, including by the United States, which characterised the penalties as “criminalising journalism.”

Both Mehmet Altan and his elder brother, prominent novelist and journalist Ahmet Altan, were detained on Sept. 10, 2016 and accused of sending “subliminal” messages regarding the coup attempt on a TV show a day before the putsch. The prosecutor accused the suspects of ties to the Gülen movement and “committing crimes on behalf of a terrorist organization without membership in it.”

Altan’s lawyers had later appealed to the higher court, the İstanbul Regional Court of Justice, which ruled for his release pending appeal on Wednesday.

Turkey is ranked 157th among 180 countries in the 2018 World Press Freedom Index released by Reporters Without Borders (RSF). If Turkey falls two more places, it will make it to the list of countries on the blacklist, which have the poorest record in press freedom.

Turkey is the biggest jailer of journalists in the world. The most recent figures documented by SCF show that 244 journalists and media workers were in jail as of June 21, 2018, most in pretrial detention. Of those in prison 184 were under arrest pending trial while only 60 journalists have been convicted and are serving their time. Detention warrants are outstanding for 142 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 some 200 media outlets, including Kurdish news agencies and newspapers, after a coup attempt in Turkey on July 15, 2016.

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