Imprisoned Turkish journalist released after nearly five years in prison

Celebrated Turkish writer Ahmet Altan was freed on April 14, after international pressure helped secure his release. He’d spent four years and seven months in prison. This episode by IDEAS producer Mary Lynk recently won an Amnesty International Canada Media Award for outstanding human rights reporting. It first aired in June 2020.

Novelist and journalist Ahmet Altan was imprisoned unjustly, rules European Court of Human Rights

'I hold out my hands and they handcuffed me. I will never see the world again,' writes Turkish journalist Ahmet Altan in his memoir. He wrote from his shared cell in Silivri Prison on bits of paper that his lawyer smuggled out. (Other Press )

UPDATE | On April 13, 2021, the European Court of Human Rights announced its judgment on journalist Ahmet Altan's case. Turkey's Court of Cassation ordered his release after nearly 4 years and 7 months in prison.

Ahmet Altan's second book, a novel entitled Lady Life, is being published in Europe. His third book — another novel — is set in the late days of the Ottoman Empire. It's the story of a young assassin, who becomes a political tool when he's asked to kill a general. He is later hanged at the age of 23. The novel is based on a true story.

On April 23, 2021, this episode by IDEAS' producer Mary Lynk won an Amnesty International Canada Award for outstanding human rights reporting. 

* Originally published on June 18, 2020.

Lawyers and supporters of celebrated Turkish novelist and journalist Ahmet Altan had been calling for his release from prison for nearly five years, where he'd been incarcerated on charges they say are empty. Their call was made all the more urgent, they say, when COVID-19 was sweeping through the facility.

The 71-year-old former editor-in-chief of the liberal Taraf daily newspaper, who has had been held in a Turkish prison since 2016, is was one of thousands of writers, journalists, academics, lawyers and other political prisoners jailed under Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's increasingly authoritarian rule.

In July 2016, Ahmet Altan and his brother, Mehmet, a prominent economist and journalist, were interviewed together on a television program the day before an attempted coup against President Erdogan.

Turkish prosecutors later accused them of knowing in advance about the coup and sending "subliminal" messages in support of it during the interview. Supporters of the Altan brothers maintained the charges were false and farcical.

They were sentenced to life in prison, but Mehmet was released 21 months later.

Turkish journalist Mehmet Altan with his wife Umit Altan, June 27, 2018 outside the Silivri prison near Istanbul after he was freed following almost two years in jail. He was arrested in September 2016 with his brother, Ahmet, for alleged links to the group blamed for the 2016 failed coup. (Ibrahim Mase/AFP via Getty Images)

"I have spoken to a lot of different people across the political spectrum, and they all recognized that the charges which have been laid against him are trumped up," said author and international human rights lawyer Philippe Sands, who represents Altan.

"They were intended to get him off the streets, and that's what they've achieved. They are, what we would say in London, just a load of bollocks."

Demands for Altan's release

Outraged by the charges, 35 Nobel Laureates signed a petition in 2018 demanding Altan's release from prison.

Sands took Altan's case before the European Court of Human Rights. There was a backlog of cases, he said, but he believed that Altan's case would eventually be reviewed favourably — which it was.

"The European Court of Human Rights [was] deluged with cases from Turkey," Sands said. "I mean, literally tens of thousands of cases, because so many people are being held in dire circumstances, and it's difficult for them to prioritize one or one or more people." 

Somebody who wrote some articles and has no guilt is being kept somewhere against the law, completely illegally.- Mehmet Altan, Ahmet's brother

Yasemin Conjar, a long-time friend of Altan's, said Turkish authorities should have released him months prior when the pandemic started.

"They haven't, and the Turkish parliament passed a new law, a partial amnesty, which is discriminating against political prisoners, including Ahmet. So they kept all the political prisoners in prison, but let mobsters go, basically." 

Altan did get out briefly in November 2019, around the time his memoir I Will Never See The World Again was released in North America. But he was quickly re-arrested and thrown back into prison a week later.

Around the time Ahmet Altan's memoir was published, the Turkish journalist was released from prison, November 4, 2019. Here he walks with his daughter Sanem Altan leaving the facility. But eight days later, Altan was detained again by police after a ruling reversed his release. (Bulent Kilic/AFP via Getty Images)

Prison memoir smuggled out

Conjar, who worked with Altan at Taraf, encouraged him to write the prison memoir.

'I am being convicted just like the hero of my novel. I wrote my own future, ' Ahmet Altan writes in his memoir. (Other Press)

On a small plastic table, in a cell only four metres long and shared with two others, he would write on bits of paper, which were smuggled out by his lawyer. 

Altan ended up writing 19 essays that would appear in the memoir after making their way — one letter at a time — to Conjar, who now heads up a literary house and runs P24, a non-profit platform for independent journalism in Turkey. 

"So he would write me a personal letter. And then with that letter, an essay would come. And I would type them out…. I would just send him a note saying, 'This is great…write the next one.' Because I knew as long as he could write that he would be OK." 

Conjar also translated the memoir from Turkish into English.

Despite his dire situation, the memoir has been described by critics as uplifting and inspiring, going beyond the injustices of authoritarianism to what it means to be human. A New York Times reviewer said there is "not a smidgen of self-pity" in the book.

The book has been published in 17 countries and in several languages, but not in Turkish, as Altan fears for the safety of his publisher.   

A family of dissidents 

The Altan family has a history of political resistance. Ahmet's great grandfather was sentenced to death for helping rebels during the Turkish War of Independence. He escaped being hanged at the last moment.

Ahmet's father, Cetin Altan, a famous writer and left-wing politician, was also arrested at dawn after a knock on the door from police 45 years earlier.

Turkish general and statesman Mustafa Kemal Ataturk reviewing his troops during the War of Independence (May 1919 – 24 July 1923). (General Photographic Agency/Getty Images)

Reflecting on Altan's incarceration, his brother Mehmet Altan said he's angry. 

"Somebody who wrote some articles and has no guilt [was] being kept somewhere against the law, completely illegally," he said through a translator.

"And of course, if this is happening… you can't feel anything other than revulsion and anger." 

Altan's sentence was eventually reduced from life imprisonment to 10-and-a-half years in jail. 

"I think the way to support him and to help him remain hopeful is to read him," said Conjar. "Because he knows when people read them, he knows, he hears, he feels that. And that makes him very, very strong."

"Ahmet is larger than life… That would be the first sentence to describe him," she said. "You see, he made this decision, that he's not going to let them steal his life from them."   

His lawyer and friend Phillippe Sands echoes that sentiment.

"He's a lifeforce. I mean, he's a very powerful character. They won't break him."

** Written by Mary Lynk and Brandie Weikle. Produced by Mary Lynk.

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