18 September 2017
On the eve of Ahmet Altan’s trial, the SoA and English PEN simultaneously published a specially commissioned article by Altan, translated by Yasemin Çongar, while scores of authors including Joanne Harris, Neil Gaiman, Philippe Sands QC and A L Kennedy have sent words of support.
Facing the prospect of a life sentence, Altan writes in The Writer’s Paradox:
I am writing these words from a prison cell … But wait. Before you start playing the drums of mercy for me listen to what I will tell you … They may have the power to imprison me but no one has the power to keep me in prison. I am a writer. I am neither where I am nor where I am not.
Arrest and charges
An acclaimed Turkish novelist, Altan is among the many writers and journalists to have been imprisoned in Turkey in the wake of the attempted coup that took place in July 2016. Ahmet was detained alongside his brother, the renowned economist and journalist Mehmet Altan, in a dawn raid in September 2016. Charges leaked to the press included ‘giving subliminal messages in favour of a coup on television’ the night before the failed insurgency.
On learning of the supposed charges, Ahmet commented:
Why are we confronted with this legal monstrosity? I surmise two reasons. One motive is to sow fear by showing that ‘we can silence any sort of criticism with all manner of absurdities.’ The second reason is to turn the July 15 coup investigation into some sort of nonsense; some sort of joke and thus divert it from its course. I do not know why they are so fearful of investigating the coup or why they are trying so hard to divert the investigation from its course. But this I know: distorting the law to serve these two purposes is itself a serious crime.
Ahmet and his brother were both charged with ‘membership of a terrorist organisation’ and ‘attempting to overthrow the government’.
More than six months later, in April 2017, it was reported that the prosecutor had demanded three aggravated life sentences for the brothers.
While Ahmet Altan is no stranger to the courts – he has been prosecuted many times over his career and remains on trial for ‘leaking state secrets’ – the conditions of his detention on this occasion are a cause of particular concern. Ahmet and his brother are reported to have very limited access to their lawyers and families, and no access to prison facilities such as the library and sports hall. Meanwhile they are banned from sending or receiving any letters or other written communications.
With English PEN, we believe the charges against Ahmet Altan and his brother Mehmet to be politically motivated and in violation of their right to freedom of expression, and is calling for their immediate and unconditional release.
Messages of support
Members of the SoA and PEN have been sending messages of support in advance of Ahmet’s trial. Here is a selection.
I hope that everyone who can read, whatever their politics, reads Ahmet Altan’s response to his imprisonment. Repressive regimes hope that if they lock up writers they are also locking up ideas. This will always fail. I hope that Ahmet and Mehmet get a fair trial (although that they are even going to trial is in itself a caricature of the law). I hope that all despots and dictators learn, sooner rather than later, that, as Ahmet tells us, writers are impossible to effectively imprison.
Writers exist to question, to challenge, sometimes even to ridicule – the status quo. For a government to imprison a writer for doing this is to attack, not only freedom of speech, but freedom of the imagination. It is a backward, oppressive and ultimately futile gesture that can only lead to greater and more damaging social unrest. I condemn it entirely, and hope that Ahmet Altan is freed as soon as possible.
Philippe Sands QC, author of East West Street:
Ahmet Altan, you are in prison and you are everywhere, and you are with us here today in Lviv, as we members of PEN gather to walk the line that connects then, today and tomorrow, acutely conscious of the vital need to assert our commitment to freedom of expression, the rule of law and all human rights associated with the protection of the word, whether written, spoken or imagined.
A L Kennedy:
To the leaders of Turkey, I urge both courage and compassion. To imprison free voices is to express fear and embrace ignorance. To Ahmet Altan I give thanks for his defence of my profession, his voice in the world, for his courage and for his creation of beauty even within a prison cell.
Sometimes it seems that one person can do nothing against the overwhelming power of opposition from seemingly more powerful groups … but one person, like you, Ahmet, multiplied across the writers of the world, can be the lever, the tipping point, without which a major movement cannot occur. Be of good cheer. You are held in our thoughts. I wish you well.
Turkey has made a long journey to become a modern secular state. It has borrowed from the West but has rightly maintained its own history and traditions. By jailing its critics, it is dishonouring its own proud history. Please do not jail this man. Any decent state should be able to tolerate and even encourage criticism. I urge the Turkish authorities to respect freedom of speech. It will be more respected in the world for that. Set them/him free and in doing so, you are freeing Turkey itself.
To support the release of Ahmet Altan visit his Speak Out campaign page on the English PEN website – www.englishpen.org/press/speak-out-ahmet-altan