Prisoner of Conscience: Ahmet Altan
“I will never see the world again. I will never see a sky unframed by the walls of a courtyard,” writes Ahmet Altan, a journalist and best-selling novelist from Turkey, in his latest book, which he has written while in jail. Altan’s memoir is made up of a series of essays reflecting on his arrest and his experiences on the inside. The book, called I Will Never See the World Again, was put together thanks to notes the writer managed to smuggle to his lawyers.
Altan was arrested in September 2016, along with his brother, in the aftermath of the attempted coup in Turkey. They were accused of helping the network of Fethullah Gulen, an Islamic cleric, based in the United States. The Altan brothers were among the thousands of Turkish judges, politicians, university professors, and journalists who had been arrested following the failed coup, as the Turkish government launched a massive crackdown on alleged links to Gulen and his movement, whom the Turkish authorities claim to be the mastermind behind the coup.
Altan was on trial along other journalists, including Nazli Ilicak. In 2018 a Turkish court found the novelist guilty of ‘attempting to overthrow the Turkish constitutional order’ and sentenced him to life without parole. In the summer of 2019 Turkey's Supreme Court quashed the 2018 verdict.
On 4th November 2019, however, Altan was sentenced to ten-and-a-half years in prison for “aiding a terrorist group without being a member of it”. Ilicak received nearly nine years for the same charge. They were released pending appeal and subject to a travel ban. On 6th November 2019 the prosecutor appealed against the court decision to release Ahmet Altan on the grounds that he was a flight risk. A week later, Altan was detained again.
Altan has found himself in the center of controversy, according to a recent story by The Economist. At the time when he was an editor of the Taraf newspaper, the publication circulated a series of stories implicating the army of conspiracies against the government of the then Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in the late 2000s, theories that later turned out to be based on forged documents, supplied by Gulen supporters. However, even Altan’s toughest critics agree that the charges against him are trumped up.
Prison literature seems to be running in the family. His father, Cetin Altan, also a prominent writer, a journalist, and a politician, wrote one of his most popular novels while in jail. When police officers came to arrest him following the 1971 military coup, he offered them coffee. More than 25 years later, his son followed his father’s example and also treated the police to coffee when they came to detain him.
In a recent piece for the Guardian Ahmet Altan writes: “I am out of the Turkish prison but thousands of innocent people are still there. For over three years, I lived in a small cell with two other inmates who had committed no crime. Nobody listened to what they said. Despite pleading innocence again and again they were condemned to prison by judges not unlike those in A Farewell to Arms.”