Hours after news that Deniz Yucel, German-Turkish correspondent for Die Welt, was released last Friday, the Istanbul 26th Heavy Penal Court concluded the fifth and final hearing of the coup attempt media trial, ruling to punish six imprisoned defendants — including journalists Nazli Ilicak (73) and Ahmet (67) and Mehmet (65) Altan — with life sentences for attempting to disrupt constitutional order.
The Altan brothers and Ilicak were in pre-trial detention since 2016. The Altans and Ilicak were initially arrested for “sending subliminal messages” through television appearances a day before the July coup. The same three were then accused of “making statements that are evocative of a coup”.
All were held at Silivri Prison, a high security state correctional institution in Istanbul. Established in 2008, the prison is considered the country’s most modern, and Europe’s largest, penal facility.
“The verdict was a dark moment for the rule of law and media freedom in Turkey. The case against them and the other defendants was politically motivated from the very start,” London-based Deputy Director of the Human Rights Watch (HRW) Europe and Central Asia Division, Benjamin Ward, told Al-Ahram Weekly in interview.
Ward added that the evidence presented largely consisted of their journalistic work, none of which espoused violence. He also added that, “The trial was marred by procedural problems, including removal of defence lawyers from the case simply for doing their jobs.”
Perhaps most egregious of all was the fact that the convictions followed a 11 January ruling by the Turkish Constitutional Court that the pre-trial detention of Mehmet Altan for over a year violated his rights and was not supported by any substantial evidence, ordering his immediate release. “The lower courts refused to carry out this decision, in violation of Article 153 of the Turkish Constitution, a move supported by the Turkish government,” Ward told the Weekly.
Last month, a Turkish court obliged Altan to pay 7,000 Turkish Liras as a fine for insulting President Erdogan, in writings the journalist considered criticism and not insult.
Washington-based Ahvalnews senior editor Ilhan Tanir says that the court decision was very political. “The Turkish government wanted to punish these dissident voices just because they were the loudest critical voices before the coup. I think that the Turkish government wanted to make a lesson with these heavy punishments for the rest. So, it is not a judicial decision but a political one.”
Ahmet Altan is one of Turkey’s most significant authors and journalists. “His case is important for many reasons, including the fact that he, Mehmet Altan and Nazli Ilicak are the first journalists to be convicted on politically motivated charges in connection with the attempted coup. We are deeply concerned that the verdict sets a terrible precedent that could lead to similar outcomes against the many other journalists in pre-trial detention and being tried on related charges. It is also evidence of the deepening crackdown against critical voices that has intensified since the attempted coup, which Human Rights Watch and others have documented,” Ward said.
Born in 1950, Mehmet Altan graduated from the Department of Economics of Istanbul University. At the age of 24 he became a journalist and worked as a reporter in several newspapers, becoming editor-in-chief of the liberal paper Taraf, which he also founded. He has written nine novels, including three bestsellers, winning several literary prizes plus awards for championing press freedom. One of his novels, entitled “Endgame,” has been published in English.
Altan’s father was a communist and leftist writer and for that reason he was jailed. One of the articles Mehmet wrote in Milliyet newspaper was entitled “AtaKurd,” meaning father of Kurds. In the article Ahmet asked Turks a simple question: “What would you do if someone does to you what you’ve done to Kurds or others?” In a radio interview with Georgina Godwin broadcast on the British Monocle24 internet station in 2016, Altan told his interviewer that he was fired dozens of times during his career for his writings. According to Altan in the same interview, he is facing 200 court cases. “My father had more cases; he had 300.” “We do not have democracy in Turkey. We have never had one day of democracy in our history. Turks do not know what democracy is. We know the word, we can describe it, but we did not experience it before. I am not shocked. I used to see my father passing by the court every morning before going to the newspaper,” Altan told Godwin.
In March 2010, Ahmet Altan wrote an article in Taraf entitled “Genocide” in which he called for recognition of the Armenian Genocide. In the article, Altan asked why the Armenian Genocide could be a subject of discussion in US, French and Swiss parliaments and not in Turkey. “If you cannot discuss your own problems, you deserve to be humiliated. If you keep silent in a matter that you find so important, you deserve to be humiliated. If you try to shut others up, you are humiliated even more. The whole world interprets the killing of so many Armenians — a number we cannot even estimate properly — as ‘genocide’,” Altan wrote.
The newspaper was described by Julien Assange as “the bravest newspaper in Turkey.”
Tanir thinks that Ahmet Altan made some mistakes in his journalistic career, like many journalists do. “Some of his editorial policies at Taraf newspaper, especially during the so-called Ergenekon case, were wrong-headed and many of the columnists and reporters he accommodated there turned out to have hurt Turkish democracy with their secret agenda.” However, Tanir thinks the public and the readers are the only ones who can punish a journalist, not political authorities.
“Altan got in trouble not because he made some mistakes as Taraf’s editor years ago, but due to his brave criticism of the Erdogan government after 2013, becoming one of the strongest critical voices against the Erdogan government… His troubles started here,” Tanir told the Weekly in interview.
From his prison, a few days before the court ruled to punish the Altan brothers and others with life imprisonment, Ahmet made a court defence statement entitled “The Justice of Stupidity”. His powerful words concluded as follows:
“History has taught us a certain fact. The despots who punished their opponents in unjust ways have been eventually punished in the same manner. He who sent people to the guillotine has ended up on the guillotine, he who imprisoned people has been sent to prison, the one who exiled others has been sent into exile himself.
“The types of punishment they imposed on others have been marked as a port of call in the maps of the despots’ own destiny. Now you want to kill me in prison. I have told you all the truth about this case and now this is what I say to you: I am prepared to die in prison. And I ask you: What about you? Are you prepared to die in prison, too? Because whatever punishment you will give us will be marked as a port of call on the map of your own destiny as well.”
The other three who were given life sentences are Yakup Simsek, former marketing manager for Zaman newspaper, Zaman layout designer Fevzi Yazici and police academy instructor Sukru Tugrul Ozsengul.
Since the failed coup attempt in July 2016, the crackdown on media and freedom of expression in Turkey has had a negative impact on Turkish citizens, too. “The criminal prosecution, jailing and punishment of journalists for doing their work undermines media freedom in the country. That matters to everyone in Turkey. As the European Court of Human Rights said (in Handyside v the UK), freedom of expression and media freedom ‘constitutes one of the essential foundations of a democratic society, one of the basic conditions for its progress and for the development of every man,’” Ward commented.
The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the United Nations (UN) made a joint statement the day the court ruling was issued. “We call on Turkey to reverse today’s decision and release the journalists. Imprisonment for journalism not only silences the journalists, but it also deprives Turkish citizens of their right to access pluralistic views on issues that can directly affect their lives,” said Harlem Désir, OSCE representative on freedom of the media, and David Kaye, UN special rapporteur on the right to freedom of opinion and expression, in the joint statement.
But will such statements and condemnations made by international human rights and press freedom organisations pave the way to a more democratic Turkey? Will President Erdogan and his government listen and react positively?
“They are making difference, I think,” said Tanir. “But at the end of the day Turkey has one strongman and with the state of emergency powers, he has absolute power. Checks and balances collapsed. Therefore, the international organisations do not have the influence on Turkey they used to have in the past. Human rights activists are demonised in Turkey and they have been vilified by the AKP media.”
Quoting a recent HRW World Report chapter on Turkey, Ward states that Turkey “is the world leader in jailing journalists and media workers”, with “around 150 behind bars at time of writing”. “Most newspapers and television channels lack independence and promote the government’s political line.’
Ward insists his organisation will continue to seek to engage with Turkish authorities on media freedom and other human rights issues. “It is important that Turkey’s international partners raise the issue of media freedom and the curbs on judicial independence, that together with overbroad definitions of terrorism make these politically motivated prosecutions possible. In doing so they should focus on the structural problems as well as problematic individual cases,” he said.
In the meantime, Turkish police arrested 786 people over the past week for protesting against “Operation Olive Branch” in the Kurdish-controlled town of Afrin in northern Syria.
“That’s pretty devastating,” said Tanir. “Today, the latest reports show there are over 100 people getting arrested every day for opposing the operation. Obviously, this makes it impossible for the public in Turkey to discuss the advantages or disadvantages of the operation. At the end, when you oppress people, critical voices that help the government to make healthy decisions, it leads to limited discussions and narrow-minded decisions,” Tanir told the Weekly.
Erdogan, like the Ottomans of the past, remains free of sanction as world governments remain silent.
“Every Western or Eastern country has its own national interests. Erdogan also, just like Russian President Putin, knows very well how to play Western countries against each other, and how to punish or award them according to their ‘behaviour’ by inviting them to some of the largest projects in Turkey or giving them big arms orders. Erdogan has been ruling Turkey for 15 years. He gained experience nobody has. Turkey is also on very valuable territory, and for many countries it’s hard for them to stay away from it. For Westerners to be more influential in the region, they want to be friends with Erdogan. Yet despite that Turkey is, perhaps, sitting on the most valuable real estate in the world, it is still much more isolated than many countries due to Erdogan’s policies,” Tanir told the Weekly.
* This story was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly