You would be forgiven for thinking it was the plot of a classic Franz Kafka story. Ahmet Hüsrev Altan, a Turkish journalist, former editor (of Taraf) and novelist, is woken from sleep at 05.42 am by his doorbell ringing.
In the wake of a failed military coup d’état on July 15, 2016, Altan immediately knows it is the police who have come to arrest him. They have arrived in the early hours of September 10, 2016, a Saturday, and are unnecessarily mob-handed. He is prepared, however, quickly dresses and grabs an overnight bag for prison before opening the door to his fate.
The journalist is then taken away by six police officers wearing vests stamped ‘TEM’, the insignia of the ‘counterterrorist unit’.
Arrested along with his brother Mehmet Altan, an economics professor, both are accused of being followers of Fethullah Gülen, an exiled Turkish dissident who has been named as the mastermind behind the failed coup. More bizarrely, Ahmet Altan is also charged with sending subliminal messages to the plotters and leaders of the uprising during a television interview.
On February 16, 2018, Ahmet Altan stands before a Turkish court and is handed down a sentence of life in jail without parole. An extraordinary punishment for what can only be described as questionable allegations.
From his prison cell and through an intermediary by email Altan gives his thoughts on the conviction:
“He thinks this ruling was a judicial scandal. The decision showed him the sorry state of those who want to keep him in prison, and he says he pities them.”
To understand the process that led to life imprisonment for Ahmet Altan we have to return to Friday, July15, 2016, when a section of the Turkish armed forces attempt to overthrow President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development AK Parti government.
Tanks rumble through the streets of Ankara and Istanbul, violence flares in several other Turkish cities, helicopters and F1-16 jet fighters bomb parliament, the presidential residence and the headquarters of National Intelligence Organisation (MIT). The attempted coup, however, ends in failure when loyalist troops, the police force and ordinary citizens fight back against the rebels. Both sides suffering significant losses, that leaves 251 people dead and 2500 injured casualties.
Retribution is swift and brutal. Within a week, on July 21, 2016, Erdogan and his government declare a ‘state of emergency’ and start to round up thousands of people ‘thought’ to be connected to the plot.
Some speculate that this huge and merciless crackdown is the perfect excuse for President Erdogan to secure his own position and rid himself of any opposition to his rule, effectively creating for himself a dictatorship.
Many of the arrested are sacked or suspended from their jobs or held in jail. The list is extensive: military officials, police officers, pilots, civil servants, academics and teachers are all taken into custody. Media outlets suspected of collaboration with Fethullah Gülen (exiled in the USA since 1999) are either closed down or taken over by the Turkish authorities.
In total 100,000 people are arrested while 50,000 are jailed, among them Ahmet Altan, and many fellow journalists including Abdullah Kiliç of Meydan (closed down during the purges) and Bayram Kaya of Yeni Hayat (also closed down). All of the men are being held at Sivilri prison, Istanbul.
Amazingly, Altan has, since sentencing, written a book in jail: ‘I Will Never See The World Again’, and has had it smuggled out of the prison to his agent Clementina Liuzzi. It is translated by Yasemin Çongar and published by Granta.
The book has a foreword by Anglo-French lawyer Philippe Sands, a specialist in international law, and it has its supporters.
“I think it important to stress,” Bashabi Fraser, Professor of English and Creative Writing at Napier University, Edinburgh, told me. “The fact that the book has nothing against the regime – no indictment, no propaganda, and most importantly, no bitterness. Its metaphoric nature, its deep humanity, its compassion and the beauty of the prose and style are what makes it so moving and readable.”
Ms Fraser is also an executive committee member of Scottish PEN, part of an international organisation formed to defend the freedom of writers and readers.
Altan also enjoys the support of many leading writers, some of whom are Booker and Nobel prize winners, and include Margaret Attwood, Neil Gaiman, Arundhati Roy, Ian McEwan and Salman Rushdie.
But he knows of the support he is receiving and again through an intermediary I was informed by email: “Ahmet is doing very well. He finished writing a new novel. He is reading and revising it and nothing else seems to be of importance to him at the moment. The fact that his books are being published is Ahmet’s greatest strength at the moment. Knowing that people around the world read his words gives him a powerful sense of solidarity and joy. Ahmet says that he will be able to remain untouchable in that prison as long as people keep reading his books.”
The Ankara-born journalist was handed a life sentence for writing a few articles critical of the Turkish regime, and supposedly transmitting subliminal messages (via television interview) to the leaders of an alleged Gülenist plot to unseat Erdogan and his government. Together, it seems pretty weak evidence to use to jail someone for good!
For the former editor-in-chief of Turkish daily newspaper Taraf this is cold comfort, he is, after-all – and unless something changes – jailed for the rest of his natural life.
Though he is given hope that so many in the outside world beyond the prison walls care and are supporting him. Again through an intermediary and by email: “Ahmet feels grateful to all his readers and supporters, and he says he feels protected by them despite the difficult circumstances of incarceration.”
In the meantime his Kafkaesque nightmare continues and he remains locked up in Sivilri prison Istanbul, working on his latest novel.