Ahmet Altan, a novelist and prominent Turkish journalist, has been detained nearly continuously since September 2016, as part of Turkey’s sweeping purge after the failed attempted coup that year. A court in 2019 sentenced Altan to 10 years and six months in prison, but ordered him released on time served, following a retrial. Eight days later, the journalist was taken back into custody following an appeal by the chief prosecutor. The verdict and his rearrest are under appeal.
Police first arrested Altan alongside his brother, the economics professor and columnist Mehmet Altan, on September 10, 2016, on suspicion they were followers of exiled preacher Fethullah Gülen. The Turkish government accuses Gülen of maintaining a terrorist organization and "parallel state structure" within Turkey – FETÖ/PDY, as the government calls it — and of staging a failed military coup on July 15, 2016.
According to the arrest order, a copy of which was published by news website T24, prosecutors considered his duty as the founding editor of the daily newspaper Taraf as evidence he was part of the Gülenist network. Altan left his post at Taraf in 2012. The government used emergency powers it gave itself after the coup attempt to shut down Taraf by decree on July 27, 2016.
On February 16, 2018, a court sentenced Altan, alongside Mehmet Altan; Nazlı Ilıcak, a former columnist for Özgür Düşünce and a former TV host for the shuttered broadcaster Can Erzincan TV; Fevzi Yazıcı, the former layout editor for the shuttered newspaper Zaman; and Yakup Şimşek, the newspaper’s former advertising director, to life in prison without parole for “attempting, through violence and force, to disrupt and replace the order as recognized by Turkey’s Constitution,” according to news reports.
On October 2, 2018, a local appeals court in Istanbul upheld the life sentences, according to reports. The journalists’ lawyers said they would appeal.
The Supreme Court of Appeals revoked the life sentence and returned the case to the local court for retrial on July 5, 2019, reports said.
At the retrial on November 4, 2019, a court convicted Ahmet Altan of “aiding a [terrorist] organization without being a member” and sentenced him to 10 years and six months in prison, BBC Turkey reported. The court ordered Ahmet Altan released on probation for time served, the report said. His co-accused Yazıcı was convicted of “being a member of a [terrorist] organization,” and sentenced to 11 years and three months in prison, and Ilıcak was convicted of “aiding a [terrorist] organization without being a member” and sentenced to nine years and eight months in prison, BBC Turkey reported. She was released on probation, for time served.
The Chief Prosecutor’s Office appealed the ruling on the grounds that Altan was a flight risk, and on November 12 he was taken back into custody, according to German public broadcaster Deutsche Welle.
The court acquitted Mehmet Altan at the same hearing, according to reports.
During his earlier trial, prosecutors accused Ahmet Altan of being in contact with alleged FETÖ members and of acting with them for the same aim under the group’s purported hierarchy. Prosecutors asserted that Taraf was established to fulfill the organization’s aims, and that the stories printed in the newspaper were "in line with orders and instructions from the group." They cited his reporting on alleged conspiracies that saw dozens of soldiers tried for plotting against the government as evidence that he participated in the takeover of the military by Gülen’s group.
"Taraf took an active role in the crime of attempting to topple the government…and made efforts to influence public opinion," prosecutors alleged, according to the order to jail Altan. They cited the government’s decree shuttering Taraf as evidence that the newspaper was tied to FETÖ.
Altan was also accused of criticizing Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on Can Erzincan TV, based on instructions from FETÖ, and of trying to influence public opinion to conform to the group’s aims. The government used emergency powers to shut down Can Erzincan by decree on July 27.
Prosecutors said they believed Altan knew about the attempted coup in advance because of his July 14 comments on Can Erzincan TV—where he appeared with his brother and journalist Nazlı Ilıcak—and two of Altan’s columns.
The state quoted a May 2016 column headlined "Absolute Fear," in which Altan wrote, "I assume we are watching the final act of a bad play. The cost is a little heavy… but it is good to know that it will end."
Prosecutors also cited a June 2016 column headlined, "Walking All Over," in which the journalist wrote, "When the walls of the palace are demolished by shells, people with guns will kill themselves in the corridors, and he will understand what civil war is, but he will be too late."
Ahmet Altan described his indictment as "judicial pornography." Mehmet Altan denied that he sent "subliminal messages" on TV favoring the coup before the attempted takeover took place. The media monitoring group P24 published the brothers’ full statements in their defense, translated into English.
In a separate case, on January 11, 2018, an Istanbul court fined Ahmet Altan 7,000 Turkish lira (US$1,239) for "insulting" President Erdoğan on a television program, reports said. On February 28, 2018, a court sentenced Altan to five years and 11 months in prison for "insulting the [Turkish] president," and "making propaganda for a [terrorist] organization," reports said. Several hearings related to other cases brought against Altan took place in 2019, one of his lawyers, Melike Polat, told CPJ in September 2019. Polat said that Altan attended multiple court hearings in 2019, all by teleconference by his choice.
- A local appeals court in 2019 upheld the conviction of “insulting the [Turkish] president” from March 2018, which led to violation of Altan’s parole and caused nine of his previously delayed trials to become active.
- On March 19, 2019, an Istanbul court found Altan guilty of “insulting the president” in a column titled “The New Ergenekon,” published on the P24 website in 2016, according to his lawyer. He was sentenced to 11 months and 20 days in prison, which was converted into a fine of 7,000 Turkish lira, according to reports.
- On April 24, 2019, a court acquitted Altan of an “insult” charge brought by former Chief of General Staff İlker Başbuğ, according to the journalist’s lawyer.
- During a May 21, 2019, hearing on another insult charge, the plaintiff, politician İlhan Cihaner, revoked his complaint, according to reports.
- On June 19, 2019, Altan testified in the trial of former Taraf correspondent Mehmet Baransu. Altan is not a defendant in this case, his lawyer said.
- A court on July 2, 2019 sentenced Altan to one year and six months in prison for “insulting the memory of Atatürk” in a column for Taraf. Figen Çalıkuşu, a lawyer for Altan, told CPJ in an email in early November 2020 that the Supreme Court of Appeals has yet to hear the appeal of this verdict.
Çalıkuşu told CPJ in an email in early November 2020 that the Supreme Court of Appeals would also hear a case in which Altan is charged with “attempting to influence a fair trial” and “violating the secrecy of an investigation” in a 2009 column in Taraf. The case, which is a retrial, is eligible to be heard by the Supreme Court of Appeals thanks to a late 2019 legal reform that allowed the original verdict to be appealed.
A court on September 17, 2019, acquitted Altan of “insult” due to the plaintiff, İlhan Cihaner, revoking his complaint on May 21.
Under Turkish law, a conviction is not finalized until the appeal has been heard.
In March 2019, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Turkish authorities had violated Şahin Alpay and Mehmet Altan’s rights during their arrests, Hürriyet Daily News reported. The court ordered Turkey to pay the journalists 21,500 euros (US$26,494) in damages, the report said.
When the Constitutional Court of Turkey reviewed the individual appeals of defendants in May 2019, it ruled that the constitutional rights of seven of the 10 defendants, including Altan, had not been violated during their arrests and incarcerations, CPJ documented at the time.
Figen Çalıkuşu, a lawyer for Altan, told CPJ by e-mail in September 2020 that in January her client had appealed his November 2019 rearrest to the Constitutional Court of Turkey. As of September 2020, the court is hearing the case, she said.
Çalıkuşu also told CPJ that her client had filed a separate appeal of the 10 year and six months prison sentence on December 9, 2019, to the Supreme Court of Appeals; as of September 2020, they are waiting for the court to hear the appeal.
The journalist is detained in Silivri Prison, Istanbul.
Çalıkuşu told CPJ that she saw Altan on August 7, 2020, and that he did not report any health problems. She said the journalist is allowed visits from family and lawyers, and has access to books and newspapers, although there is a list of banned books.
CPJ emailed a request for comment on Altan’s cases to the Turkish Ministry of Justice in October 2020, but did not receive a reply.