Police first arrested Altan, a well-known novelist and journalist, 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.
Early on September 22, 2016, Istanbul's 10th Court of Penal Peace ordered Ahmet Altan released on probation and banned him from international travel. The same court ordered his brother Mehmet jailed, pending trial.
Prosecutors successfully appealed Ahmet Altan's release to the court that originally ordered his arrest, Istanbul's First Court of Penal Peace, which promptly issued a second arrest warrant. On September 22, after a few hours of freedom, Ahmet turned himself in to the prosecutor's office.
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.
Prosecutors accused 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 also asserted that Taraf was established to fulfil 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 is 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 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 is on trial in Istanbul 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; Yakup Şimşek, the newspaper's former advertising director; and Şükrü Tuğrul Özşengül, a former police academy instructor and TV commentator, according to reports. The trial began on July 19, 2017, according to reports.
The defendants were charged with “attempting to eliminate the Constitutional order,” “attempting to eliminate the government of Turkey or to prevent it from its duties partially or totally through violence and force,” “attempting to eliminate the parliament of Turkey or to prevent it from its duties partially or totally through violence and force,” and “aiding an armed terrorist organization without being a member,” according to the indictment.
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 October 2017, the journalists’ lawyer, Tobias Garnett, told CPJ via email that the European Court of Human Rights had accepted an application for the court to review the Altan brothers’ case. The Turkish government was due to present its defense to the court by December 5, 2017, according to reports.
On February 16, 2018, a court sentenced Altan, alongside Mehmet Altan, Ilıcak, Yazıcı, and Şimşek 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 will appeal.
In a separate case, on January 11, 2018, an Istanbul court fined Altan 7,000 Turkish lira (US$1,134) 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.
In response to a June 2018 poll of jailed journalists carried out by the P24 Independent Journalism Association, Altan said he is was in good health and had not been mistreated in prison.
The journalist is detained in Silivri Prison, Istanbul.