#100PENMembers No.83: Ahmet Altan

Ahmet Altan is a Turkish novelist and journalist imprisoned for life without parole for his journalism and media work.

Altan is an award-winning writer and journalist in Turkey and is an outspoken critic of Turkey’s increasingly authoritarian government and particularly its treatment of Kurdish minorities within the country. His was one of PEN’s highest profile European cases in recent years. 

Altan’s original arrest in 2016 – with his brother Mehmet Altan, an economist and journalist – was on allegations of spreading ‘subliminal messages announcing a military coup.’ This was part of a crackdown on journalists following the bloodiest coup d’etat in the country’s history in which a section of the military attempted to seize control of several major cities to topple the government and unseat President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in July 2016. 

‘You can imprison me but you cannot keep me here because like all writers, I have magic. I can pass through your walls with ease.’

Altan, 2019

The brothers, alongside journalist Nazli Ilicak, were charged with attempting to abolish the Turkish Constitutional order, to overthrow the Turkish National Assembly and to overthrow the government, in relation to their appearance on television together the evening before the coup and on the basis of several articles and columns they wrote. The three men were convicted of the first charge in 2018. In 2019 Turkey’s Supreme Court overturned the verdict ruling that Mehmet be acquitted and Ahmet and Ilicak be retried on lesser charges of ‘aiding a terrorist organisation without being its member.’ The judge of that hearing refused them bail. Altan was then released on appeal but was sent back to jail just eight days later.

The case brought together PEN Centres from all over the world, who petitioned the Turkish government, attended trials as observers and supporters and raised the profile of the case all over the world. Altan is a member of Danish PEN, PEN Belgium/Francophone, PEN Belgium/Flanders, German PEN and Swedish PEN. As part of the international campaign to free him there was even an appeal made to Erdoğan himself by 38 Nobel Laureates including V.S. Naipaul, JM Coetzee, and Kazuo Ishiguro. These protests fell largely on deaf ears. 

Altan did not waste his time in jail: His latest book, the award-winning and aptly-titled, I Will Never See the World Again (2019) was written in prison and smuggled out among notes to lawyers. It was nominated for the Baillie Gifford Non-Fiction Prize 2019.

In it he writes: ‘You can imprison me but you cannot keep me here because like all writers, I have magic. I can pass through your walls with ease.’

Altan was finally freed on 14 April 2021 when Turkey’s Court of Cassation followed a judgement by the European Court of Human Rights, ordering Turkey to release Altan and to pay him €16,000 in damages for violating his human rights.

Upon his release last month PEN International President Jennifer Clement said: ‘As we rejoice at the sight of the novelist embracing his loved ones, we do not forget how months ago the Turkish authorities freed him, only to cruelly send him back to jail eight days later. This cannot happen again.’

Altan’s close friend and President of English PEN, Phillippe Sands said: ‘he is one of the most remarkable and inspiring human beings I have ever known. After four years of wrongful, illegal imprisonment – like living without clocks in endless time”, he told me when I visited him in Silivri Maximum Security Prison – he is home. I celebrate him and his freedom, and all those who made this happen.’

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