#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.’

#100PENMembers No. 34: Orhan Pamuk

Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk is another of our PEN members who has both been defended by International PEN, and who has also become an active PEN member. 

Pamuk first came into contact with International PEN when Arthur Miller and Harold Pinter visited Turkey on behalf of PEN in 1985 to protest the ruthless suppression of free speech. A young Pamuk was despatched to meet them at the airport, and then became their guide to Istanbul. He introduced them to Istanbul’s persecuted publishers, writers and journalists. 

So began a long relationship to PEN. In 2005, he faced three years in prison for commenting during an interview with a Swiss newspaper that ‘thirty thousand Kurds and a million Armenians were killed in’ Turkey and ‘nobody but me dares to talk about it.’ When news of his Swiss interview reached Turkey, Pamuk received death threats and copies of his books were burned. 

International PEN, PEN America and English PEN all protested this attack on Pamuk’s free speech. PEN America pointedly identified Turkey’s contradictory stance on free speech: ‘PEN finds it extraordinary that a state has ratified both the United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the European Convention of Human Rights, both of which see freedom of expression as central, should have a Penal Code that includes a clause that is so clearly contrary to these very principles.’ Eventually charges were dropped in 2006, and it is widely believed that this was because the high profile case drew international attention to Turkey’s draconian record on free expression and its past human rights record, at a time when the country sought the approval of the international community, not least for its bid to join the European Union.

In 2006, Pamuk delivered the Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Lecture at the PEN World Voices Festival in New York, and his experience at the hands of the Turkish authorities was central to his talk. 

He also, however, spoke of Miller’s and Pinter’s visit to Turkey twenty-one years earlier. He described how their visit had changed his life, particularly in the way they had used their fame to bring the plight of Turkish writers to the ‘attention of the world’, and their desire to create a ‘consoling solidarity among writers’. But Pamuk also described his own conflicted relationship to this idea of solidarity. At that time he was on the margins of the political world, but while showing Miller and Pinter Istanbul and listening to the stories of oppressed and censored writers, he felt drawn into the political world through guilt and solidarity. At the same time, however, he felt a strong desire to stay aloof and simply write ‘beautiful novels’. 

In the subsequent conversation with Margaret Atwood at the 2006 Festival, she interestingly asked him about the dominant theme of shame and guilt – and their opposite – pride, in his writing. While shame-pride, as he suggested has been both a driving theme in his writing, it might also be seen as being important for his activism. Activism requires solidarity to, as he put it, the basic acknowledgement that freedom of thought and expression are, as he insists ‘universal human rights’, but also the ongoing defence of these rights that should not be softened by nationalism or sensitivities. 

Pamuk continues to use his own global status, as a Nobel prize winning novelist to protest free speech violations. In 2014 he joined other writers including Zadie Smith and Salman Rushdie, in writing a joint International and English PEN letter protesting Turkey’s blocking of access to Twitter as an ‘unacceptable violation of the right to freedom of speech.’ 

Turkey currently ranks number one in the world for free speech violations. PEN has compiled a list of 80 writers who have faced proceedings around free expression issues in Turkey. Read more about Turkey’s clampdown on free expression on English PEN’s website.

#100PENMembers No.20: Elif Shafak

Today we look at Turkey’s bestselling female author, Elif Shafak, who has been both the recipient of PEN support in her own fight for free expression and is a high profile and vocal PEN member in her own right. 

Photo: Zeynel Abidin (Dogan Kitap/Turkey)

In 2006, Shafak was prosecuted for violating Article 301 of Turkey’s criminal code in her novel The Bastard of Istanbul. A speech made by a character in the novel referring to the deaths of thousands of Armenians in 1915 as a genocide was accused of contravening Article 301 by ‘insulting Turkishness’. Shafak was taken to court and faced a potential three year jail sentence. 

Shafak argued that this assault on literature was both illogical – ‘if there is a thief in a novel’, she said, ‘it doesn’t make the novelist a thief’ – and represented a gear-change in Turkey’s suppression of writers. ‘Article 301 has been used by ultranationalists as a weapon to silence political voices in Turkey’, she pointed out. ‘But for the first time, they are trying to bring a novel into court. The way they are trying to penetrate the domain of art and literature is quite new, and quite disturbing.’

PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee campaigned for the charges against Shafak to be dropped. It was the beginning of her close links to the PEN organisation and active role as a global defender of freedom of expression. 

In 2014 she was a signatory to the open letter of protest against Vladimir Putin’s anti-gay and blasphemy laws before the Sochi Olympics.

In 2017 she formed part of a high-profile PEN International message of solidarity with imprisoned writers in Turkey. 

In 2019, however, she was herself again the target of the Turkish authorities, when she, along with other Turkish writers including Abdullah Şevki,was attacked for tackling difficult issues such as child abuse and sexual violence in her novels The Gaze (1999) and Three Daughters of Eve (2016). 

Shafak highlighted the terrible irony of these attacks. In a ‘country in which we have an escalating number of cases of sexual violence against both women and children’, she sated, and where the authorities ‘need to take urgent action to deal with sexual violence, instead they’re prosecuting writers. It’s the biggest tragedy. It has become like a witch-hunt.’

As a writer who has spent her life fighting, as she put it, for ‘ women’s rights, children’s rights, minority rights’, Shafak was insightful about how the authorities wanted to use these issues as an excuse to clamp down on literary freedoms: these attacks on Turkish writers will create a terrible chilling effect, with writers feeling that they ‘cannot write about these subjects any more.’

Resident in the UK for the past twelve years, Shafak continues to defend literary freedoms, and to be involved in events with English PEN, selecting her own panel for the ‘Extraordinary Times Call for Extraordinary Women’ series in 2019, featuring Patience Agbabu, Charlotte Higgins and Evie Wyld and appearing regularly at events.

In the PEN America World Voices podcast from last year ‘These Truths: Fighting Words’, Shafak and John Freeman discussed the importance of language in influencing how societies understand themselves socially and politically. 

More recently, Shafak has confronted a different set of free speech issues, by engaging with the problems created by the online dissemination of fake news and hate speech. In the PEN America World Voices podcast from last year ‘These Truths: Fighting Words’, Shafak and John Freeman addressed the importance of truthful language for politics and literature.

‘What we have seen in Turkey’, Shafak argued, ‘is the demise of language. That’s the first thing that changes—how words are being distorted.’ 

While writers believe in freedom of speech’, she stated, they also understand clearly the ‘power of words’, a power with the potential to have both positive and negative effects:  It is ‘very painful to see how words can be misused’, Shafak stated. 

Shafak continues to use her position in PEN and her growing public platform in national newspapers and media to raise issues around free speech and free expression. This public-facing work seeks to ignite a public dialogue around the need for writers to engage in order to reclaim or repurpose an increasingly violent and polarised public discourse, and to promote human rights, empathy and equality.

We interviewed Elif in 2017 about free expression and her work with PEN.