Turkey Focus 2013: Ahmet Altan

Ahmet Altan is an acclaimed Turkish novelist, essayist and journalist. He has written nine novels in a career spanning 30 years, and from November 2007 until December 2012 he was editor-in-chief of liberal Turkish daily newspaper Taraf.

In February 2012, Altan was charged with defamation under Article 125 of the Turkish Penal Code for a 19 January 2012 editorial piece printed in Taraf entitled ‘Morality and Enabling the State’**. In the piece, Altan confronted Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan about his defence of and refusal to apologise for the Uludere Massacre, during which 34 Kurds crossing the border from Iraq to Turkey lost their lives as a result of an airstrike by Turkish warplanes.

The case was brought against Altan by Prime Minister Erdoğan’s lawyers on the grounds that he had ‘attacked [Erdoğan’s] honour, reputation and respectability’, with a heavier sentence sought because Altan had allegedly committed the offence ‘against a public official for carrying out his duty’.

On 18 July 2013, Altan was found guilty of defamation by the Istanbul 10th Court of First Instance, and was ordered to pay a €2800 punitive fine, commuted from an 11-month prison sentence. Altan’s lawyer, Veysel Ok, condemned the verdict for infringing on his client’s right to freedom of expression, pointing to the landmark European Court of Human Rights ruling in Tuşalp v Turkey (a defamation case concluded in February 2012, involving Turkish journalist Erbil Tuşalp and Prime Minister Erdoğan), which emphasised the importance of allowing heavy criticism of high-ranking public officials as a necessary element of democratic society.

Turkish defamation cases invoke both criminal and civil law, resulting in one trial for compensatory damages and another trial for punitive fines/imprisonment. The ruling in the criminal case against Altan came eight months after he lost the civil suit, and was ordered to pay around €6000 in compensation to Erdoğan.

On 23 July 2013, Altan and his lawyer submitted a preliminary appeal against the ruling. They have indicated that they are willing to take the case all the way to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg if necessary.

This latest verdict is the most recent in a long series of cases brought against Altan for the content of his written work. Previously, he was acquitted of criminal defamation for his January 2011 article, ‘Empty Bullying and Erdoğan’, although he did lose the civil suit to Erdoğan in that instance. Over the last ten years, Altan has constantly been in and out of the courts, having been variously acquitted of defaming the Turkish military, defaming Prime Minister Erdoğan and insulting the Turkish people (the latter under Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code). A longstanding liberal voice, Altan has been an outspoken critic of Turkey’s Kurdish policy in the past, and has grown increasingly critical of Erdoğan in recent years as early progress regarding democratisation has lost momentum.

English PEN is concerned by the continuing judicial harassment of Turkish writer Ahmet Altan and calls for the case against him to be dropped immediately and unconditionally. 

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** The following excerpts are from Ahmet Altan’s piece, ‘Morality and Enabling the State’, as selected by the Istanbul Public Prosecutor in the indictment:

If you set about to aid and abet the state… Then you’ll start with the threats, the lies, the deflections, the accusations… either the state you run trapped you… or you knowingly had [the people crossing the border in Uludere] killed. Which one is it? We thought that you were “trapped”, but by sticking up for the bombers, by hiding the truth from the public, by deflecting the issue, you illustrated that you “were not trapped”. In that case, account for the children who were killed. Instead of throwing a tantrum about how, “the state did not bomb its own people”, why don’t you explain how the state did bomb its own people… a bunch of empty words… meaningless ranting and raving. Someone who swallows this state’s poison will talk to their people like this; will try to fear monger, to rain down threats, to engage in smears… Generals in civilian clothing are in front of us now. You don’t tell us how, why and on whose orders you had those 35 children, whose presence the border post was aware of, killed; you don’t explain why you didn’t consult that border post that night… Why did you kill these children? Explain this to us. Why haven’t you apologised even once? With your careless, unconcerned, state-enabling demeanour, you have victimised the entire Kurdish population; not just with those bombs, but with that frightening carelessness of yours, you have divided this country in a way absolutely no-one has been able to… you talked that way because you saw soldiers as being superior to civilians, Turks as being superior to Kurds; it’s because people like you have seen things this way for years that this country’s pains never cease; shame on you, look at what has become of you, [once] you were the people’s hero, [now] you’ve become the state’s toy. And now you’ve got up, shamelessly taking shots at our paper; apparently you know who is behind our paper, their ambitions and intentions… why don’t you say what you mean like an honest man without beating around the bush? You can’t because you’re lying. You’re engaging in smears like the memorandum-issuing generals of 28 February [1997], and making us all question your morality too. Was the Kiosk[1] worth this vileness? Was it worth it to go and drink the state’s poison? Look, you too have been poisoned in the end.


[1] In Turkey and Iran, a Kiosk is a pavilion or a summerhouse. The Presidential residence is called the Çankaya Köşk/Kiosk, which is probably what Altan is referring to here

About Cat Lucas

Cat Lucas is English PEN's Writers at Risk Programme Manager

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