Ahmet Altan, a renowned novelist and former editor-in-chief of the now-defunct Taraf newspaper, was first arrested on 10 September 2016 along with his brother, Mehmet Altan, over alleged links with a network led by exiled cleric Fethullah Gülen, which the government accuses of maintaining a terrorist organization – “the Fetullahist Terrorist Organization (FETÖ/PDY)” — and of staging a failed coup attempt on 15 July 2016.
Altan and his brother were arrested for giving “subliminal messages” in support of the coup attempt during a television program they attended on the shuttered Can Erzincan TV on the night of 14 July 2016. This accusation was later dropped following an international backlash. On 21 September, they were questioned by the prosecutor of the case. According to minutes of the interview, Altan was charged with “attempting to overthrow the government,” “being a member of an armed terrorist organization” and “propaganda for a terrorist organization.”
On 22 September, the Istanbul 10th Criminal Judgeship of Peace ordered Altan be released on judicial control and banned him from traveling abroad. His brother Mehmet Altan was jailed pending trial. But on 23 September, Altan was rearrested less than 24 hours later, following an objection from the prosecutor. According to the arrest decision reviewed by P24, the Taraf newspaper was founded to implement FETÖ’s goals and that its coverage of a series of alleged conspiracies such as Balyoz and Ergenekon cases was an attempt to shape the public opinion in line with instructions. It also said Altan’s comments during the Can Erzincan TV program on 14 July 2016 indicated that he had known about the coup attempt beforehand and cited his columns as further evidence that he had attempted to “overthrow the government” and is a “member of FETÖ/PDY.”
Altan’s lawyers filed an individual application with the Constitutional Court on behalf of him on 8 November 2016. More than two months later, the lawyers took his case to the European Court of Human Rights on 12 January 2017, citing lack of action from the Turkish Constitutional Court.
The European Court of Human Rights responded in February that although it does not give the application a formal priority treatment under its Rule 41, it will take it up as soon as possible.
In June 2017, the Strasbourg court further said that it had asked the Turkish government to present its defense on applications regarding the ongoing pre-trial detention of seven Turkish journalists, namely Ahmet and Mehmet Altan, Nazlı Ilıcak, Murat Aksoy, Atilla Taş, Şahin Alpay and Ali Bulaç. In a letter to the Altan brothers’ lawyers, the court said that it gave the Turkish government until 4 October 2017 to respond to a set of questions about the pre-trial detention of the journalists.
Ahmet Altan has been indicted along with 16 other people, including his brother, Mehmet Altan, and Nazlı Ilıcak. State news agency Anadolu announced on 15 June 2017 that an indictment against the 17 people has been accepted by Istanbul 26th High Criminal Court.
The indictment sought three aggravated life sentences for Altan and his brother Mehmet Altan, as well as Nazlı Ilıcak, who co-hosted the program on Can Erzincan TV on the night of 14 July 2016, on charges of “attempting to overthrow the constitutional order, Parliament, and the government.” They also face an additional prison term of up to 15 years for “aiding a terrorist organization without being members.”
The full text of the indictment against Altan and other defendants — in Turkish — can be accessed here.
The first hearing of Altan’s trial was held on 19-23 June at Istanbul 26th High Criminal Court, at the end of which the judges ruled to keep him and five other imprisoned defendants in jail. The next hearing of the trial was held on 19 September 2017.
Altan’s defense statement, which he presented to the court from prison via video conferencing system, can be read here.
On 19 September, Altan attended the second hearing of his trial again via video conferencing system from Silivri Prison, where he was held.
The full text of Altan’s statement to the court can be read here.
The court again ruled to keep all imprisoned defendants, including Altan, behind bars at the end of the second hearing, citing the gravity of the charges, length of the prison term that the charges carry and the possibility that the defendants might flee.
The third hearing in the trial was held on 13 November. At the end of the trial, where all four of the Altan brothers’ lawyers were expelled from the courtroom for trying to speak on procedural issues, the court again decided to keep all imprisoned defendants behind bars. A summary of the hearing can be read here.
The fourth hearing was held on 11 December 2017, at the 26th High Criminal Court of Istanbul. The prosecutor submitted his final opinion in the hearing, asking for an aggravated life sentence for six of the suspects on charges of “attempting to overthrow the Constitutional order,” under Article 309/1 of the Turkish Penal Code (TCK). The court also ruled, in its interim decision, to keep all of the imprisoned suspects in prison and adjourned the session until February.
The final hearing in the case was held on 12-16 February 2018. The first day of the five-day hearing took place in Çağlayan Courthouse in downtown Istanbul but the rest of the trial was moved to Silivri at the decision of the presiding judge.
Altan presented his final defense statement to the court on the second day of the hearing. Altan’s statement was interrupted several times by the chief judge, who warned him concerning the contents of his statement. The judge warned Altan that his microphone would be switched off in case he “continued to divert from the prosecutor’s final opinion” and went on to “criticize the president.”
In the face of the warning by the chief judge, Altan had to skip two pages towards the end of his defense statement.
The full text of the defense statement presented to the court by Altan can be read here.
The court announced its verdict at the end of the five-day hearing on 16 February, sentencing Altan and five other imprisoned defendants to aggravated life in prison for “attempting to overthrow the constitutional order.”
The appeal process
After the verdict was taken to appeal, the 2nd Criminal Chamber of the Istanbul Regional Court of Justice, which acts as an appellate court, formally accepted the case on 27 June 2018. With that decision, the court ruled to release Mehmet Altan based on an earlier Constitutional Court ruling but decided to keep the rest of the defendants, including Ahmet Altan, in jail.
The first appeal hearing took take place on 21 September 2018, when all six defendants in the case made their defense statements before the 2nd Criminal Chamber of the Istanbul Regional Court of Justice.
After the defense statements, the prosecutor submitted his final opinion of the case, insisting on the original charge and requesting that the defendants be given aggravated life sentences for “attempting to overthrow the constitutional order.” Issuing an interim ruling at the end of the hearing, the appellate court rejected requests from defense lawyers for the release of the five imprisoned defendants and adjourned the trial until 2 October 2018 to allow time for the defendants and their lawyers to prepare their final defense statements.
During the final hearing on 2 October, all six defendants made their final defense statements in response to the prosecutor’s final opinion.
Ahmet Altan was the last defendant to address the court during the hearing.
“This ugly vaudeville of a trial that began with ‘subliminal messages’ and reached its peak with the prosecutor’s latest accusation of ‘intangible threat’ has shown us the truth we have been facing,” Altan said, adding: “Firstly, that a certain someone is hellbent on our continued imprisonment. Secondly, that it is impossible to keep us in prison through lawful methods. And, that some members of the judiciary can even risk their reputation, or committing crime due to the desperation that is caused by the conflict between the desire to keep us in jail at all costs and the reality of the rule of law.”
“There is not even one substantial evidence in this case file,” Altan continued, adding: “That is why [the prosecution] has been coming up with absurdities like ‘subliminal message,’ ‘immaterial force’ and ‘intangible threat’.”
“I do not mind spending my life in a prison cell because I feel as though I have been wandering among the pages of a comic book. Nothing seems be of gravity or scary,” Altan said. “If you try and reach a guilty verdict based on accusations such as ‘subliminal,’ ‘immaterial force’ or ‘intangible threat’ that verdict loses all its gravity.”
“Can an intangible threat be supported with substantial evidence?” Altan asked, adding that the prosecutor’s final opinion was also ignoring the Constitutional Court’s judgment in favor of Mehmet Altan by way of alleging crime without concrete evidence.
Announcing its verdict at the end of the hearing, the 2nd Criminal Chamber of the Istanbul Regional Court of Justice rejected the appeals against the aggravated life sentences given in February by the trial court, and ruled for the continuation of detention of all imprisoned defendants in the case.
The case is now headed for the Supreme Court of Appeals, which is the second phase in the appeal process.
Supreme Court of Appeals ruling
On 8 January 2019, the Office of the General Prosecutor of the Supreme Court of Appeals requested the reversal of the appellate court’s verdict in the case.
The Office of the General Prosecutor said in their judicial opinion submitted to the 16th Criminal Chamber of the Supreme Court of Appeals that Ahmet Altan, Mehmet Altan and Nazlı Ilıcak should have been charged with “aiding a terrorist organization without being its member” instead of the much serious charge of “attempting to overthrow the constitutional order.”
The judicial opinion asserted that “force and violence” were the essential elements of the charge of “attempting to overthrow the constitutional order” as described in TCK 309, adding that the concepts of “immaterial force” or “threat” were unacceptable in proving this charge in respect of the principle of legality.
In the event the Chamber rules in line with the Office of the General Prosecutor’s judicial opinion, the case file against the Altan brothers and Ilıcak will return to the trial court for retrial, this time on the charge of “aiding a terrorist group.”
On 16 January 2019, Altan’s lawyer Figen Çalıkuşu filed a petition with the 16th Criminal Chamber of the Supreme Court of Appeals in response to the general prosecutor’s judicial opinion.
Çalıkuşu asserted in her petition that the new accusation sought for Altan in the judicial opinion, “aiding a terrorist organization without being its member,” was unacceptable and that her client should be acquitted and released.
On 5 July 2019, the 16th Criminal Chamber of the Supreme Court of Appeals overturned the verdict rendered by the trial court that sentenced Ahmet Altan, Mehmet Altan, Nazlı Ilıcak and three of their co-defendants to aggravated life imprisonment on the charge of “Attempting to overthrow the constitutional order.”
The Chamber ruled that Mehmet Altan should be acquitted while Ahmet Altan and Nazlı Ilıcak should face the lesser charge of “aiding a terrorist organization without being its member.”
The 26th High Criminal Court of Istanbul, issuing its decision for retrial on 18 July 2019, said it would take up the case on 8 October 2019.
The court rejected the requests for Ahmet Altan, Nazlı Ilıcak and their three co-defendants, who have all been in pre-trial detention for more than three years as part of this case, to be released pending trial.
The retrial of the “coup” case against Ahmet Altan, his brother, Mehmet Altan, and their four co-defendants got under way on 8 October 2019 at the 26th High Criminal Court of Istanbul.
At the end of the hearing, the court decided to abide by the Supreme Court of Appeals ruling and to keep the five imprisoned defendants in the case in pre-trial detention. The trial adjourned until 4 November 2019.
Verdict and release
The second hearing of the retrial of Altans case took place on 4 November 2019 at the 26th High Criminal Court of Istanbul. Announcing its verdict at the end of the hearing, the court convicted both Ahmet Altan and Nazlı Ilıcak of “aiding a terrorist organization without being its member” and ruled to release both, taking into consideration the time they spent in pre-trial detention. The court handed down Ahmet Altan a prison sentence of 10 years and 6 months.
Ruling in line with the prosecutor’s final opinion, the court acquitted Mehmet Altan and lifted the judicial control measures imposed on him. The court convicted the three remaining defendants in the case — Fevzi Yazıcı, Yakup Şimşek and Şükrü Tuğrul Özşengül — of “membership in a terrorist group” and ruled for the continuation of their detention.
Altan was released from the Silivri Prison later on 4 November 2019 as per the court’s ruling after spending 1,138 days behind bars as part of this case.
Prosecutor’s objection and re-arrest
The Istanbul Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office objected to Altan’s release on 6 November 2019. The trial court rejected the objection, which was then reviewed by the 27th High Criminal Court of Istanbul, the next court of first instance, which is authorized to review decisions by the 26th High Criminal Court. Accepting the prosecutor’s objection, the 27th High Criminal Court ruled on 12 November 2019 for Altan’s re-arrest on the grounds that “the judicial control measures imposed on him” remained “insufficient considering flight risk … the intensity of his actions, the duration of the prison sentence he was given, the time he spent in detention on remand … as well as his conduct following his release.” The court refused to notify Altan’s lawyer Çalıkuşu of the ruling. News of the ruling and the arrest warrant against Altan was made public by the pro-government Sabah daily first.
Altan was re-arrested at around 9 p.m. on 12 November at his Istanbul home, several hours after the 27th High Criminal Court issued a warrant for Altan as it revoked the 26th High Criminal Court’s order for his release. He was taken to the Istanbul Police Department, where he remained in custody until the next day. On 13 November, Altan appeared before the 27th High Criminal Court, where he was informed about the decision for his re-arrest.
Altan was sent back to the Silivri Prison on 13 November 2019, only eight days after his release pending appeal.
Constitutional Court application
Altan’s lawyers filed an individual application with the Constitutional Court on behalf of him on 8 November 2016. Two months later, on 12 January 2017, the lawyers took his case to the European Court of Human Rights, citing lack of action from the Constitutional Court.
On 4 July 2018, the Constitutional Court’s First Section reviewed Altan’s individual application concerning admissibility and merits. The section then referred Altan’s application to the Plenary.
On 26 April 2019, the Constitutional Court announced that its Plenary would finally take up Altan’s individual application, along with those filed on behalf of nine other journalists, including his co-defendant Nazlı Ilıcak, on 2 May 2019.
Rendering its judgment on 3 May, the Plenary rejected Altan’s application, finding no rights violations in his file. The court also rejected the application of Nazlı Ilıcak, Altan’s co-defendant in the “coup” case. The court rendered all decisions, except for the one concerning Ilıcak’s file, through a majority vote.
The Constitutional Court’s Plenary issued the judgments concerning its 3 May 2019 decisions on 26 June 2019 on its official website. The judgments concerning the rejected applications said, in a nutshell, that “the assessments made by the investigation authorities and the decisions rendered by the courts that ruled for [the journalists’] arrests could not be deemed as ‘arbitrary and baseless’.”
In Ahmet Altan’s application, the President of the Constitutional Court Zühtü Arslan, Vice President Engin Yıldırım and three other justices disagreed with the majority opinion. All five judges were of the opinion that Altan’s arrest violated his rights to liberty and security and freedom of expression and freedom of the press.
“Propaganda” and “insult” cases
Altan is also charged with “spreading propaganda for a terrorist organization” and “insulting the president” in a separate case. The charges stem from an article Altan wrote in 2016, “Ezip Geçmek,” which is also included as evidence in the case file of the “coup” trial.
The full text of the indictment in the case (in Turkish) can be accessed here.
Both trials are overseen by the Istanbul 26th High Criminal Court.
The first hearing of this case took place on 5 December 2017. Altan presented his defense statement during the hearing. At the second hearing, held on 4 January 2018, the prosecutor submitted his final opinion, demanding prison sentences for Altan on charges of “insulting the president” and “spreading propaganda for the terrorist organization (PKK)” through several expressions in Altan’s column.
The Istanbul 26th High Criminal Court sentenced Altan to five years and 11 months in prison for “spreading propaganda for a terrorist organization” and “insulting the president” in his column at the end of the final hearing held on 28 February 2018. In his final defense statement to the court before the verdict was announced, Altan defended the views expressed in his column and pointed out once again the fact that he was put on trial twice for the same article.
On 19 March 2019, Altan was given a prison sentence of 11 months and 20 days on the charge of “insulting the president” in a separate case where the accusation stemmed from a 2016 article titled “Yeni Ergenekon” that was published on P24’s website. The 30th Criminal Court of First Instance of Istanbul commuted the sentence to a fine of TL 7,000.
Altan is currently in Silivri Prison, serving a 10-year and 6-month sentence he was given on 4 November 2019 at the end of the retrial of the Altans case.