Mehmet Altan, a professor of economics and a columnist, was arrested on Sept. 10, 2016, along with his brother, Ahmet Altan, a well-known novelist and journalist, on charges stemming from their alleged links to a network led by Fethullah Gülen, which the government accuses of maintaining a terrorist organization, “FETÖ/PDY”, and orchestrating the failed coup attempt of July 15, 2016.
Altan, like his brother Ahmet Altan, was initially accused of sending “subliminal messages” in support of the failed coup. After 12 days in police custody, Altan was brought before the İstanbul 10th Criminal Judgeship of Peace on Sept. 22. The judge ordered him be jailed pending trial on charges of “attempting to overthrow the government,” “membership in the FETÖ/PDY armed terrorist organization” and “spreading propaganda for a terrorist organization.”
The prosecutor claimed that Altan had known about the coup attempt beforehand, based on his remarks on private broadcaster Can Erzincan TV on the night of July 14. He also said that the fact that he had worked for media outlets allegedly linked to the Gülenist network, that he had an account at the Bank Asya and that a one-dollar banknote found in his home were proof that he is a member of the banned group. Bank Asya was taken over by the state and later closed down over its links to the Gülen movement while prosecutors say possession of one-dollar bills distributed by Gülen or another senior leader of the group indicate a person’s membership and status within the Gülenist network. Altan denied all accusations.
Lawyers for Altan and his brother, Ahmet Altan, filed separate applications with the Turkish Constitutional Court on November 8, 2016, complaining that their rights were violated and seeking their release. The lawyers applied to the European Court of Human Rights on January 12, again separately for each brother.
In February 2017, the Strasbourg court said it would discuss Altan’s case as soon as possible.
On April 14, 2017, state news agency Anadolu reported that an indictment against Altan brothers and 15 other people was sent to the İstanbul 26th High Criminal Court. The prosecutor seeks three aggravated life sentences and an additional prison term of up to 15 years for Altan brothers as well as Nazlı Ilıcak, a veteran journalist who attended the July 14, 2016 television program along with them, for “attempting to overthrow the constitutional order, Parliament and the government” and “aiding a terrorist organization without being members.”
The indictment against Altan and other defendants — in Turkish — can be accessed here.
Altan, his brother Ahmet Altan, Ilıcak and four other defendants appeared before judges at Istanbul 26th High Criminal Court for the first hearing of the case on June 19-23. In his defense statement to the court, Altan defended his statements included in the indictment as evidence for the prosecutor’s claim that he knew about the coup and thus was in collaboration with the coup plotters, saying he had defended the rule of law and warned against unlawful actions that might invite further unlawfulness.
Altan’s defense statement presented to the court on June 21 can be accessed here.
The panel of judges announcing an interim ruling at the end of the five-day hearing ruled to keep all of the six imprisoned defendants, including Altan, in pre-trial detention.
On September 19, 2017, at the second hearing of his trial, Altan said there was no evidence supporting the prosecution’s accusations that he had known about the coup attempt before hand and described the indictment as a “shameful document.”
The full text of Altan’s statement to the court on September 19 can be accessed here.
The court again ruled to keep all imprisoned defendants, including Altan, behind bars at the end of the second hearing, citing, among others, 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 November 13. 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 in his trial was held on December 11, 2017. The prosecutor submitted his final opinion during the hearing, seeking aggravated life imprisonment for six of the defendants on the charge of “Attempting to overthrow the constitutional order” under Article 309/1 of the Turkish Penal Code (TCK). The prosecutor sought up to three years in prison for the seventh defendant, Tibet Murat Sanlıman, who is the owner of an ad agency hired by the shuttered Zaman newspaper, on charges of “knowingly and willingly aiding a terrorist organization without being its member.”
Constitutional Court ruling
On 11 January 2018, the Constitutional Court rendered its judgment concerning the individual application on behalf of Mehmet Altan, ruling that his pre-trial detention violated his rights to personal liberty and security, and freedom of expression and freedom of the press. However, the trial court refused to implement the top court’s judgment.
The full text of the Constitutional Court ruling on Altan’s individual application (in Turkish) can be accessed here.
The fifth and final hearing in the case was held on February 12-16. The first session of the hearing was held in Çağlayan Courthouse in downtown Istanbul but the trial was then moved to Silivri at the decision of the presiding judge.
Mehmet Altan presented his final defense statement on the second day of the hearing. Beginning his statement by recalling the Constitutional Court ruling concerning his individual application, Altan said the top court’s ruling had held that the evidence against him were not sufficient even for his detention, but that he was “still being forcibly kept in prison” because two members of the trial court violated Article 153 of the Constitution, which stipulates that Constitutional Court rulings are binding. Altan’s defense statement was interrupted several times by the chief judge and he skipped some parts of it after repeated warnings from the judge.
The full text of Altan’s defense statement can be accessed here.
The court announced its verdict at the end of the five-day hearing on February 16, sentencing Altan and five other co-defendants to aggravated life imprisonment for “attempting to overthrow the constitutional order.” Altan’s lawyers appealed the ruling.
European Court of Human Rights ruling
On 20 March 2018, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) rendered its judgment on the application filed on behalf of Mehmet Altan. The Strasbourg court found that there had been a violation of Altan’s rights to liberty and security under Article 5/1 of the European Convention on Human Rights and his right to freedom of expression under Article 10.
The ECtHR said there was no need to examine separately the complaint under Article 18 of the Convention, under which both Altan complained that he had been detained for expressing critical opinions about the government authorities.
Appellate court rules to release Mehmet Altan based on Constitutional Court ruling
On June 27, 2018, the 2nd Criminal Chamber of the Istanbul Regional Court of Justice ruled for Mehmet Altan’s release from pre-trial detention.
In its ruling concerning the commencement of proceedings as part of the appeal process, the chamber cited the Constitutional Court’s January 11 ruling in favor of Altan as the grounds for his release.
Altan will be subject to an overseas travel ban and a judicial control measure in the form of reporting to the local police station to give his signature once a week.
The regional court set 21 September 2018 as the date for the appeal hearing.
During the first hearing, 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 prosecution submitted their 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, six defendants made their final defense statements in response to the prosecutor’s final opinion.
The afternoon session in the second hearing got under way with Mehmet Altan’s defense statement.
Stating that his detention was in violation of the constitution, Altan said the aggravated life imprisonment given by the trial court was also a violation of the same kind and added that the trial court’s refusal to implement the Constitutional Court ruling marked a first in the history of law in Turkey.
Altan said that the appellate court ruling for his release was proof of his wrongful arrest and pre-trial detention.
Expressing frustration over the prosecutor insisting on the original charge despite both the Constitutional Court’s and the appellate court’s rulings in his favor, Altan said the government has even paid him non-pecuniary damages in compensation for his detention as per the Constitutional Court ruling.
Altan said the prosecutor’s final opinion was unconstitutional. He added that no law articles set out any crime called “immaterial force,” which is among the charges in the prosecutor’s final opinion.
Altan added: “I was dismissed by the university where I taught for three decades. And now the prosecutor in the appeal case is seeking an aggravated life sentence. Is this truly a constitutional state?”
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 by the trial court, and ruled for the continuation of detention of all imprisoned defendants in the case.
Supreme Court of Appeals overturns convictions
Defense lawyers then brought the case file before the Supreme Court of Appeals, which is the second phase in the appeal process.
On 8 January 2019, the Office of the General Prosecutor of the Supreme Court of Appeals submitted their judicial opinion concerning the appeal to the 16th Criminal Chamber of the Supreme Court of Appeals, requesting the reversal of the trial court’s verdict.
The Office of the General Prosecutor said in their judicial opinion 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 “attempting to overthrow the constitutional order” charge, of which they were convicted by the trial court.
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.
On 5 July 2019, the 16th Criminal Chamber of the Supreme Court of Appeals overturned the verdict rendered by the trial court that sentenced Mehmet Altan, Ahmet 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, citing lack of sufficient and credible evidence. As for Ahmet Altan and Nazlı Ilıcak, the court said they should face the lesser charge of “aiding a terrorist organization without being its member.”
The decision said it could not be proven that the defendants had participated in the crime of “attempting to overthrow the constitutional order” as perpetrators. It said that the case file also failed to offer evidence that Altan and Ilıcak were members of what it called the FETÖ/PDY terrorist organization; had organic ties with the hierarchical structure of the group; and were involved in activities that represent a certain degree of continuity, diversity and frequency sufficient to be regarded as qualifying for membership.
The case is now expected to be sent back to the trial court, the 26th High Criminal Court of Istanbul, for retrial.
The criminal court that sentenced Mehmet Altan, Ahmet Altan, Nazlı Ilıcak and three of their co-defendants to aggravated life imprisonment in the “coup” case in 2018 will begin the retrial of the case on 8 October. The 26th High Criminal Court of Istanbul, which issued its decision for retrial on 18 July 2019, ruled for Mehmet Altan, who was released last summer by a decision of the appellate court, to be “forcibly brought to the hearing.”
The court also rejected the requests for Ahmet Altan, Nazlı Ilıcak and their three co-defendants, who have all been in pre-trial detention for almost three years as part of this case, to be released pending trial.
In an interim decision issued on 24 July 2019, the panel on duty of the Istanbul 26th High Criminal Court revoked an earlier decision of the same court to forcibly bring Mehmet Altan to the first hearing in his re-trial scheduled for 8 October 2019.
Application for reinstatement
Altan, was dismissed from his post as a professor of economics with the Istanbul University through an emergency decree after a prosecutor pressed charges against him and his brother, applied to the Inquiry Commission on the State of Emergency Measures (OHAL Commission) seeking his reinstatement.
The Commission rejected Altan’s application in December 2018.
The reasoning cited in OHAL Commission’s decision, dated 6 December 2018, was that legal proceedings against Altan were still ongoing, as well as an administrative report about Altan. Altan was notified of the decision on 8 January — more than one month after the commission’s decision.
Upon receiving the notification, Altan and his lawyer petitioned against the president and the members of the commission on the grounds that the decision on his application was rendered without waiting for the completion of the legal proceedings against him.
The petition, filed by lawyer Figen Çalıkuşu, claimed that the president and the members of the OHAL Commission violated the Turkish Constitution and that they should be made to stand trial for misconduct.