ANKARA: A prominent Turkish journalist was released from jail on Wednesday after being held behind bars for more than four years over charges related to a failed 2016 government coup attempt.
Ahmet Altan, 71, was freed after Turkey's Court of Cassation, the country’s top appeals court, overturned the conviction against him a day earlier and ordered his release.
The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled on Tuesday that Turkey violated Altan's rights to liberty and security, and ordered the country to pay him 16,000 euros ($19,000) in non-pecuniary damages. The top European court also claimed that there was no indication to prove that Altan was involved in a deliberate plan to overthrow the government.
“Deprivation of liberty, in particular continued detention, must be based on reasonable suspicion,” the ECHR ruling said.
Altan, who had been incarcerated since September 2016, was previously sentenced to aggravated life imprisonment for trying to “overthrow the constitutional order.” He was also accused of “disseminating subliminal messages announcing the military coup” with his televised speeches and writings — charges he always denied.
Altan, an award-winning novelist, is also a former editor-in-chief of the dissident Taraf newspaper and wrote politically-sensitive articles and columns critical of Turkey President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and supporting Kurdish rights.
Following his appeal, the Court of Cassation had overruled in July 2019 the aggravated prison term and ruled that the novelist should be sentenced for “knowingly aiding an armed terrorist organization” behind the coup attempt.
Altan was then sentenced to 10 years and six months in jail and the court ruled for his release on condition of judicial control, although he was re-arrested soon after as the Istanbul Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office appealed the ruling that set him free.
The case was brought to the Constitutional Court on Nov. 21, 2019 as his lawyer cited lack of the necessary conditions for imprisonment, but the application was dismissed a year after.
“The release of Ahmet Altan is the best news for freedom of expression coming from Turkey in a long time. However, charges against him continue and his freedom cannot be taken for granted,” Laura Batalla Adam, secretary-general of the European Union Turkey Forum, told Arab News.
Batalla-Adam said Altan’s case is only one of many.
After last year’s amnesty law in Turkey, tens of thousands of prisoners were released to ease the overcrowding, but the law exempted political prisoners and dissident journalists.
The politically motivated detention of the Turkish novelist has been at the top of the international community’s agenda for a long time.
Italian journalist and writer Roberto Saviano recently penned an open letter to Altan, saying his incarceration “must concern us all.”
“They took away your freedom. To freeze your words, they locked you up in a cell,” he wrote.
A group of 17 Swedish journalists also urged Ankara in February to immediately release Altan. “You can put opponents in jail with Kafkaesque reasons but you can never imprison freedom of expression,” they wrote in a joint declaration.
During last week’s summit in Ankara, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and European Council President Charles Michel slammed Turkey for its deteriorating record on human rights and urged Ankara to respect human rights norms if it wants to have stronger ties with the EU.
Tarik Beyhan, campaigns and communications director of Amnesty International Turkey, said: “Ahmet Altan’s release is great but he should never have been arrested.”
He told Arab News: “Better late than never, but his arrest and detention had been politically motivated. He had been put behind bars arbitrarily, was deprived of his liberty for more than four and a half years solely because he has been perceived as a government critic.”
Now attention is shifting toward other politically motivated cases in Turkey, especially the notable incarcerations of Turkish philanthropist and businessperson Osman Kavala and Kurdish politician Selahattin Demirtas.
The European top court also ruled for the immediate release of both, although these legally binding decisions have not yet been implemented by the Turkish judiciary that is criticized for being insufficiently independent of the political sphere.
“Turkey’s implementation of European Court of Human Rights’ judgment is good for Altan, but he is just one among many real or perceived government opponents unjustly jailed or imprisoned under trumped-up charges for exercising their rights to freedom of expression, assembly or association, and must be released immediately,” Beyhan said.
“The judgments of the European Court of Human Rights are legally binding and Turkey cannot keep choosing whether to implement them or not.”
Experts also note that Altan’s release might be the result of Erdogan’s latest attempts to mend ties with the west, especially the EU and US President Joe Biden.
The Biden administration has already prioritized democratization and human rights before putting bilateral relations with Turkey back on track.
“As part of the recent charm offensive, the government should prove its real commitment to human rights and start to apply all the pending rulings from the ECHR, namely in the case of Osman Kavala and Selahattin Demirtas,” Batalla-Adam said.
“Making progress in the elements contained in the positive agenda requires genuine democratic improvements.”