March 2, 2018

Nobel laureates pen an open letter to the Turkish president, calling for the acquittal of writers sentenced to life in prison


A group of thirty-eight Nobel laureates, including JM Coetzee, Wole Soyinka, Svetlana Alexievich, Mario Vargas Llosa, Kazuo Ishiguro, and Elfriede Jelinek have signed an open letter to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, calling for “the abrogation of the state of emergency” that’s been in effect since an attempted coup in late 2016, and for the acquittal of novelist Ahmet Altan, essayist Mehmet Altan, and journalist Nazlı Ilıcak.

The Altan brothers, along with Ilıcak and several other writers and journalists, were arrested in 2016, and have been on trial since late last year. On January 16th, Kareem Shaheen reported in the Guardian, the 26th High Criminal Court in Istanbul convicted them of agitating for the overthrow of the government. They were sentenced to life in prison.

The decision was a frightening and perhaps decisive blow against press freedoms in Turkey, and a major achievement for a regime that for nearly two years has been waging war against the country’s literary and journalistic community. As Sarah Clarke, Policy and Advocacy Manager at PEN Internationalput it on Twitter, the decision was “an apex of the disintegration of the #Ruleoflaw in #Turkey. ”

The decision directly contravenes an earlier decision Turkey’s constitutional court made on January 11th. That decision—which was completely ignored by the criminal courts hearing Ilıcak’s and the Altans’ case—called for the immediate release of Mehmet Altan and Şahin Alpay (a seventy-three-year old political scientist and journalist), on the grounds that their arrest had been unlawful and that their constitutional rights had been violated.

In their letter, the laureates recall a surprising anecdote from Erdoğan’s early life as a political agitator and activist:

In April 1998, you yourself [Erdoğan] were stripped of your position as mayor of Istanbul, banned from political office, and sentenced to prison for 10 months, for reciting a poem during a public speech in December 1997 through the same article 312 of the penal code. This was unjust, unlawful and cruel. Many human rights organisations—which defended you then—are appalled at the violations now occurring in your country. Amnesty International, PEN International, Committee to Protect Journalists, Article 19, and Reporters Without Borders are among those who oppose the recent court decision.

During a ceremony in honour of Çetin Altan, on 2 February 2009, you declared publicly that “Turkey is no longer the same old Turkey who used to sentence its great writers to prison — this era is gone for ever.” Among the audience were Çetin Altan’s two sons: Ahmet and Mehmet. Nine years later, they are sentenced to life; isn’t that a fundamental contradiction?

This is a poignant and tragic irony, and it encapsulates so much of the strangeness, unfairness, and stupidity of the current crackdown. Sadly, this isn’t the first letter by prominent intellectuals on the Altans’ behalf, and until the international community commits to imposing consequences for Erdoğan’s repressions, the situation in Turkey is likely to continue getting worse.



Simon Reichley is the Director of Operations and Rights Manager at Melville House.