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Journalist Ahmet Altan’s re-arrest amounts to ‘psychological torture’

Turkish journalist Ahmet Altan

The rearrest of Turkish journalist and writer Ahmet Altan has been harshly condemned by human rights and press freedom groups, including Amnesty International, Pen International and the OSCE, who accused the Turkish government of committing an injustice, and even “psychological torture”.

In pre-trial detention since 2016, Altan had been released under supervision earlier this month by an Istanbul court, after having been sentenced to 10 years in prison on the charge of having orchestrated an attempted coup in 2016. However, the journalist was re-arrested one week later after the chief public prosecutor appealed the court’s decision to release him.

This move drew criticism from organisations around the world, who had strong words for the Turkish government.

“It is shocking to hear that Altan will once again be re-arrested following the prosecutor’s appeal against his release. He was prosecuted, jailed and convicted without a shred of evidence, purely because of his opinions. It is impossible to see this decision as anything other than further punishment for his determination not be silenced and it compounds an already shocking catalogue of injustice he has been subjected to,” Amnesty International’s Europe Director, Marie Struthers said.

Struthers pointed out that Altan had not committed any crime, and was released following a “unanimous” court decision.

“His three years of pre-trial detention are a travesty of justice as is the sentence imposed on him. This judicial farce, emblematic of a period where politically motivated show trials have become the norm, must be brought to an end. Altan must be allowed to remain at home with his family and to have his absurd conviction quashed,” she said.

This sentiment was echoed by OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Harlem Désir who said he was “appalled” at the decision. “Arresting Altan again is a terrible setback and a reason for serious concern, especially if we take into account the length of the judicial process against him and the fact that he has already spent three years in pre-trial detention.”

Altan’s rearrest could only deepen the media freedom crisis and increase the feeling of legal insecurity within the media community. “I repeat my call to reverse this decision and ensure that journalists are protected and free to do their job,” Désir said.

On November 4, Altan was sentenced to 10-and-a-half years in prison, and fellow writer Nazlı Ilıcak was sentenced to eight years and nine months in prison, on charges of “knowingly and willingly assisting a terrorist organisation”. Both Altan and Ilıcak were released pending their appeals, subject to a travel ban. Two days later, the prosecutor appealed against Altan’s release.

Altan and Ilıcak had been kept in pre-trial detention for over three years on initial charges of “attempting to overthrow the constitutional order”, and were sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. They were re-tried on terrorism charges following a ruling by the Supreme Court of Appeals that overturned their convictions in July 2019.

In a tweet, Council of Europe Human Rights Commissioner Dunja Mijatovic said she was “appalled by the senseless cruelty” shown by the Turkish courts, and called for the journalist’s immediate release.

Similarly, the International Press Institute called on the Turkish authorities to stop this injustice and “immediately” free Altan. The Index on Censorship said in a tweet that his re-arrest was “a terrible setback and one that deepens the free speech crisis in the country”.

The spokesperson for foreign affairs and security policy within the European Union’s diplomatic service (EEAS), Maja Kocijancic, said the “lack of credible grounds” for his re-arrest further damaged the credibility of Turkey’s judiciary, “in particular due to the high level of political interference”. This interference needs to halt, she said.

In a statement, Kocijancic highlighted that the EU had expressed its “opposition” on the “persistent erosion of press freedom in Turkey and, in particular, at the high number of journalists imprisoned there. Journalists need to do their job – they do not belong in jail”.

PEN International, together with PEN America, called on the Turkish authorities to release Ahmet, saying that his re-arrest after one week of freedom “after release amounts to psychological torture”.

Karin Karlekar, PEN America’s director of Free Expression at Risk Programs, described it as a “disgrace and a horror”. Ahmet should never have been imprisoned and “today we are faced again with the cruelty of a justice system that no longer upholds the rule of law. PEN America condemns this action and calls once again for Ahmet’s immediate release.”

Similarly, Thomas Hughes, Executive Director at Article 19 called on the Turkish authorities to immediately cease this cruel judicial harassment of Altan, while the Bar Human Rights Committee of England & Wales (BHRC) said there were serious concerns about the fairness of his trial and the impact of such prosecution, “based on hopeless grounds and without sufficient or credible evidence, on the right to free expression in Turkey”.

Schona Jolly QC, chair of the BHRC, said Altan’s re-arrest “has all the appearance of a further abuse of power, by way of politically-motivated and/or judicial harassment.  In the wider context of the mass arrest and prosecution of journalists, civil society and political opponents – cases which BHRC has been observing – this step now appears to be part of a broader attempt to stifle and silence critical opposition and free expression in Turkey’s democracy, by using and abusing the legal process”.

 

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