Ahmet Altan’s lawyer ‘cautious’ after writer released from prison

Turkish writer Ahmet Altan was released from prison on Wednesday after the Court of Cassation reversed his conviction for “evoking” the 2016 failed coup and ruled he should be freed on the basis of time served.

The decision came a day after the European Court of Human Rights found there was not enough grounds for his detention and ordered his immediate release.  

Advocates for Turkish civil society cheered Altan’s new freedom as a victory, but some greeted the news cautiously.

Human rights lawyer Orhan Kemal Cengiz, told an Ahval podcast that, while he was happy to see Altan go home to his family, he had “mixed feelings” about the overall situation.

“On the one hand, I am very happy with (Altan) being released as a result of the decision of the ECHR, but on the other I am really angry with the court,” Cengiz said. 

Cengiz, who led the legal team that initially brought Altan’s case before the ECHR and Turkey’s Constitutional Court in January 2017, expressed his disappointment the human rights court had taken such a long time to reach an ultimately “unsatisfactory” decision.

“The painful thing is that the ECHR delivered a substantial decision that was not totally satisfactory for me because it did not cover some points that they should have covered,” he said. 

“It is obvious that the case against Ahmet Altan was baseless,” Cengiz added. But if the charges were so spurious, why “did (the ECHR) take four years to reach this conclusion”, he said.  

The ECHR ruling in favour of Altan the latest in a series of similar ECHR findings against the Turkish courts, including cases involving civil society activist Osman Kavala and former Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) leader Selahattin Demirtaş. Turkey has repeatedly rejected the ECHR’s conclusions as infringements on its sovereignty. 

Cengiz said these rulings showed the ECHR had acknowledged the shrinking space for journalists, writers, intellectuals and activists in Turkey. And for this reason, he found the court’s slow decision making in Altan’s case to be particularly problematic. 

He also noted the decision to release Altan came from the Court of Cassation, which could potentially “signal that there might be other positive elements” regarding similar appeals cases being pursued by Demirtaş and Kavala,    

However, Cengiz warned against too much optimism. “In Turkey, we cannot say anything for sure because we are not talking about a country that is governed by the rule of law,” he said. 

Altan was previously released in 2019 only to be rearrested, a pattern that Cengiz said makes him cautious. “I hope that this nightmare will really end this time and he will remain free.”

The writer’s outspokenness also put him at particular risk, his lawyer said. “I just want to see him for a couple of weeks as a free man.”