Turkish novelist Ahmet Altan writes second book from prison - Observer

Turkish novelist Ahmet Altan writes second book from prison - Observer

Ahmet Altan, who has been in prison on charges related to the coup attempt in 2016, has written a second book in prison, wrote Mark Seacombe for the Observer.

Altan’s I Will Never See the World Again, the first book he wrote behind bars which was smuggled out among notes to his lawyers, has recently been longlisted for the Baillie Gifford literary prize, Seacombe wrote.

The first book of essays had received praise from a wide array of literary critics and was dubbed an instant classic, he wrote.

Lady Life, the second book Altan believes will be published in English first, is a comedy set in modern-day Istanbul with a protagonist called Hayat (“Life” in Turkish), Altan told the Observer in a series of notes sent from his prison cell.

Yasemin Çongar, friend of Ahmet Altan and translator for both books, said the novel was very funny, with a broken society always in the background, wrote Seacombe. According to Çongar, the novel is full of the new poor, created by the purge of thousands considered by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) to be dissidents.

Ahmet Altan has been in prison since September 2016, and was sentenced to life without parole on charges of attempting to topple the constitutional order in Turkey. He was also accused of having prior knowledge of the failed coup.

Since the failed coup, more than 77,000 people have been arrested and 160,000 sacked or suspended from their jobs. More than 120 journalists have been detained and about 180 media outlets shut down.

Turkey’s government maintains that Fethullah Gülen, an Islamic cleric who lives in the United States in self-imposed exile, and his followers were behind the attempt. 

Thirty eight Nobel laureates appealed to President Erdoğan against Ahmet Altan’s life sentence, wrote Seacombe, to no avail.

The highest appeals court in Turkey (Yargıtay) overturned the life sentences of Ahmet Altan, his brother Mehmet Altan and journalist Nazlı Ilıcak. The court ruled that they committed the crime of knowingly and deliberately aiding and abetting FETÖ, the name Turkey’s government uses for the Gülen movement which has been designated a terrorist organisation by the government, and not attempting to topple the constitutional order. Mehmet Altan was released, but Ahmet Altan and Ilıcak remained in prison.

The retrial will begin on October 8, reported P24, the Platform for Independent Journalism co-founded by Çongar.

Human rights lawyer Philippe Sands, who took the case to the European Court of Human Rights, said he is horrified at the failure of Britain to press for Ahmet Altan’s release, wrote Seacombe.

“Boris Johnson must publicly call on Erdoğan to free Ahmet,” Sands told the Observer.

The prison Ahmet Altan is held in, Silivri High Security Prison, is technically still in the Istanbul province, although the drive from the city centre takes approximately two hours.

Altan writes at a plastic table, sitting on a plastic chair, on paper bought from the prison, wrote Seacombe, adding that the novelist’s father journalist Çetin Altan had also published a novel titled A Handful of Sky in 1974 while serving as a political prisoner.

Çongar said she expects Altan’s release after the trial, as “He has been in jail too long already,” but his wife Gülnur Altan remains cautious, Seacombe wrote. 

In the notes he sent the Observer, Ahmet Altan said he may see the world again still, with the verdict being overturned. He said he could be convicted again, but was not sure what the sentence would be. “Since there is no [rule of] law, it’s impossible to make a prediction,” the Observer quoted him saying.

Altan faces other charges as well. During their time together in the liberal newspaper Taraf, since shut down, Altan and Çongar are accused of obtaining and subsequently destroying secret state documents. 

In her defence statement in 2016, Çongar denied ever having knowledge of the document, said to be plans for a military operation against Greece, before testifying to the prosecutor for the court case.

A performance of the stage version of Philippe Sands’s book East West Street will be dedicated to Ahmet Altan and all jailed writers next month, Sands told the Observer.