May 17 2018

Altan brothers' spirit can't be imprisoned, says lawyer

International law expert Phillipe Sands has penned an article for the Financial Times detailing his prison visit to the Altan brothers, two high-profile Turkish writers who were sentenced to life in prison in a trial that was condemned by international bodies including the EU.

“It is quite something to spend a little time with a writer who has been sentenced to spend the rest of his life in prison, on trumped up charges, and who can laugh about it. And something else to leave that prison cell with an unexpected feeling of elation, motivated by the sheer, towering greatness of the human spirit,” wrote Sands of his encounter with the Altans, who he represents at the European Court of Human Rights.

Ahmet Altan, a journalist and novelist, and his brother Mehmet Altan, an academic, were accused of being the media wing of the religious group blamed for planning the July 2016 coup attempt. The Altan brothers were sentenced alongside four others last February.

Sands, a long-term friend of Ahmet Altan’s, was visiting Istanbul to deliver the Mehmet Ali Birand Lecture on press freedom at the Swedish Consulate General.

The lawyer visited Silivri, the prison where the brothers are being held, alongside Yasemin Çongar, a writer who runs the press-freedom group P24.

“Yasemin hasn’t been allowed to visit Ahmet — she gets 10 minutes on the phone, every fortnight — and nor has any foreigner. I am the first allowed in, because I represent the brothers at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg,” wrote Sands.

Despite their isolation, Sands account has the brothers on good form, with Mehmet “thrilled” to speak French and brimming with academic ideas, and Ahmet looking fit thanks to ample time in the weights room.

“‘No,’ he says, Turkey has not hit rock bottom yet. ‘We are a nation of bungee-jumpers, and just before we hit the ground we somehow manage to bounce up again.’”

The brothers and Sands spent the majority of the half-hour visit “roaring with laughter,” and discussed a wide range of subjects, including a subject that “fascinated” Ahmet Altan, the independent judge who signed the arrest warrant for Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet.

Ahmet Altan discussed the judge who sentenced him when asked what message he would like to deliver to Financial Times readers.

“I am the powerful one now,” Ahmet Altan read in the judge’s eyes, according to Sands, “and the power I can exercise will crush you.”