“Society cannot progress without tolerance for criticism!”
When Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, then the prime minister of Turkey, presented the 2009 Presidential Culture and Arts Grand Award to Çetin Altan, he had these words for the famous writer and politician:
“We cannot take a course that does not tolerate criticism. The basis of democracy is respect for all opinion. No longer is Turkey a country where thought is held prisoner. Without words, letters and ideas, we cannot realise our claims to civilisation.
“Differences in opinion should never prevent us from understanding one another, or at least trying to.
“I am happy to say that today’s Turkey is not the country that indicted Çetin Altan 300 times, nor the place that imprisoned Nazim Hikmet for 12 years.”
Hikmet, a legendary Turkish communist poet who died in 1963, was jailed in the 1950s.
These are just a few of the sentences uttered by Erdoğan at the ceremony. Freedom, the state of law and pluralism were the order of the day throughout his speech.
By delivering these words to Altan, a writer who has faced legal action hundreds of times for his writing and has spent two years in prison, Erdoğan was heralding the good news to the writers, artists and intellectuals present that they would no longer by subjected to trial and imprisonment for their thoughts and writing: “No longer held prisoner by its fears, Turkey has become a self-confident country that respects people’s differences.”
Çetin Altan died six years after this ceremony, in the year 2015.
And last week – nine years, almost to the day, after that hopeful speech – Çetin Altan’s two sons; the writer Ahmet Altan, and academic Mehmet Altan were sentenced to life imprisonment by an Istanbul court, along with journalist Nazlı Ilıcak. Three more defendants, the reason for whose appearance together in the same court case was not even clear, were also handed punishments.
The Altan brothers are writers who without question have only ever concerned themselves with their craft. One a literary novelist whose works have been translated into a number of languages, the other a noted scholar.
Nazlı Ilıcak is a respected journalist known for her combative character.
It is obvious that those who write for a living on political topics will not please everyone with their work, which may attract hostile or furious reactions and rising ill will.
It is natural that the Altans and Ilıcak – rightly or wrongly – should experience this type of response to their work.
Yet in the end, the responses must be proportionate. If a reader feels they have been insulted or their rights infringed upon, then that might mean a court case. Otherwise, a writer’s work should be responded with in kind: an article with a counter-article, one word for another, in short, an idea should be answered with an idea.
In years past, when anger at a written work came from the government, the writer would find him or herself in court, and even if not convicted, would be subjected to unjust arrest and long detention. From the Ottoman times to the Republican era, there are a great many such shameful instances in the struggle for freedom of thought.
Yet on Feb. 1, 2009, Erdoğan declared that this type of injustice was coming to an end in Turkey; that tolerance of differing opinions was the basis of democracy. The audience, made up of people with all kinds of political views, listened to his speech with hope and applauded it.
And now, three renowned writers have been handed our legal system’s heaviest sentence – life imprisonment. There is absolutely nothing to suggest they are guilty of anything but their opinions and writing.
Moreover, we have in this case a situation unprecedented in legal history – the Constitutional Court’s order to release Mehmet Altan, which the lower court not only refused to act on, but even refused to even acknowledge during the hearing.
On the day the three were sentenced, there was also heartening news about another journalist from the German newspaper Die Welt, who had been accused of espionage and held in pre-trial detention for more than 300 days. Yücel was released suddenly after high-level meetings between Turkey and Germany, and flew back to Germany that same day.
Citizens of the Turkish Republic can turn to no other state, institution or authority to defend them and their rights.
Their only refuge is in the law and justice!
So, as an experienced legal professional and a responsible citizen, I hope that this and similar rulings open deep questions in the conscience not just of lawyers but of the whole Turkish public, and that they are put right before long by the legal authorities.
In recent years, the Turkish judiciary has suffered much from the perception that it had pursued partisan interests (of the followers of Fethullah Gülen, who are alleged to have infiltrated and co-opted the judiciary), while appearing to rely on the government.
Those who ignored our warnings from the outset of the harm that such prejudicial attitudes would cause, now declare a whole slew of court rulings to be fraudulent. In the end, society and the political sphere have paid the price for short-sighted and unfair legal practices.