“I am living what I wrote in a novel...”: Jailed Turkish writer

Ahmet Altan, a prominent Turkish novelist and newspaper editor, was sentenced to life imprisonment, without parole, by a Turkish court on Feb. 16.

The charges: His involvement in a 2016 coup attempt against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government. His brother Mehmet, once an economics professor and columnist, and Nazlı Ilıcak, a prominent journalist, and three other media employees received the same sentences.

The Altans appeared on a television programme on July 14, 2016, the day before the failed coup. Prosecutors say they gave “subliminal messages” announcing the event.

The suspects were also found guilty of belonging to a terrorist organisation, namely the network led by Islamist preacher Fethullah Gülen, currently resident in the United States.

Turkey says the coup, which killed more than 270 people, was masterminded by Gülen. Turkey has demanded the United States extradite him to face trial. Gülen denies the charges. Police and prosecutors have arrested, detained or fired more than 150,000 people since the coup for alleged membership of the Gülen movement, Kurdish groups and other opposition factions.

Ahmet Altan wrote an essay for the New York Times about his court appearance and his imprisonment on the outskirts of Istanbul. Here follows the text in full:


They sit on a bench that is two metres high. They wear black robes with red collars. In a few hours they will decide my destiny. I look at them. They have loosened their ties out of boredom.

The chief judge, sitting in the middle, splays his right arm across the bench like a piece of wet laundry and fiddles with his fingers. He has a long, narrow face. His eyes are hidden under swollen half-closed eyelids. Every now and then he looks at his cellphone to read his messages.

When one of my co-defendants says he is about to undergo heart bypass surgery, the chief judge pulls the microphone toward him and speaks in a mechanical voice. “The hospital told us there were no circumstances preventing your stay in prison,” he says.

As defence lawyers talk about the most crucial matters, his mechanical voice orders: “You have two minutes. Wrap it up.” I remember what Elias Canetti said about such people: “Being safe, at peace and in splendour, and then to hear a person’s pleas while determined to turn a deaf ear … could anything be more vile than that?”

While the defendants and their lawyers speak, the chubby, skew-eyed judge to the chief’s right leans back in his chair and looks up at the ceiling. The lines of pleasure moving across his face suggest he is daydreaming. When he doesn’t seem to be daydreaming he leans his head on his hand and sleeps. The judge on the left busies himself with the computer in front of him, continuously reading something.

Around noon they tell us they will withdraw for deliberations. We are surrounded by gendarmes. They are wearing RoboCop gear with black plastrons and kneepads. A gendarme takes each of us by the arm and walks us between two rows of guards and down narrow stairs.

They put us in a tiled holding cell with iron bars. We are five men. The sixth defendant, a woman, is taken elsewhere because of her gender.

The Supreme Court had examined the evidence against us and ruled that “no one could be arrested based on such evidence.” This has made the journalists on trial with us optimistic. I am not.

We pace the holding cell nervously from one end to the other. The minutes go by, now faster, now slower, depending on the tempo of our conversations. When the minutes slow down, we feel wounds opening inside us. We hide this from one another. The minutes passed in a holding cell as you wait to hear whether you will be sentenced to life in prison are torture.

I encounter with some embarrassment flickers of hope and dreams beneath my pessimism. A man freezing inside cannot abandon hope and its warm glow. I daydream in the cell: I leave the prison, a deep breath, the first embrace, words of joy, the smell of happiness and a wide sky above.

As I dream, three men with ties loosened out of boredom deliberate my destiny. Perhaps they have already made their decision. I suddenly remember a passage from my novel “Like a Sword Wound,” which is set in the last days of the Ottoman Empire. One of my characters is arrested and he is in a room waiting for the verdict.

I wrote of him: “The gap between the moment that a person’s destiny changed and the moment the person realized this seemed to him to be the most tragic and frightening aspect of life. The future became clear, but the person continued to wait for another future with other expectations and dreams without realizing that the future had already been determined. The ignorance during that wait was horrible and to him was humanity’s greatest weakness.”

I remember those sentences and shiver. I am living what I wrote in a novel. Years ago as I was wandering in that unmarked, enigmatic and hazy territory where literature touches life, I had met my own destiny and failed to recognize it. I am now under arrest like my protagonist. I am waiting for the decision that will determine my future as he had. My life imitates my novel.

What else that I wrote will come true? I feel I am being dragged into a vortex where my fiction and my life are entangled, where what is real and what is written imitate each other. What kind of destiny had I chosen for my protagonist? What was his fate?

Suddenly, I hear gendarmes’ boots. “Come on,” says a voice, “the decision has been made.” At once, I remember: My protagonist was convicted — that was the destiny I chose for him.

I know I, too, will be convicted. Because that is what I wrote. The gendarmes take us upstairs. We enter the courtroom and sit down. The judges come in and don the black robes they had left on their chairs.

The chief judge, the one with eyes hidden beneath swollen eyelids, reads the decision: “Life without parole.”

We will spend the rest of our lives alone in a cell that is three meters long and three meters wide. We will be taken out to see the sunlight for one hour a day. We will never be pardoned and we will die in a prison cell.

That is the decision. I hold out my hands. They handcuff me. I will never see the world again. I will never see a sky unframed by the walls of a courtyard.

I am going to Hades. I walk into the darkness like a god who wrote his own destiny. My protagonist and I disappear into the darkness together.