Dec 28 2017

No freedom in sight for 73-year-old Şahin Alpay

Şahin Alpay, one of the many journalists arrested following the closure of Zaman daily, has put his thoughts on his impending Supreme Court trial down in a letter to the P24 Platform for Independent Journalism.

Alpay has been charged with attempting to overthrow the government, parliament and the constitutional order, in addition to membership in a terrorist organisation on the basis of headlines from seven of his articles published in Zaman daily. The veteran journalist is facing a triple life sentence, plus 15 years. Alpay, who is nearing 74 years of age, wrote of his uncertainty over when he will be free.

Chronic health problems have made Alpay’s situation all the more urgent; however,  three and a half months after it was requested, the court still awaits the report that will determine whether he is fit to be held behind bars. So far, Alpay has spent 17 months in detention.

This, as the journalist pens in his letter, has given him ample time to reflect on the ironies and contradictions thrown at him during his life, as well as the two great loves that have come to define it: his wife Fatma and the family they built together, and the ideals that came to define his career and “gave (his) life meaning.”

His is a career that has spanned nearly half of the Turkish republic’s history, taking several unexpected turns with the various crises that shook the country. Having started his working life as a civil servant, the military intervention of 1971 followed by the 1980 coup caused him to change his career path twice,  leading him to finally realise his childhood ambition of becoming a writer when conditions in Turkey prevented him from continuing his career as an academic.

“I followed the trend (when working in the civil service); I became a Marxist-Leninist, in fact, a Maoist. Before long, I became frustrated with this. After the March 12th (1971) coup, I took asylum in Sweden and worked towards a doctorate in political science at Stockholm University. There, my ideas changed dramatically; I came to decide that success could only be achieved with political freedom, and I began to see liberal social democracy as the best solution. From that point on, serving these ideals would give meaning to my life.

“I told myself I would continue as an academic, but sadly the Sept. 12, 1980 coup put an end to this ambition. So I was forced to start working in the press.”

Alpay went on to work in several of Turkey’s largest newspapers over the years, including Cumhuriyet, Sabah, and finally Milliyet, where he worked as an editor and wrote until he lost his position due to the 2001 financial crisis. Then, he began lecturing at Istanbul’s Bahçeşehir University, and in 2002 Alpay began to pen columns regularly for Zaman daily; this happened with the encouragement of his friend Etyen Mahcupyan, a Turkish-Armenian writer who served as an adviser to former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu in 2014.

In his letter, Alpay describes his journalistic career as being motivated by the aim of bringing a pluralist, liberal democracy of EU standards to his country, and discusses the impossibility of realising this dream in Turkey without the support of both Kurdish and religious conservative  communities.

Judging the AKP based on their performance from 2002-2011, Alpay held the party, with the support of the Gülenist movement, could be the force turn his democratic dream for Turkey into a reality. Yet this, as the journalist now admits, was a terrible mistake: “The AKP government moved towards a one-man regime from 2011, and it became clear that members of the Gülen movement played a role in the July 15 (2016) coup attempt.”

It was this misjudgement that led Alpay to his current predicament. Alpay explains what unfolded in his own words:

“I ended up accused of coup-plotting and terrorism - the unexpected result of serving the pluralist, liberal democracy that had given my life meaning. There have been many ironies in my life, but this is the greatest.”

Many of Alpay’s journalist colleagues have remarked on the implausibility of the charges he faces. Professor Köksal Bayraktar, an expert in criminal law, had harsh words for the “extremely vague” charges against Alpay, which he says are so poorly established that even the prosecutor in the case openly admitted the lack of evidence against the journalist.

Now nearing his 74th year of age, the veteran journalist harbours modest hopes for the future: “To spend my last years with my wife, my children and grandchildren.” Yet with no end in sight to his imprisonment, there is no flicker of hope for Alpay’s wishes coming to life.  

As Alpay writes, “this is yet another irony.”