Attorney Veysel Ok tells of his former client, Ahmet Altan, the Turkish journalist and the novelist who was sentenced to life in prison in February, in this article originally written for Taz newspaper, published in Turkish and German on 19 March.
It was 2009, I was yet a young man in my early twenties. I had become the legal representative of a writer whom I had admired since high school for his novels and newspaper columns. I was to represent him in a free speech trial where he was a defendant.
On that day, I debated with myself for a long time whether I should wear a tie or not. I couldn’t stand ties and on that day I decided not to put one on. The novelist came to the courtroom sporting a khaki jacket; mustard corduroys and a multi-colored tie. On the stand, he stood waiting for the judge, who was likely to retire soon judging by the white strands in his hair, to finish reading the indictment.
I was nervous. I kept going over my defense speech, which I had practiced maybe a thousand times since I’d prepared it days ago. After reading the indictment, the Judge asked the novelist to deliver his defense statement. The novelist buttoned his jacket as he started to speak. I was in awe of the level of respect he was displaying in spite of all that pressure and injustice he had had to face. His defense statement, just like his columns, was plain, didactic and compelling. It was as if, he was writing another piece of literature rather than delivering a defense statement.
I was in the back row, waiting for my turn, clearing my throat to make sure I would sound well when delivering my statement. I was constantly drinking water to fight the dryness in my mouth as if I was preparing to host a live TV show.
Then it was my turn. Yet, my own statement, which by that time I knew by heart, appeared devoid of meaning all of a sudden after hearing the writer’s spectacular defense statement. I couldn’t say a word. The novelist, the judge, the prosecutor, the courtroom audience..all eyes had turned to me. Yet, I just stood there, unable to utter a word.
I just couldn’t speak. Finally, I let out a cough and with difficulty brought myself to say something. But this time, having to defend such a master of words for something he wrote felt absurd. As thoughts raced through my head, feeling everyone in the room staring at me, I finally spoke and this is what I said:
“Your Honor, I agree with my client’s testimony”
It must have occurred to me that this was the only logical thing that could be said after that marvelous defense statement. Until the year 2017, I continued to defend him as his lawyer, representing him in dozens of trials. Once, I asked him about the tie and jacket he always seemed to wear to hearings. Laughing, he replied that this outfit was his “trial uniform” and that it was a family tradition to always wear a jacket and a tie to hearings; a gesture of showing respect towards the court system no matter what the situation is.
Each defense statement he gave was an act of defiance; a literary feast, an ocean of freedom. Over the years, I learned to do more than just agree with the novelist’s words but also add to them.
Many years and trials later, in 2016, dozens of journalists and writers were arrested in Turkey following that summer’s attempted coup. It was a tough time for lawyers, I had an immense workload. In spite of that, I decided to get away for a few days in the month of September. My client, the novelist, was being targeted by pro-government media almost every day. Despite that, I decided that I needed a getaway and went on vacation to Rhodes, a tricky place in terms of access.
When I reached the island, it was a beautiful September night. I and a friend had the most delicious Greek food and later went to our hotel to get some rest. Perhaps, for the first time in years, I put my phone on silent so as not to wake up my friend who was in a deep sleep. In the morning, I woke up to see hundreds of missed calls and text messages on my phone. That’s how I found out what had happened to the novelist: he had been detained by police.
It was the shortest getaway of my life. I went to the island and returned within less than 20 hours of being there without even catching a glimpse of the sea. The writer was arrested by court order after 12 days in custody. That writer was Ahmet Altan.
In February this year, he was sentenced to life without parole on the basis of a few of his columns, one news report and his statements made on a television program. His criticism of the government, his vocalness in demanding democracy and warning the government by reminding of Turkey’s murky history of military-civilian relations were understood by the court as proof that he had “prior knowledge of the coup attempt.” He was given the harshest prison sentence that can be handed down in Turkey.
If you killed thousands, if you bombed entire cities, as per Turkish law, you would be given the same sentence as Ahmet Altan.
Of course, being a democrat, being against coups d’état, being pro-freedoms come with a price. Ahmet Altan was a long-time enemy of the Kemalist factions within the Turkish state. For the Islamists, he was a newer yet equally invincible enemy. In his defense statements during this trial, he didn’t shy off from speaking out his mind against both camps. He did not compromise on his beliefs, not in the slightest. He didn’t suppress his own voice.
In response, this nonsensical, absurd and extremely harsh sentence came out of an aggravated rage and senseless lust for revenge. Those who made this judgment think they have won, but they couldn’t be more wrong.
If there is any winner in this trial, it is Ahmet Altan. He made the entire world hear his voice. Through his powerful defense statements, the entire world saw and condemned the injustice he suffered.
The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) will decide on the application of Mehmet Altan, Ahmet Altan’s younger brother. The court will most likely find a violation of rights in Altan’s detention, and tell Turkey that he must be released. In the end, both Mehmet and Ahmet Altan will be free. If however, Turkey decides to step outside the European system by ignoring the ruling, that will only be a legal ending for us. For the novelist, not much will change. They might keep him behind bars, but certainly not his imagination. In Ahmet Altan’s own words: “You can imprison a writer but you cannot keep him in prison”