Publishers and writers welcome release of imprisoned Turkish novelist Ahmet Altan

Publishers and writers welcome release of imprisoned Turkish novelist Ahmet Altan

Publishers and authors joined English PEN in welcoming the release of imprisoned Turkish novelist Ahmet Altan after three years detention in a Turkish jail.

Altan, 69, an advocate for Kurdish and Armenian minorities and the author of books such as I Will Never See the World Again (Granta) and Endgame (Canongate), was arrested with his journalist brother in September 2016 on charges of attempting to overthrow the constitutional order through "subliminal messages announcing a military coup". In wake of the failed July coup, which as well as the unlawful detention of writers also saw 29 publishing houses in Turkey closed by the government, he was subsequently given a life sentence for "aiding a terrorist organisation without being a member".

His imprisonment sparked protests around the world and an open letter was sent to Turkey’s president Erdoğan, signed by tens of Nobel laureates, including Svetlana Alexievich, VS Naipaul and JM Coetzee, calling for "a quick return to the rule of law and for full freedom of speech and expression".

Altan's immediate release alongside that of imprisoned journalist Nazlı Ilıcak was ordered on Monday 4th November by the court based on the time they had already served. His brother, academic Mehmet Altan, was acquitted due to lack of evidence.

Following news of Altan's release, Granta's publisher Sigrid Rausing told The Bookseller it was "a good day" both for Altan and for human rights in Turkey.

"We are delighted that Ahmet has been freed, and that his ordeal is over," said Rausing. "But let’s not underestimate the seriousness of what he went through – falsely accused of being part in a Gulanist conspiracy, he was facing life in prison, hence the title of his remarkable book; ‘I will never see the world again’. His extraordinary courage and ability to write under very difficult circumstances will hopefully be an inspiration to many other people - journalists, lawyers, judges, teachers – who are still in jail after successive waves of arrests. This is a good day for Ahmat and his family, and for human rights in Turkey."

Granta commissioning editor Anne Meadows, who worked on I Will Never See the World Again, added it had been an "enormously moving and humbling experience" to publish Altan's memoir, highlighting that despite the book's success its author had not actually been able to see a finished copy until now. "All of the good news we’ve had for the book – the extraordinary blurbs and reviews, the Baillie Gifford longlisting – had to be conveyed to Ahmet in prison via his wonderful translator, Yasemin. We were not able even to send him a finished copy. It means the world to all of us that he has his liberty now," she said.

Canongate c.e.o. Jamie Byng condemned the "appalling" treatment of Altan, branding it endurably "shocking", but said he and his colleagues were doubly pleased by the result with another of its detained authors given his freedom on the same day.

"Ahmet Altan’s brutal incarceration for the past three years was completely unjustified and another blot on Turkey’s terrible record with regard to human rights. And whilst the welcome news of Ahmet's release yesterday is a cause for great celebration, the appalling manner in which this fearless and important writer was treated remains shocking and is a necessary reminder of what dictators continue to do in their bid to repress freedom of speech and silence critics," said Byng.

"For me and my colleagues at Canongate to learn on the same day that another inspiring writer that we publish, Guantanamo detainee Mohamedou Ould Slahi, has finally been issued with a passport that allows him to leave Mauritania, is doubly pleasing.  Both these remarkable people have voices that the world needs to hear."

Author and prominent human rights barrister Philippe Sands QC, who is president of English PEN welcomed the news, tweeting a photo of his release. 

Sands, who was the first foreigner allowed to visit the Altan brothers during their time in prison, wrote on Twitter: "A moment of #freedom for #AhmetAltan, who gets to see the world again. Priceless. Big appreciation to @englishpen @pen_int @P24Punto24 @GrantaBooks @SRausingTrust @Elif_Safak @YaseminCongar_ and the many others in Turkey and around the world who persisted."

For English PEN the result is "bittersweet" however with three of Altan's co-defendants, Fevzi Yazıcı, Yakup Şimşek and Şükrü Tuğrul Özşengül, who were also convicted of "membership in a terrorist group", still in detention.

Daniel Gorman, director of English PEN, said: "While we warmly welcome the news that Ahmet Altan and Nazlı Ilıcak have finally been released, we nevertheless deeply remain concerned that they and their co-defendants have been convicted on bogus terrorism charges. We continue to call for the release of Fevzi Yazıcı, Yakup Şimşek and Şükrü Tuğrul Özşengül and the many others who remain in detention in Turkey, still the world’s biggest jailer of writers and journalists."